When War Was Understandable


In reading the history of war over the centuries there have been huge changes.  When the long bow was invented it was widely believed that it was “too terrible a weapon to ever be used.”  The Hundred Years War in the 15th century laid that idea to rest.  Gunpowder soon replaced arrows and the tactics of war changed with it, reaching an apex in the Napoleonic Wars.

The American Civil War, the bloodiest by far in our history with over 600,000 deaths, had clear military strategy and tactics, as did the World War I and the terror of the trenches.  Air power came to the fore in the World War II and added jet aircraft in Korea just five years later.

Then we had the Vietnam War with 50,000 deaths. That was a whole new concept for massive engagement.  I remember it being compared to the Indian wars in this country only you didn’t know who the Indians were.

The Gulf Wars, then Iraq and Afghanistan had some semblance of tactical and strategic maneuvering but terrorist attacks became an increasing part of the adversaries’ plan; it became difficult to understand against whom we were fighting.

The longbow has been replaced by the drone and all the ethical questions about collateral damage have yet to be answered.  From command and control centers firepower can be directed with pinpoint accuracy to the other side of the world. We have seen the last of great field armies facing off, of naval battles, or even air combat where there is close engagement. New weapons, each more fearful than the last, will make conflict totally impersonal. The development of the weaponry of the electromagnetic pulse will make cyber war a reality, one that will leave us truly powerless, both figuratively and literally.

Now we are faced with a new type of combatant: the terrorist.  While in previous generations it was easy to define the enemy, recognize their goals which usually revolved around geography and political ideology; that is no longer the case.  The terrorist, even acting alone, can visit paralysis on an entire community or even the nation as we saw in 9/11.

The motivation of the terrorist is difficult to understand.  Insanity is sometimes in the background, but often these people are chillingly rational in their personal convictions.  Remember the Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide?  The culprit was never found.  The anthrax letters immediately after 9/11 is another example.  Bruce Edwards Irvins, suspected by the FBI of involvement but never indicted, committed suicide leaving the issue and motives unresolved.

Now we are recovering from the Boston bombers.  As horrific as that was, it could have been much worse.  One of the most troubling aspects has to do with motive.  It is too early to know if the surviving brother will supply answers or, if he does, will it make any difference in preventing further attacks by similarly deluded individuals or groups.

After the 9/11 attacks there was a period when many thought that we would never feel safe again.  Indeed, changes were put in place that cause aggravation and delay in travel, but we soon adjusted and went about our business.  While events still take place with multiple casualties, we still have maintained a sense of safety.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent, an entire new branch of government has developed, and many plots have been foiled because of their expertise.  Everyone should take comfort in the successes that have averted the mass disasters that occurred in other countries.

How the recent tragedy plays out remains to be seen but several facts are notable.  The first responders, both professional and bystanders, acting without regard to their own safety, rushed to aid those who needed it.  We often take for granted their contribution to our safety and react with irritation when the flashing blue lights appear in the rear view mirror. Those enforcement officers are under appreciated.  There is a state trooper who lives down the street.  He is a shift supervisor and his cruiser is often parked by his house.  I saw him working in his yard yesterday and I stopped to thank him and his colleagues for keeping us safe.  You might do the same the next time you see a policeman.

Finally, we can never be completely safe from threat but we must not give into fear.  To do that is to give the terrorist a victory they have not won. This war is different from an enemy who at least has the courage to meet us face to face rather than anonymously kill and maim in a cause that cannot succeed.  We are too strong to ever allow that to happen. As a famous President said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  It was true at the beginning of World War II and it is true now.

– Hayden Hollingsworth