A Deadly Struggle Whose Outcome Is Certain

As the flatbeds carry the wreckage up the West Side Highway, away to disposal, so a few already-wrecked ideas of the last two weeks require attention.

The pacifists are a beleaguered minority now, and rightly so. But their case has a history and a certain consistency, and when the next bloodlettings occur they may rise again, so they ought to be addressed. The main mistake of the unthinking pacifist is to imagine that it takes two sides to fight a war, therefore one side’s demurral will end it. But this is untrue: One side can wage a war all by itself. If its enemies do not fight, then it wins. The thinking pacifist must either hold a religious belief that this world is a child of the devil, or of illusion, and hence not worth our efforts; or, if he is not religious, he must will the victory of the aggressor. In this case, that would mean willing a world that was both impoverished and less free, as crusader terrorists disrupted and preyed upon commerce and surviving states hunkered down into self-protective, authoritarian postures. Young college-age pacifists, taught to scorn capitalism and liberty, may think such a state of things no great loss-perhaps even an improvement in some respects-but as they lost their student loans and their CD’s, they might think again. Older, thoughtful pacifists probably do foresee such a state of things and desire it, either because they are guilty about being prosperous, or because they hope to be commissars in the communes of the future. They are unlikely to find many Americans eager to share their vision.

President Bush’s response to the crisis began shakily, and many noticed it. I was reminded of a savage estimate of the Marquis de Lafayette, not as the hero of our revolution but as the goat of his: You cannot draw a trumpet’s note from a whistle. I hoped better qualities would emerge, and as the days passed they did. It should be a reminder to us all how small some of our leaders have looked in the early days of their greatest challenges. Representative Charles Francis Adams, son and grandson of Presidents, thought Abraham Lincoln’s speeches in the interval between his election in 1860 and his inauguration “put to flight all notions of greatness.” George Washington, who commanded America’s armies the last time New York was attacked, struck officers on his own staff as indecisive and out of his depth. Some leaders do or say the right things right away, as Mayor Giuliani did. Others reveal themselves more slowly. The beefy word warriors and the pinch-faced hacks will, of course, never cut Mr. Bush any slack. But the rest of us should remember the stumbles of the great.

So much for the past. What will the war ahead be like?

The next strike will not be a hijacking. Copycats may try to repeat the stunt, but our enemies will move to other things. The likely candidates are germs and poisons, or atomic bombs, bought in the former Soviet Union or smuggled out of Pakistan by friends in the military. There will be many near misses before this is over, and some direct hits. Other American cities may well envy New York for having gotten off so lightly.

We have announced that we are fighting a coalition war. By chance I was reading Winston Churchill’s biography of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, which concludes with the War of the Spanish Succession, which pitted most of the nations of Europe against Louis XIV. That war did not have much in common with this-Louis XIV had much better couture than Osama bin Laden-but it offers a classic case study of the dynamics of coalition warfare. Each nation pursues its interest, and since no two nations’ interests are always identical, cross-purposes are the inevitable result. Our allies will give us every species of frustration, from minor annoyance to spectacular betrayal.

Confusion abroad will be joined by rancor at home. Most American wars have been conducted athwart noisy, and sometimes treacherous, peace movements. Disaffected states have toyed with secession; politicians and entire communities have aided the enemy. From Tories during the Revolution to Copperheads during the Civil War to the disaffected Germanic masses of the Midwest during World War I, the motto of millions of Americans has been, “My country, wrong-and maybe not my country.”

Most wars are longer than most of ours have been. The Civil War and our participation in World War II lasted four and under four years, respectively. But the American Revolution was eight and a half years, from Lexington to the British evacuation of New York. The Thirty Years’ War and the Hundred Years’ War were aptly, if approximately, named. Suppose this war is the median? I see the hugely pregnant, their bellies straining, as maternity fashion now dictates, against sheaths of Lycra. The children within are entering a troubled world.

But the war will end in victory-not over all enemies for all times, but over these enemies, now. When Winston Churchill- prime minister, not popular historian-learned of Pearl Harbor, he had the following reaction, which is worth pondering: “I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death. So we had won after all! … Silly people-and there were many, not only in enemy countries-might discount the force of the United States. Some said they were soft, others that they would never be united. They would fool around at a distance. They would never come to grips. They would never stand blood-letting. Their democracy and system of recurrent elections would paralyze their war effort. They would be just a vague blur on the horizon to friend or foe. Now we should see the weakness of this numerous but remote, wealthy, and talkative people. But I had studied the American Civil War, fought out to the last desperate inch. American blood flowed in my veins. I thought of a remark which Edward Grey had made to me more than thirty years before-that the United States is like ‘a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.’ Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.”