As Face of War Changes, Our Tactics Change, Too

What a difference a war makes. My only dealings with the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. (the Army’s equivalent of a postgraduate institution), occurred three years ago, when I sat in on the taping of a seminar there, for a documentary that is finally being aired July 4. The colonels and lieutenant-colonels were discussing President George Washington’s decision to send 12,000 men (five times as many as he commanded at the Battle of Trenton) to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. One of the colonels referenced Colin Powell and, implicitly, the Gulf War by arguing that overwhelming force is the most effective-and most humane -way of the getting the job done.

Even as the colonel spoke, Osama bin Laden had lodged himself in his Afghan puppet state. Between the colonel’s remarks and the air date, Mr. bin Laden struck-and we struck back, not with overwhelming numbers à la Desert Storm, but with drones, native levies and Special Forces riding on horseback. We used much less manpower than we had in the Gulf War-or, for that matter, during the Whiskey Rebellion or the Battle of Trenton. But what we used was equally overwhelming. Al Qaeda claims that Mr. bin Laden is alive in a hole somewhere, and Mullah Omar may be with him. But their regime is gone, men may shave, and women can look at the world.

The latest flurry of war talk holds that when we move on Iraq in the fall, it will be in a similarly lean fashion. No more Norman Schwarzkopf punching a right hook through the desert. (The Saudis, for one thing, will be rooting for the other side, not offering us bases.) But we will find other little ways. The face of war changes, and American war-making changes with it-always belatedly at first. Almost every war the United States has fought has begun in confusion, accident or defeat-Detroit, the Alamo, Bull Run, the Maine , Pearl Harbor. But in almost every case, the United States has summoned its concentration and its force and won decisive, sometimes annihilating victories.

One way this war has changed is the vulnerability of American civilians. There were no soldiers in the World Trade Center. Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for attacking a synagogue in Tunisia, and its agents and cheerleaders would no doubt like to attack some in Brooklyn. The new level of risk explains why Jose Padilla, the American citizen and Muslim convert that Al Qaeda was trying to slip back into the country when he was nabbed by the F.B.I., is now being held at a naval base, without any famous civil-liberties lawyers at his side. When the Nazis inserted saboteurs (some of them American citizens) into the United States during World War II, President Roosevelt ordered them tried by military tribunals-a decision the Supreme Court approved. So it goes in wartime, when the suspects-if they turn out to be guilty-are not wicked individuals or even members of a criminal enterprise intent on personal revenge or gain, but agents of a hostile power who seek to mutilate the liberty of the community as a whole. When the nation is attacked, the nation must defend itself. The safety of the people is the supreme law.

It is true that President Bush, though he speaks frequently of our War on Terror, has not asked Congress to make a formal declaration of war. He should have done so, though it’s easy to understand his difficulties. Our enemies have not been kind enough to make such formal statements themselves (even Hitler declared war on the United States, in support of his Japanese ally, after Pearl Harbor). Osama bin Laden issued fulminations before 9/11, but what legal standing do the pronouncements of a bandit in a cave have? Until our enemies repair their omission, they must excuse us for arresting them without crossing every diplomatic and legal T.

But all the talk of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda will probably turn out to be a polite fiction. The notion that a fanatical son of a Saudi construction magnate could run a worldwide terror enterprise from Afghanistan or the Sudan, completely unassisted by professionals, is fantastic, isn’t it? If Donald Trump had a bloodthirsty crusader nephew, could he set himself up in the Yukon and successfully plot to destroy the most impressive buildings in Riyadh, if there are any? To be less whimsical: Could the Irish Republican Army blow up Big Ben? Are the Ulster Protestant terrorists capable of torching the Vatican?

Osama bin Laden has imagination and charisma, if you find dream interpretation and Koranic midrash charismatic. But isn’t it likely that he and his network have profited from the help of a government-and not the dirt-poor kakistocrats of Khartoum and Kabul? Who is the obvious candidate, in terms of both resources and grudges? Our intelligence agents have dismissed the report that hijacker Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi agent in Prague, but the Czechs have not backed down from it. At home, we are looking for a rogue American scientist as the source of last fall’s anthrax letters. But then came the story that one of the 9/11 hijackers checked into a hospital emergency room with lesions that the attending physician now says were consistent with exposure to anthrax. If that is true, where then did Osama bin Laden get his stash? If Saddam Hussein had been living a monk’s life, he would still be a danger, because he’s manufacturing nukes and germs to incinerate and poison Israelis and whoever else displeases him. But his vows of peace may already have been broken.

Most Americans will celebrate the Fourth of July weekend as they always have-by relaxing, partying and watching fireworks. But this year, we should reflect that not celebrating is our right; that, in many parts of the world, putting on a bathing suit or even drinking beer is forbidden; that, if we hear a sermon over the weekend, it will be a sermon of our choosing; and that when we see the fireworks, they stand for all the explosions from Long Island to Hawaii to, yes, Germany, Japan and Afghanistan, when Americans fought for their rights and their indulgences, and exacted terrible vengeance on our enemies.