THEY CALLED it The Great War a century ago. Some even called it The War to End All Wars, as if any war could provide such a miracle. We were reminded of that much-abused nickname back in the 1990s, when some in the commentariat were describing The End of History after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Mankind, you are educated but unlearned.
Then came the Second World War, and by then people had decided that The War to End All Wars was a foolish moniker. They decided, during WWII, to call the previous war World War One. A man named Churchill was even talking about World War III before World War II was complete.
Since then, we've had the Cold War, which turned hot on several occasions. Including a couple times in Asia. But don't forget the proxy wars all over the globe for years before the USSR finally wilted to its deserved demise.
Then, one sunny September morn 18 years ago, The Long War began.
Imagine that. It's been 18 years. There are kids finishing high school who weren't born by Sept. 11, 2001. The big wheel spins, hair thins, people forget.
Eighteen years. Hitler was only in power in Germany for 12, and only at war with the rest of the world for about five and a half. If you clock America's involvement in Vietnam from Kennedy's escalation to the fall of Saigon, that war lasted about a dozen years (for us). Technically, the Korean War is still going, but the armies (mostly) quit firing on one another in 1953.
So this current war has been going on a long time. America's longest war, by most measures.
It's also the confusing war. We all knew where it began. But where will it end?
We looked up "War on Terror" on Wikipedia, always a dangerous source of information. The timeline for the war is given as Sept. 11, 2001, to "present." That sounds about right.
The Belligerent States are western leaders, mostly, against terrorist outfits. But there's a whole separate section called "Other Countries," including Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Iraq, Nigeria, Mozambique, Yemen, and a host of others.
How do you end a war with no clear battle lines or fronts? And no clear enemy, who disappear into their populations after planting their bombs. Will a War on Terror continue until there are no more bad guys left on the planet? Oh, Lord, hear our prayers. If that's the definition of The End, then there is no end in sight.
It's hard to fight a unilateral war. That is, when only one side is fighting it. As it was doing on Sept. 10, 2001. The United States had decided that other attacks on its mainland were just police matters, and the perps could be rounded up, read their rights, and given proper lawyers. But there was no ignoring the nation was at war as the twin towers smoked, then fell. Exactly 18 years ago today.
This wasn't the first time Americans had been surprised to find themselves in a war long after we were in it. That Second World War? It had been underway in Europe and the Pacific for years before Dec. 7, 1941, and the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Indeed, for the better part of a year before Pearl Harbor made our involvement official, this country had been waging an undeclared naval war with Nazi Germany in the North Atlantic to protect our convoys to Britain during her finest hour.
Even before that, before this country was one, Americans were learning a conflict can begin long before its purpose and significance emerge. The American Revolution began at Lexington and Concord more than a year before the Continental Congress recognized and endorsed its cause: American independence.
To see a war in perspective, much like viewing a great mountain, a certain distance is required. And with great struggles, that distance may be measured in years, even decades.
But parallels with the Second World War can be overdone. American isolationism may have ended Dec. 7, 1941, as the country united--but only for a time.
The isolationist impulse, and folly, is alive and frighteningly well once again as this Long War continues. For there are still those who see no need to bring this war to the enemy; they would retreat to some safe, mythical Fortress America. And their numbers grow whenever the news from far-away dispatches grows grim. And the country divides.
Yet for a war as long and twisting and full of contention as this one, it is remarkable how clearly its course was charted within days of the attacks that finally awakened America to the peril she faced:
"Americans are asking: How will we fight and win this war? We will direct every resource at our command--every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence, and every necessary weapon of war--to the disruption and to the defeat of the global terror network . . . . Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen . . . .
"Our nation has been put on notice: We're not immune from attack. We will take defensive measures against terrorism to protect Americans . . . . These measures are essential. The only way to defeat terrorism as a threat to our way of life is to stop it, eliminate it, and destroy it where it grows . . . . We will come together to improve air safety, to dramatically expand the number of air marshals on domestic flights, and take new measures to prevent hijacking . . . . We will come together to give law enforcement the additional tools it needs to track down terror here at home. We will come together to strengthen our intelligence capabilities to know the plans of terrorists before they act and to find them before they strike . . . . Great harm has been done to us. We have suffered great loss. And in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment . . . . We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail."
That was George W. Bush addressing a joint session of Congress and the nation on Sept. 20, 2001, even as he was being bitterly criticized by his more reflexive critics. For all his faults, he was proven right that this war won't be short. Or easy.
Who could have foretold that George W. Bush, scarcely one of our more articulate presidents, would prove such a prophet? Since he spoke those words, many a raucous debate has obscured how Americans have come together and all that has been achieved in this Long War, even if the enemy has broken through on sad occasion--from Boston to Benghazi.
The danger to America is that it once again falls asleep. After all, 2019 is as far away from 2001 as 1964 was from 1945. This long after the fall of Berlin and Tokyo, this long after the fascists in Germany and Japan were defeated, the western world was caught up in Beatlemania. Elvis was doing movies. The space race was on. The world had changed. As it always does.
World War Two was history. That is, "history" like the kids mean it. As in done and over.
The current enemy, however, will never surrender on an aircraft carrier or battleship. He wouldn't know the difference between the two. He's too busy putting explosives on his children, and teaching them how to trigger themselves in a crowd.
History is trying to do its usual trick: turning itself into myth. As usual, memory dims and is replaced by monuments. Will it be so in this Long War? Do we remember that our enemy is still fighting? And for a smaller and smaller portion of the American people, some of our family members?
Every year we get further and further removed from the horror and shock of Sept. 11, 2001. But we must remain ever vigilant. We don't have a choice.
Editorial on 09/11/2019
Print Headline: The Long War