Capstones | 9.8.15
By Alan W. Dowd
most of us know about the three American heroes—two of them off-duty military
personnel—who foiled a terrorist attack on a packed Amsterdam-to-Paris train.
Armed with an AK-47, a handgun, nine magazines of ammunition and a box cutter,
the lone-wolf terrorist opened fire. Most passengers ducked for cover. But the
Americans “immediately took action,” as The Washington Post reported, citing the firsthand account
of a British businessman. They rushed the gunman—a Moroccan man tied to
“radical Islamist movements,” according to French officials—subdued him by
force and then began treating the wounded. “We just did what we had to do,”
said Alek Skarlatos, an Army National Guardsman and veteran of Afghanistan.
U.S. Airman Spencer Stone, who was stabbed during the attack, said the jihadist
“seemed like he was ready to fight to the end.” But Stone added: “So were we.”
one of those microcosm moments that serve as a metaphor for much larger truths.
I. We are at war. The enemy is
real. It is tenacious. And it wants to kill those who oppose its death creed.
president may not like the term “war on terror.” He may want “to focus on
nation building here at home.” He may truly believe that “It is time to turn the page on a decade of war.” But as
Gen. Jim Mattis explains, “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over.” And
this enemy is anything but defeated. The evidence is everywhere.
of National Intelligence James Clapper called 2014 “the most lethal year for
global terrorism in the 45 years such data has been compiled.”
al Qaeda, AQAP, AQIM, Boko Haram and the rest of bin Laden’s heirs are surging.
There are 41
in 24 countries today—up from 21 groups in 18 countries in 2004.
groups are inspiring attacks like the one foiled in France, the Charlie Hebdo
massacre and Marine recruiting-center shooting earlier this year, the Boston
Marathon bombing in 2013, and the Ft. Hood shooting in 2009.
is arguably stronger than al Qaeda was on 9/11. It controls more territory
(34,000 square miles), commands more footsoldiers, reigns over a population of
some 2 million, looks and acts like a nation-state, and has fought a U.S.-led
air armada to a stalemate. Plus, ISIS is attracting a steady flow of recruits
(1,000 per month) and is spreading beyond Iraq and Syria, with affiliates in
Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Egypt’s Sinai and Nigeria.
moment they cease to be fought against,” as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said of our jihadist enemies,
“they grow.” And that’s what has happened as Washington has turned inward.
policymakers may want to define this as a law-enforcement matter, but ISIS, al
Qaeda and their kind define this as a war: In 1998, Osama bin Laden called on
his followers “to kill the Americans and their allies…do not differentiate
between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians; they are all
targets.” A recent ISIS statement warned Americans, “We will drown all of you
short, these are not drug dealers, mobsters or scofflaws. They are
mass-murderers. Hence, repackaging this as something other than war—or trying
to fight global terrorism with lawyers rather than warriors—is
counterproductive. Indictments didn’t stop bin Laden from waging war
on America. SEAL Team 6 did. Presidential addresses didn’t blunt the
Islamic State’s blitzkrieg through Iraq. The U.S. Air Force and Navy did. And jobs programs didn’t thwart the Euro-rail
jihadist. Overwhelming force did.
II. The world is a dangerous
place. When the danger threatens us, we turn to warriors to protect us.
Keegan argued in his History of Warfare that “All civilizations owe their
origins to the warrior.” But more than that, all civilizations owe their
continued existence to the warrior.
about the train attack: When the terrorist took aim, three American
warriors—joined by a Brit and a Frenchman—fought back. Without them, France
would be reeling from another mass-murder, another assault on civilization.
holds true in the macro. The U.S. military provides a security umbrella to more
than 50 nations, keeps the sea lanes open, polices the world’s toughest
neighborhoods, and serves as civilization’s first responder and last line of
defense. Foreign governments invite the U.S. onto their territory: Ukraine
wants America’s help today. The Iraqi government begged America to return in
2014. In 2011, Libyans appealed to the U.S. for protection. Kosovo and Korea
and Kuwait, Jordan and Japan, want U.S. troops to maintain regional stability.
