Military Officer | 9.1.11
By Alan W. Dowd

On that terrible Tuesday morning 10 Septembers ago, some Americans tried to make sense of the senseless by looking for historical analogies. Many turned to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, which, like the 9/11 attacks, came without warning and roused America to war. But as historical parallels go, Pearl Harbor doesn’t really work.

The enemy that attacked Pearl Harbor struck military targets; al Qaeda’s heaviest blows landed on civilian targets. Pearl Harbor announced the beginning of Japan’s war against America; al Qaeda’s attack on Washington and New York was an exclamation point to years of terror. Japan was a centralized state; al Qaeda is a stateless network. A decade after that first day of infamy, Japan was not only defeated, but on its way to rehabilitation; Afghanistan, 9/11’s spawning ground, is still the central front in a wider war. In short, 9/11 has no parallel. However, there is a parallel, albeit an imperfect one, for what 9/11 unleashed.

Ten years in, the struggle against terrorists with a global reach—and the regimes that feed them—shares similarities with the long war against Soviet communism. Consider the words of NSC-68, penned in 1950 to provide a roadmap for waging the Cold War: Now, as then, America’s enemies are animated by a “fanatic faith, antithetical to our own;” the challenge is “momentous, involving the fulfillment or destruction not only of this republic, but of civilization itself;” and success depends on recognition by the American people that this “is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake.”

In other words, like the Cold War, this conflict demands a durable national consensus. A decade of war was unimaginable on September 10, 2001, when many Americans thought they were invulnerable—and thought of war as a push-button, bloodless affair. Yet today, Americans largely agree that the terror threat is real and that answering it by force of arms is necessary. They have ratified the post-9/11 campaign of campaigns in five congressional and two presidential elections. As in the Cold War, when administrations of both political parties followed the same roadmap, there is a remarkable amount of continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations on war policy, with the latter employing largely the same means to pursue the same ends as the former: helping Afghanistan build institutions to resist the impulses to jihadism; killing or indefinitely detaining the enemy; waging the drone war; carrying out operations with or without UN approval; and striking targets from Somalia to Yemen to Pakistan.

The most important of those targets—Osama bin Laden—was recently eliminated. His takedown, like the 9/11 attacks against America, carries great symbolic significance. It sends an unmistakable message about America’s resolve, resilience and reach. But just as the elimination of Yamamoto didn’t end World War II, just as the death of Stalin didn’t end the Cold War, bin Laden’s death doesn’t end the war on terror. Another battle has been won, but the long war goes on.