Year Zero

What War Will Mean

by Jonathan Wallace

September 16, 2001

In an essay written Tuesday afternoon, A Hard Rain, I related that I was in the subway passageway under World Trade Center building 2 when the second airplane hit that morning. I included my initial thoughts about the existence of moral monsters among us, our own responsibility for them, and my fears for the future.

I've decided to write an occasional series of essays, for as long as I have something new to say or as the emergency lasts, on the practical and moral implications of the current situation. I am entitling the series "Year Zero" with a sidewise glance at the 1962 Ray Milland movie about America after a nuclear war, and with reference to the powerful feeling shared by many people this week that there is a rift in our history at 8:42 a.m. on Tuesday morning September 11, 2001. On this side of the rift, everything we thought we understood must be re-examined and in many cases, constructed anew.

This essay deals with some of the practical implications of the problems we are facing. In future essays I will return to the moral issues.

The rhetoric of war was in use within minutes after the two planes hit the World Trade Center. By that evening, as I watched CNN, I had heard over and over again statements such as "This is an act of war." When the President finally emerged from hiding, he announced, with completely inappropriate boyish glee, that we were about to fight "the first war of the twenty-first century." And the attack on the United States was repeatedly characterized as another "Pearl Harbor".

I recognize the risk that anyone examining the underpinnings of the president's language today may be accused of being a craven appeaser, or worse; the risk is multiplied if the speaker is raising concerns about the practicality, or the morality, of the solution the President is proposing. But I fear that in pursuit of a goal that seems laudable to me (especially because on Tuesday morning someone dropped World Trade Center Two where I had just been standing) we are about to make some terrible mistakes.

This is war, in the primal sense that other humans are trying to kill us, but it is not war in any sense in which we have ever used the term. The references to Pearl Harbor are particularly dangerous, because they support the proposition that this is not a new kind of animal, but one we already know how to tame. That complacency is going to get a lot of Americans killed unnecessarily, while killing a lot of innocent people in other countries.

In one blow, Osama Bin-Laden or whoever was responsible for the attack has made the twentieth century armed nation-state seem like a curiously quaint concept-- a fit subject for nostalgia. Don't you just long for the days when the people you were fighting met the following criteria:

With the people who just murdered about fifty-five hundred Americans in a morning's work, the exact opposite of all these assertions are true. They are from multiple nation-states and live spread out across a score of others; they had no need to build planes, even if they had the means to do so, as they could simply borrow ours; because they borrowed them here, in Boston, Newark and Virginia, the vigilant eye we fix on our own borders was useless; and whenever we kill one, others are easily recruited to come and replace them, from a large number of angry or ideological people living in other nation-states. Yes, by one estimate, there are only 50,000 of them worldwide--but it took fewer than 20 of those to kill 5500 people the other morning.

On CNN on Tuesday, having changed the clothes in which I ran down Chambers Street to the Brooklyn Bridge away from the burning towers, I watched a military analyst on CNN marvel at the cleverness of the murderous solution: "Low technology, high concept," he said: "The plane was the bomb." On a mailing list I follow, a techie called it "an elegant hack". In the meantime, both towers had fallen down, killing thousands of people the fire hadn't already slain, including two hundred and fifty or so firefighters and eighty police officers. The attackers had clearly understood even the buildings' engineering better than we did, or we would have pulled the firefighters and cops out earlier.

The only investment the attackers made (besides some flight training, apartments, hotels and rental cars) was in the box-cutters they used to hijack the planes. Twenty men killed 5500 men, women and children with box-cutters.

This is not your father's Pearl Harbor. In order to accomplish their sneak attack, the Japanese had to invest in building planes and carriers, send them undetected near our coast, lose some and then get them away again. They did it once and they never had the resources (or the element of surprise) necessary to do it again. Our adversary in this war will send more small groups of men, some of them almost certainly back to my city again, to do more horrifying things before we are through. According to numerous sources, including an MSNBC FAQ, Bin Laden has rudimentary chemical and biological weapons (how rudimentary?) and has on several occasions attempted to obtain radioactive materials:

Russian intelligence has told the United States that it believes bin Laden has been working with Chechen rebels to obtain radioactive material for a "radiological dispersal device" or "dirty bomb" that would spray the potentially deadly material over a small area.

I didn't hear anyone talking about that on CNN this week but on the mailing lists there was speculation. Its been four days and I haven't developed any sores or pustules so perhaps he didn't use chemical, biological or radioactive materials this time.

Even without them, the suicide pilots, who were flying free in our country able to hit any target they wished, could have chosen to crash into any one of a number of nuclear reactors near New York. Do we know what would have happened? Our adversary probably does.

To sum up, what Pearl Harbor means to Americans (including those who saw the really bad movie of that name that opened last July) is: something really beastly the adversary does to you once, after which you thump him soundly and go back to sleep. But Tuesday's attacks are likely to be just the first in a series of similarly "elegant hacks" carried out for not too much money. According to the same MSNBC FAQ, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center cost about $18,000, including the purchase of a van and explosives.

What about the Normandy part of it? The analogy may be somewhat more apt, because Normandy, far from being an "elegant hack", was a frightful mess, which we won because we had marked superiority in men and equipment, and were facing a depleted enemy in a friendly country. In the Normandy invasion, most of the paratroops were dropped in the wrong place, often miles away from their destination, without their equipment, and scattered from their fellows. Fifteen percent of the 13,000 men (about two thousand) were killed or wounded on the first day of fighting. (Some paratroopers landed in water and drowned.) Two thousand more men died that day on Omaha Beach, where miscalculations included a lack of air cover, an intelligence failure to detect the presence of the German 352nd division behind the beach, and the launching of landing vehicles 10,000 yards off-shore where they were vulnerable to German fire.

And that was a successful operation. Try studying a failure, Operation Market Garden, and you will find all the same elements: the paratroops are in the wrong place (only now their radios don't even work so they must use the local phone system to communicate with one another). The tanks all came up a single road where it was easy for the German planes to come and strafe them (it was later said that this solution would have earned a failing grade if used in an exercise at the Belgian war college).

The closer you study World War II battles, the more inevitable the conclusion that there are no "elegant hacks" even among the Allied victories. Americans don't seem to solve problems by finesse but by sheer force, by being able to pour in more soldiers and machines than the adversary.

If that's the way the game is going to be played, the odds favor us, because there are 120 million Americans between the ages of 15 and 44 who in theory could fight, and we have 50,000 adversaries. But the equivalent numbers in 1964-1973 would have dictated we could put a military policeman on every streetcorner anywhere in Viet Nam and we never tried, because we didn't have the political will to do it.

Do we have the will now? This week it appears we do, but we went back to sleep just three years ago, after the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa killed hundreds. In 1983, when a car bomb killed 241 marines in Lebanon, we went back to sleep. In 1993, a group linked to Bin Laden killed nineteen American servicemen involved in a single operation in Somalia, and in 1996, a bomb in Saudi Arabia killed 19 U.S. airmen. We simply concluded that we didn't want to be in Somalia and Lebanon. After the embassy bombings, we fired about eighty cruise missiles at Bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan, with little result.

We are a complacent country with a very short term memory. I certainly hope that there is some factor in the spread between the 241 Americans killed in 1983 and the 5500 people killed Tuesday that will make us pay more attention. My fear is that, if World War II were fought today, America would lose interest about one fifth of the way up Omaha Beach and start looking for the exits.

How many people are we willing to lose to avenge the 5500? We'd better be willing to mourn a good many more than we did on Tuesday morning. In fact, there should be no calculus whatever, just a desire to do what ever is necessary to attain the goal.

Invading Afghanistan could be another Vietnam or worse. The British and the Soviets both sank there without a trace. For centuries, the Afghans have fought invaders very furiously in their difficult mountain terrain. The Taliban have now overcome most of the people who defeated the Soviets, killing their most charismatic opponent by suicide bomb this past Sunday. Afghanistan itself is a ruin, without infrastructure or communications, after twenty-plus years of resistance against the Soviets and then civil war. One Afghan-American commentator said this week that our bombs will just stir the rubble around. We are fond of threatening to bomb enemies "back to the stone age" (I remember that rhetoric about Iran when the hostage crisis began in 1979). The problem is, Afghanistan is already there.

If we must send in ground troops, we could be in for a long, bloody insurgency with no clear or satisfying results, like Vietnam and very different from the satisfying, media-tilted, "video game" wars of recent years (Panama, the Gulf War). After losing more than 50,000 Americans in Vietnam, and after our minor but poignant losses in Beirut and Somalia, Americans have conceived a severe distaste for ground engagements. Our top military commanders, epitomized by Colin Powell when he headed the Joint Chiefs of Staff, settled on an air-power-only theory of war, which stressed as a major goal the shedding of no American blood whatever.

