"Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety."
Henry IV, Part I
This long, long war now enters its ninth year, counting from that fateful September morning when everything changed, or was supposed to change. After that terrible morning, not even the blindest could deny that America had been attacked. Yet this war had been going on for years. The same enemy had launched earlier attacks in Somalia, against U.S. embassies in Africa, and off the coast of Yemen against the USS Cole.
Indeed, the same Twin Towers had been a target once before. At the time the attack was considered a matter for law enforcement to handle a crime, not an act of war. But as of September 11, 2001, another date which will live in infamy, the peril that confronted us was clear, or should have been. For explosions not only destroy but illuminate. That was the day the war stopped being unilateral. For the enemy had got our attention at last. Our eyes were opened. And the Long War had begun.
This isn't the first time Americans have been surprised to find ourselves in a war even after we were in it. The Second World War had been under way in Europe and the Pacific for years before December 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 its finest hour.
To look back and 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. Consider the Cold War, which lasted half a century. Conducted under the ominous shadow of nuclear and then thermonuclear weapons, it would burst into flames from time to time in Korea, then Vietnam. Who could have foreseen how suddenly the Cold War, and the Soviet Union with it, would end? And without a shot being fired.
Now another long war grinds on. But parallels with the Second World War can be overdone. For all practical purposes, American isolationism ended December 7, 1941, as the country realized, not for the first time, that it must unite or die. Yet the isolationist impulse, and folly, is alive and frighteningly well as this Long War approaches its first decade.
There are still those who see no necessity to bring the war to the enemy; they would retreat to some safe, mythical Fortress America. And their numbers grow whenever the news from Baghdad or, more recently, Kabul grows grim. And the country divides.
Americans seem unable to agree even on what to call this war. As administrations change, so does the name of the conflict. What was the War on Terror is now officially Overseas Contingency Operations, and the debate over it grows as long as the war itself. And will continue. For grave blunders doubtless have been committed and will be committed; that is the nature of war, which is but organized chaos, and not too organized at that.
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 it 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. It may include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success. We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism."
That was George W. Bush addressing a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, even as he was being bitterly criticized by his more reflexive critics, who now begin to turn on his successor as The Long War continues.
Today the baton has been passed to another president and commander-in-chief. And the focus of the war has shifted back to another front: Afghanistan. But our cause remains the same: to live safe in a free world. It is not too much to ask. It is far too much to give up.
As the Long War continues, this still new president will doubtless be subjected to the same kind of demonization his predecessor was subjected to. But he, too, must persevere. Like America herself. We have come too far to let a mean partisanship divide us again. For many a new test awaits. And we dare not fail.
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