A dif­fer­ent kind of war from that of De­cem­ber 1941 O

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - VIC­TOR DAVIS HAN­SON

n De­cem­ber 7, 1941 — 65 years ago last week — pi­lots from a Ja­panese car­rier force bombed Pearl Har­bor. They killed 2,403 Amer­i­cans, most of them ser­vice per­son­nel, while de­stroy­ing much of the U.S. fleet and air forces sta­tioned in Hawaii.

The next morn­ing, an ou­traged United States de­clared war, which ended less than four years later with the de­struc­tion of most of the Ja­panese Em­pire and its mil­i­tary.

Sixty years af­ter Pearl Har­bor came an­other sur­prise at­tack on U.S. soil, one that was, in some ways, even worse than the “Day of In­famy.”

Nearly 3,000 peo­ple died in the Septem­ber 11, 2001 at­tacks — the vast ma­jor­ity of them civil­ians. Al Qaeda’s tar­get was not an Amer­i­can mil­i­tary base far dis­tant from the main­land. Rather, they sui­cide­bombed U.S. fi­nan­cial and mil­i­tary cen­ters.

It has been five years since Septem­ber 11. Af­ter such a ter­ri­ble provo­ca­tion, why can’t we bring the on­go­ing “global war on ter­ror” — whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or else­where — to a close as our fore­fa­thers fight­ing World War II could? Is our gen­er­a­tion less com­pe­tent?

Not re­ally. The United States routed the Tal­iban from Afghanistan by early De­cem­ber 2001. Amer­ica’s first clear-cut vic­tory against the Ja­panese, at Mid­way, came six months af­ter Pearl Har­bor.

Do we lack the unity of the past? Per­haps. But we should at least re­mem­ber that af­ter Pearl Har­bor, a na­tional furor im­me­di­ately arose over the intelligence fail­ure that al­lowed an enor­mous Ja­panese fleet to approach the Hawai­ian Is­lands un­de­tected. Ex­trem­ists went fur­ther — clam­or­ing that the Roo­sevelt ad­min­is­tra­tion had de­lib­er­ately low­ered our guard as part of a con­spir­acy to pave the way for Amer­ica’s en­trance into the war.

Are we in over our heads fight­ing in both Afghanistan and Iraq? Hardly. Within days af­ter Pearl Har­bor, the U.S. found it­self in a three­front war against Ger­many, Italy and Ja­pan — an Axis that had won a se­ries of re­cent bat­tles against the Bri­tish, Chi­nese and Rus­sians.

But there are sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences be­tween the “global war on ter­ror” and World War II that ex­plain why vic­tory is tak­ing so much longer this time.

The most ob­vi­ous is that, against Ja­pan and Ger­many, we faced eas­ily iden­ti­fi­able na­tion-states with con­ven­tional mil­i­taries. To­day’s ter­ror­ists blend in with civil­ians, and it’s hard to tie them to their pa­tron gov­ern­ments or en­ablers in Iran, Saudi Ara­bia, Syria and Pak­istan, who all deny any cul­pa­bil­ity. We also tread care­fully in an age of ubiq­ui­tous fright­en­ing weapons, when any war at any time might with­out much warn­ing bring in a nu­clear, non­demo­cratic bel­liger­ent.

The lim­i­ta­tions on our war-mak­ing are just as of­ten self-im­posed. Yes, we de­feated the Axis pow­ers in less than four years, but at a ghastly cost. To de­feat both Ja­pan and Ger­many, we av­er­aged more than 8,000 Amer­i­cans lost ev­ery month of the war — com­pared to around 50 per month since Septem­ber 11.

So far the United States has en­cour­aged its cit­i­zens to shop rather than sac­ri­fice. The sub­text is that we can de­feat the ter­ror­ists and their au­to­cratic spon­sors with just a frac­tion of our avail­able man­power — en­sur­ing no real dis­rup­tion in our life­styles. That cer­tainly wasn’t the case with the De­pres­sion-era gen­er­a­tion that fought World War II.

And in those days, peace and re­con­struc­tion fol­lowed rather than pre­ceded vic­tory. In tough-minded fash­ion, we of­fered am­ple aid to, and im­posed democ­racy on, wartorn na­tions only af­ter the en­emy was ut­terly de­feated and hu­mil­i­ated. To­day, to avoid such car­nage, we try to help and re­form coun­tries be­fore our en­e­mies have been van­quished — putting the cart of aid be­fore the horse of vic­tory.

Our ef­forts to­day are fur­ther com­pli­cated by con­flict­ing In­ter­net fat­was, ter­ror­ist mili­tias and shift­ing tribal al­liances; in short, we are not al­ways sure who the en­emy cadre re­ally is — or will be. So para­doxes fol­low:

A stronger, far more af­flu­ent United States be­lieves it can use less of its power against the ter­ror­ists than a much poorer Amer­ica did against the for­mi­da­ble Ja­panese and Ger­mans.

World War II, which saw more than 400,000 Amer­i­cans killed, was not nearly as con­tro­ver­sial or frus­trat­ing as one that has so far taken less than one-hun­dredth of that ter­ri­ble toll.

And af­ter Pearl Har­bor, Amer­i­cans be­lieved they had no mar­gin of er­ror in an ele­men­tal war for sur­vival. To­day, we are ap­par­ently con­vinced we can lose ground, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, and still not lose ei­ther the war or our civ­i­liza­tion.

Of course, by 1945, Amer­i­cans no longer feared an­other Pearl Har­bor. Yet, we, in a far stronger and larger United States, are still not sure we won’t see an­other Septem­ber 11.

Vic­tor Davis Han­son, a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist, is a clas­si­cist and his­to­rian at Stan­ford Univer­sity’s Hoover In­sti­tu­tion and au­thor of “A War Like No Other: How the Athe­ni­ans and Spar­tans Fought the Pelo­pon­nesian War.”

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