Post 9-11 :: September 2001

Subject: We Beat Hitler. We Can Vanquish This Foe Too.
Date: Wednesday, September 12, 2001 12:00 a.m.


An editorial appearing in the Wall Street Journal
September 12, 2001

America, it is said, is slow to awaken, and indeed it is, but once America stirs, its resolution can be matchless and its ferocity a stunning surprise.

The enemy we face today, though barbaric and ingenious, is hardly comparable to the masters of the Third Reich, whose doubts about our ability to persevere we chose to dissuade in a Berlin that we had reduced to rubble. Nor is he comparable to the commanders of the Japanese Empire, whose doubts about our ability to persevere we chose to dissuade in a Tokyo we had reduced to rubble. Nor to the Soviet Empire that we faced down patiently over half a century, nor to the great British Empire from which we broke free in a long and taxing struggle that affords a better picture of our kith and kin than any the world may have today of who we are and of what we are capable.

And today's enemy, though he is not morally developed enough to comprehend the difference between civilians and combatants, is neither faceless nor without a place in which we can address him. If he is Osama bin Laden, he lives in Afghanistan, and his hosts, the Taliban, bear responsibility for sheltering him; if he is Saddam Hussein, he lives in Baghdad; if he is Yasser Arafat, he lives in Gaza; and so on. Our problem is not his anonymity but that we have refused the precise warnings, delivered over more than a decade, of those who understood the nature of what was coming--and of what is yet to come, which will undoubtedly be worse.

The first salvos of any war are seldom the most destructive. Consider that in this recent outrage the damage was done by the combined explosive power of three crashed civilian airliners. As the initial shock wears off it will be obvious that this was a demonstration shot intended to extract political concessions and surrender, a call to fix our attention on the prospect of a nuclear detonation or a chemical or biological attack, both of which would exceed what happened yesterday by several orders of magnitude.

It will get worse, but appeasement will make it no better. That we have promised retaliation for decades and then always drawn back, hoping that we could get through if we simply did not provoke the enemy, is appeasement, and it must be quite clear by now even to those who perpetually appease that appeasement simply does not work. Therefore, what must be done? Above all, we must make no promise of retaliation that is not honored; in this we have erred too many times. It is a bipartisan failing and it should never be repeated.

Let this spectacular act of terrorism be the decisive repudiation of the mistaken assumptions that conventional warfare is a thing of the past, that there is a safe window in which we can cut force structure while investing in the revolution in military affairs, that bases and infrastructure abroad have become unnecessary, that the day of the infantryman is dead, and, most importantly, that slighting military expenditure and preparedness is anything but an invitation to death and defeat.

Short of a major rebuilding, we cannot now inflict upon Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden the great and instantaneous shock with which they should be afflicted. That requires not surgical strikes by aircraft based in the United States, but expeditionary forces with extravagant basing and equipment. It requires not 10 aircraft carrier battle groups but, to do it right and when and where needed, 20. It requires not only all the infantry divisions, transport, and air wings that we have needlessly given up in the last decade, but many more. It requires special operations forces not of 35,000, but of 100,000.

For the challenge is asymmetrical. Terrorist camps must be raided and destroyed, and their reconstitution continually repressed. Intelligence gathering of all types must be greatly augmented, for by its nature it can never be sufficient to the task, so we must build it and spend upon it until it hurts. The nuclear weapons programs, depots, and infrastructure of what Madeleine Albright so delicately used to call "states of concern" must, in a most un-Albrightian phrase, be destroyed. As they are scattered around the globe, it cannot be easy. Security and civil defense at home and at American facilities overseas must be strengthened to the point where we are able to fight with due diligence in this war that has been brought to us now so vividly by an alien civilization that seeks our destruction.

The course of such a war will bring us greater suffering than it has brought to date, and if we are to fight it as we must we will have less in material things. But if, as we have so many times before, we rise to the occasion, we will not enjoy merely the illusions of safety, victory, and honor, but those things themselves. In our history it is clear that never have they come cheap and often they have come late, but always, in the end, they come in flood, and always in the end, the decision is ours.

Mr. Helprin is a novelist, a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal and a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute.