"May you live in interesting times" goes the old Chinese proverb - and we do live in interesting times. The memory of the terrible tragedy of 9-11 continues to be strong for many in the United States and abroad. I remember that morning vividly - I was at work doing something fairly inconsequential, and one of my co-workers came into my cubicle around 9AM and said "you need to come see this - history is being made today".
I watched with horror as the second airliner crashed into the second tower of the World Trade Center, watched as the two buildings were soon shrouded in flame and smoke. Then, the reports of the attack on Washington and the crash of a fourth plane in Pennsylvania came in, and my colleagues and I were both filled with dread and rage. We watched haplessly as people threw themselves out of burning buildings to escape a fate worse than death, watched as thousands of New Yorkers ran for their lives as the great symbols of American enterprise and power fell. I have family in New York City, and I feared for their safety - but also knew I could do nothing for them in this time of need. I did the math...about 80,000 people in the towers, planes striking half way up. Maybe 40,000 dead? A Hiroshima-like toll of blood? It looked possible. I also remember how my brain was working that morning...almost machine-like. My emotions were running so high...but the analytical side of my mind kept trying to figure out...who did it...what now...what next? How many dead...where will the next strikes occur? In the end, I rejoiced to find out that Al Quida had actually struck the one set of buildings that were best prepared for this kind of an attack. The people knew how to get out better than any other major skyscraper. 3000 dead from 91 nations was a tragedy...and a blessing that it wasn't larger by a factor of ten.
I had to give the terrorists credit...their plan was audacious and well-executed, striking almost every target they planned on - and achieved results far greater than they dreamed. The economic dislocation from the attacks would end up costing the United States $1 trillion in lost productivity, cost millions of jobs because of this dislocation, disrupt an entire industry (airlines), cause the federal government to reorganize, and make the United States government run a deficit for the next three years. Quite an attack! We buttoned up, sealed everything, and prepared for war...
Shock gave way to anger, and anger to purpose...we did not know who did this terrible act, but we knew that we would pursue them to the ends of the earth to find them and bring justice to them. Like now, there were people that I knew that had such a difficult time "getting it." One person I know, who is a fervent pacifist at heart, said "I'm angry...am I allowed to be that way?" Yes - you are. These people do not deserve our understanding, our compassion, or our mercy. We must be faithful both to our enemies, as well as our friends and allies, and pursue them with an unremitting drive. Al Quida's bloody trail from Manhattan to Bali to Beslan makes it clear that there is one sure way to deal with this group...and serving a warrent isn't sufficient.
The world changed for the United States that fateful morning...and it didn't. Al Quida, led by Osama bin Ladin, had declared war on the United States multiple times during the 1990s. His followers had struck the World Trade Center in 1993, helped the Somalis attack Americans in 1993, unsuccessfully tried to hijack a dozen airliners in 1995 to pull off a "9-11" type attack in East Asia, bombed American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, unsuccessfully tried to sink the USS Sullivans
in Yemen in 1999 - but was successful against the USS Cole
in 2000, unsuccessfully tried to hijack another group of airliners for 2000, and either conducted or tried to conduct dozens of other attacks against Western and Saudi targets throughout the 1990s. Bin Ladin in essence took over the defense ministership of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Al Quida training camps were busy producing more muhajjidin
in the late 1990s.
Al Quida was at war...and we failed to respond. The attacks of 9-11 were only notable because the United States woke up and changed from a nation of capriciousness to one resolute to act. It was not the beginning of the war...it was when America decided to begin its counteroffensive.
Other leaders were at war against the United States at the same time. Iraq waged war on the United States in northern and southern Iraq, firing hundreds of Russian and French-made missiles at our aircraft. Low level war blossomed and raged "under the CNN line" from the end of 1998 because Saddam did not uphold his end of the agreement to disarm after the first Gulf War. He had the tacit or explicit backing of the French, Russians, and Chinese in his resistance to US and UK enforcement of the UN sanctions. The war of 2003 should have been the war of 1998, but President Clinton failed to act. Again, this was not the beginning of the war...we ignored the gathering storm, denied the gathering evidence, and failed to do what was necessary to protect both our security and our allies.
The Iraqi regime also ganered unconventional warriors from Islamic terrorist groups around the world throughout the 1990s to conduct an unconventional warfare campaign against US and UK interests around the world. If Iraq could not overthrow American might by force of arms, maybe subversion and terror would work. Iraqi intelligence agents met with Al Quida in Sudan from 1992 to 1995, met with Al Quida in Pakistan in 1996-1997, and culminated with Zawahiri (Bin Ladin's number 2 man) going to Baghdad and meeting with the Iraqi vice-President in 1998 to set up training camps in Fallujah, Nasiriya, and in the Iraqi controlled areas of Kurdistan. Bin Ladin's public statements picked up Iraqi themes (or talking points) after virtually every meeting. While Saddam and Osama had different visions of the future (one of a secular dictatorship, another of a theocratic dictatorship), the concept of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" applies here. Again...at dawn, we slept not because we were ignorant, but because we had a "failure of imagination" (to quote the 9/11 Report).
So what should we, or do we, think about the third anniversary of that red morning? I had the good fortune of being able to be part of that first group of warriors to take the fight to Al-Quida in Afghanistan and helped take the fight to Saddam in Iraq. My contribution was small, but personally very satisfying. President Bush did the right thing...he showed leadership when it mattered. He has not wavered, and has kept his eye on the objective. For this, the nation should consider itself blessed. True American heroes went deep into Afghanistan and overthew the Islamofascist regime of the Taliban. Al Quida's camps were destroyed, its followers scattered. They fought hard, but their fight was futile. Saddam's pseudo-Stalinist Iraq was next - a supporter and base for terror, and the geopolitical pivot point for the greater Middle East. Saddam's evil regime was overthrown by an incredible display of force of arms, and is now on the way to truly reforming the body politic of Iraq. The United States does not need to go forth in search of dragons to slay...killing the dragons breathing fire into its front yard is a good place to start. By eliminating the threat of Saddam's Iraq, the Middle East has an opportunity to go forth into a new future. Libya's Kaddafi gave up his WMD program right after Saddam was dragged out of his hiding hole south of Tikrit. Sic Semper Tyrannus
And what should we think about the lost? For the thousand American warriors who lost their lives in the defense of freedom, their sacrifice for their country cannot be measured adequately. We are in great debt to them for their service - and by focusing only on that black number is a disservice to them. They died defending their friends, their families, and the freedom of the nation that they deemed worth fighting for. These men and women made a choice that they would lay down their lives for their fellow citizen - and for that, they should be hailed.
We are also in debt to the hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who are among the living...whose training and dedication that grim number does not begin to touch. It is the professionalism of this force that brings the vast majority home alive...and protects to a level unparalleled in human history the innocent on the battlefield. When American forces meet their foes, it is like the scythe against the wheat. No other force in the world applies force so skillfully and so carefully with such effect. Because of this professionalism and restraint, Al Quida has lost the majority of its trained terrorists due to death or imprisonment over the last three years. While Al Quida's new recruits have enthusiasm, they don't have the skills. Hundreds, if not thousands, have gone to Iraq...and not returned. Iraq has become the central front in the war on terrorism. Iraq may end up being Al Quida's grave, because the more Muslims they slaughter in the name of "Allah", the more bankrupt a movement they appear. No "Al Quida" political movement has been successful in any Middle Eastern country. Al Quida as an effort to ignite a world insurrection against the forces of modernity has failed. Al Quida and its ilk are not winning the war on terrorism - they are being driven to the farthest reaches of the earth by the forces of justice.
The fight has not just been a military fight, but a full spectrum offensive. Thousands of Al Quida agents around the world have been swept up by law enforement, diplomatic offensives have deprived terrorists of refuge, terrorist funding has been constrained, and the overall moral degeneracy of Al Quida and its followers has been laid bare for all to see. If Iraq and Afghanistan are able to become members in good standing in the international community, then the draining of the "swamp of dispair and anger" that breeds groups like Al Quida will benefit the world far into the future.
The Ba'athists in Iraq face the same dark future. When they attack American combat units, they die. They then shifted to American truck drivers and other logistics units...with some successes, but now when they attack, they die. The Ba'athists then shifted to the American contractors...who then tied in with the American and coalition forces...so now the Ba'athists begin to die again. So then they shift to the coalition troops...who tie in with the Americans and the Ba'athists begin to die. So the Ba'athists shift to the Iraqi police and security forces...and are then discredited for no longer killing the "infidel Americans", but for killing "Muslim Iraqis". Plus...because the new Iraqi forces are trained by the US, the Ba'athists begin to die again. So, in the end, the Ba'athists are left to their old tactics of just terrorizing the people...which will lead to their ultimate political defeat in a democratic Iraq. This will be a long and bloody fight...and with the tide of casualties going against the insurgents at a rate of about 1 American dying for every 15-20 insurgents and terrorists dying, that's not good for the bad guys. Moreover, this is not a Vietnam scenario where the VC were ideologically motivated nationalists. The Ba'athists desire one thing - power. Iraqis know this, and the vast majority (Sunni, Shia, and Kurds) do not want them back. The turn-over of power to the interm Iraqi government was a huge shift in the Iraq conflict...because the fight is now for the future. If the insurgents (both the Ba'athists and Al-Sadr's group) get the Americans out, they might have a shot at taking on the new Iraqi government. They need to get the US out so they can do that - which I don't see happening in the next five years.
So, which is the number to remember today? The three thousand innocent dead on 9-11, or the thousand soldiers who gave their lives to bring justice to those that killed the three thousand? I think we need to remember both...in sadness and respect for the fallen...and with determination and dedication to the future. We do not get a time-out from history. We do not get to retreat behind our ocean barriers and hope the rest of the world will leave us alone. We are the United States. We are the beacon of freedom on a hill that millions try to immigrate to every year. We are the defender of freedom, extending our protection to nearly a billion people worldwide in over forty countries. We are the engine of growth, providing a quarter of the world's economic power (by GDP), the world's most educated and productive workforce, and the market of choice for the majority of the nations of the world. And we are the guarantor of the world order, so that commerce and peaceful relations between nations can occur. These are facts, not aspirations.
Some nations forget this, and become free-riders on this benign world environment. Some allies that should have stepped forward in solidarity to fight this first global war of the 21st century stepped back, even resisted facing the challange. Multilateralism must not be an alibi for nonaction. Now, they are beginning to realize that capitulation in the face of terror simply shows the weakness of their governments and invites attack. Others, like the new democracies of eastern Europe, recognize the war for what it is and sent their legions out to help secure the peace. Lastly, bin Ladin and his ilk recognize the future, and fear their demise because of it. They know they are on the wrong side of history and progress, viewing their future as one that is a throwback to the seventh century. There is no going back to September 10th, any more than we can go back to December 9th, 1941. We must stay focused on our present and our future while remembering our past - we do not get a round trip ticket to go back to the past and change it. The third anniversary of the attack on 9-11 should bring all these thoughts to us. May we continue to live as President Lincoln said in his second inaugural address:
"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan...to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."