From Germany to Georgia, those who remember a Europe of concrete walls want
U.S. forces on their soil as a hedge against Russia. And all across the
Asia-Pacific region, those who fear China’s rise are strengthening their ties
III. America is a force for good
in the world.
is anything but perfect, but its motives are usually good. And its people are
generally guided by that ancient admonishment, “To whom much is given, much is
nations have so often and so freely used their power—military, economic,
political—to expand the circle of freedom, defend the defenseless and help the
helpless. Within the Pentagon’s walls, Americans have planned peacekeeping
missions for Kosovo, Bosnia and Lebanon; humanitarian efforts to save
Berliners, Somalis, Kurds and Yazidis; rescue operations to defend Korea and
Kuwait; democracy-building missions in Haiti, Afghanistan and Iraq; the defeat
of German fascism, Japanese militarism and Soviet communism; and countless counterstrikes
short, Pope Benedict XVI was not overstating things when he asked then-Defense
Secretary Leon Panetta to deliver a message to the U.S. military: “Thank you
for helping to protect the world.”
IV. Freedom and peace cannot be
preserved without force of arms.
freedom to speak and think how we wish, the freedom to worship or not worship,
the freedom to travel from Amsterdam to Paris and anywhere in between or
beyond, all of these come at a price. These freedoms didn’t emerge by accident,
and they don’t endure by magic. They are under constant threat—and in need of
president, hoping our enemies live up to his hopes, is fond of saying that we
are “heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn
enemies into the surest of friends.” He believes not in peace through strength—a
proven policy embraced by Washington and TR, Truman and Ike, JFK and Reagan—but
in peace based on “a gradual evolution in human institutions, on a series of
concrete actions and effective agreements.” From his
perspective, Europe is “peaceful, united and
free” and the Cold War won “because ordinary people believed that divisions
could be bridged.” When the Berlin Wall crumbled, according to the president, “history proved that there is no
challenge too great for a world that stands as one.
There is nothing wrong with praising peacemakers, building institutions that
promote justice, finding common ground with our neighbors and celebrating
international cooperation—that’s the world America has tried to forge since the
end of World War II. But there is something fundamentally wrong with not
understanding that those Americans who “won the peace” first defeated our
enemies, with airbrushing the hard work of defending civilization:
Before Europe was united and free, it was scarred by Soviet
aggression. In fact, the Berlin Wall came down because the world did not stand
as one. Half of the world—the half led by America—refused to be imprisoned by
the other half and instead engaged in what President Kennedy called a “long,
President Reagan called Gorbachev a “friend,” he revived America’s
deterrent strength, waged economic warfare against the Soviet state and won the
President Truman and Secretary of State Marshall conceived a plan to rebuild
Western Europe, they vanquished two appalling regimes; rallied the war-weary
West against Moscow; and poured unprecedented sums into a standing peacetime
army to deter Stalin.
he rescued West Berlin with an armada of food-laden planes, Gen. LeMay
destroyed Hitler’s war machine with waves of warplanes.
he transformed Japan from a militarist society ruled by a god-king into a normal
nation, Gen. MacArthur waged and won a just war against Japan’s armies.
short, history shows that freedom and peace are byproducts of military
strength, which is why the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration is so
dangerous. In a time of war, the defense budget has fallen from 4.7 percent of
GDP in 2009 to 3.2 percent today—headed for just 2.8 percent by 2018. We
haven’t invested so little in defense since 1940.
to former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, today’s Army has “the
lowest readiness levels” since he entered the service 38 years ago.
Force is reducing its fleet by 286 planes. “Back when I was a young pilot
growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Gen. Herbert Carlisle of Air Force Combat
Command recalls, “we used to make fun of the Soviet Union because they only
flew 100 to 120 hours a year. That’s what our pilots are flying now.”
height of President Reagan’s buildup, the Navy boasted 594 ships. Today’s fleet
numbers 284 ships. “For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” explains
Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.”
happens when civilization’s first responder and last line of defense is unable
to respond, when its reflexes are dulled, its resources atrophied, its reach
shortened? America’s warriors may be ready to defend us, but they need the
tools to do so.
Capstones is the publication of the Sagamore Institute Center for America's Purpose, where Dowd researches and writes on America's role in the world.