The problem is that the conventional bombing of civilian populations, aside from its horrifying human rights implications (which I will discuss in another essay), has a very limited record of success in achieving stated military goals. Read John Keegan's chapter on the topic in his The Second World War. Hitler's London blitz did not sap British will, it unified it. The Allied bombing of Dresden (which had no military significance) and other German cities similarly did not even succeed in destroying military industries (which were both "hardened" and moved to less identifiable places) let alone breaking German morale. Germany surrendered when it had no more men of fighting age to expend in ground engagements.

Slamming eighty cruise missiles into Afghanistan after the embassy bombings only killed about twenty trainees in terrorist camps and missed Bin-Laden entirely. Even a more sustained campaign is unlikely to defeat the Taliban without the use of ground troops. There are also other logistical problems; Afghanistan is land-locked, so if we were using aircraft carriers, the closest we could bring them is 700 miles away, at some sort of a limit for providing fighter cover for bombers. And we would have to cross Pakistani air-space, which this morning it seems as if the Pakistanis might permit.

I am very bothered by America's uncritical infatuation with technology. For twenty years and more, we have been easily led to believe that software can easily solve problems requiring substantial "fuzzy thinking" and human intuition. I have written recently about Congress' puzzling belief that filtering software can make distinctions between porn and sociological writing about sexuality which in reality today's most sophisticated artificial intelligence cannot accomplish. The President's commitment to the National Missile Defense is similarly based on an incorrect and very dangerous adulation of technology. In every test of the NMD to date, the target has contained a GPS device informing the kill vehicle where to find it. We have not yet tried to confuse a kill vehicle with more than one decoy, and we have made those decoys as simple and unconfusing as possible, for example a cold balloon next to a hot target. There is no strong reason to believe that the technology will successfully be able to pick out a warhead wrapped in a cold balloon from the midst of heated decoys, chaff and other relatively inexpensive counter-measures under confusing and real conditions. Not to mention what happens if the enemy warhead separates into one hundred bomblets--or is delivered by ship rather than obligingly by ICBM.

In the Gulf War, the media obligingly helped the military put across a belief in invincible Patriot missiles (how could anything called "Patriot" have flaws?) and in smart bombs that could do everything but stroll into an apartment building, knock on the door of 5C and blow up its occupant. It was only much later that we learned how exaggerated these accounts were and that the ordinance had performed much less well than reported. American movies (one of the influences cited this week by Saddam Hussein as justifying Tuesday's attack) also encourage an infantile trust both in super-human technology and our ability to deploy it. In reality, the smartest bomb the world has yet seen is the one which was flying each plane on Tuesday.

Thus there is no technological substitute for placing a large number of Americans on the ground in Afghanistan and possibly other target countries, with all the vulnerability this entails.

Some of you will inevitably interpret this as defeatist talk. Not at all. We have a moral and practical obligation to do the job right, and the first step is to see it clearly. The President's limitations and inexperience, the rapidity of the war rhetoric, the intensity of our emotion this week, and the understandable but dangerous human desire for immediate "closure" could plunge us into bloody and unsuccesful adventures. We must act but whatever we do now should not be based on the expectation that it will be over by Thanksgiving (one lawmaker yesterday called for results by then), nor that we will end all global terrorism rapidly, nor that we can do anything without losing much more American life.

Several times in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Proust quoted a World War I truism that "the side which will win will be the one which knows how to fight fifteen minutes longer than the other". We have the numerical and financial superiority to accomplish this but we must match the dogged, desperate and untiring will that our enemies have already shown.

For decades--for my entire life--our politicians have relied on our short attention spans, expecting voters to forget certain legislative betrayals before election day came again. The media both feeds and is fed by our continual desire for the new and our easy boredom with the events of yesterday. There is a great danger we will simply incorporate the murder of so many Americans (ten years of the current ordinary murder rate in New York) and move on. A lack of will, matched with immediate bloody reversals as a result of ill-considered military projects, would leave us passive and even more vulnerable than we are today.

Democratic (small "d"), intelligent, charismatic and careful leadership is required now but we must also each be a committed partner in the effort to come. It has been sixty years since, as a nation, we settled in with a mostly-unclouded will to do a job that would take five years. We have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us in order to become that people again.