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The New Meaning of War
by J. F. Kelly, Jr. [writer] 5/16/06

The motion picture “United 93” is causing many Americans to recall where they happened to be on Sep. 11, 2001 when Islamic terrorists commandeered four commercial airliners and succeeded in flying two of them into the World Trade Center’s twin towers and a third into the Pentagon. These attacks on innocent American civilians caused more deaths than the equally infamous sneak attack on Pearl Harbor sixty years before.

Following the Pearl Harbor attack, which killed mostly military personnel, a grim and determined President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked for and received from Congress a declaration of war against Japan and her allies. After the 9/11 attack, an equally grim and determined President George W. Bush asked for and received from Congress the authority to attack the terrorists responsible and those who sheltered or supported them wherever they might be. There was no formal declaration of war because our enemies were not nations but rather terrorist organizations, receiving broad support from various sources in the Arab and Muslim world, intent on killing westerners, especially Americans and Jews, in the name of Allah.

J.F. Kelly, Jr.

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

What exists today, then, is an undeclared war against terrorists and Americans are greatly divided about how to fight it. We have, in fact, struggled to understand how to fight undeclared wars since the last “real” war ended in 1946. The inconclusive outcomes of these undeclared wars—Korea, Vietnam, Iraq—, in spite of large sacrifices in American lives and treasure, illustrate the peril of entering into such wars without a clear intention of utterly defeating our enemy and winning unconditionally.

In the process of fighting undeclared wars, the very meaning of war has grown fuzzy. We trivialize the term by applying it loosely and metaphorically to such things as the “war” on drugs and the “war” on poverty, efforts also lacking a real determination to commit the resources necessary to decisively win, thus producing the same inconclusive outcomes. Is it possible that Americans no longer know how to win a war?

My wife and I happened to be in Skagway, Alaska on Sep. 11, 2001. As we watched the awful images on TV, we grappled with what the attacks foretold and how the country would respond. Days later, sitting in a Vancouver hotel room, waiting for flights to resume so that we could return home, we read the news accounts and listened to the angry speeches on TV. A common reaction, along with anger, was that the terrorists must “be brought to justice”. Whose justice, I wondered? Do they deserve our justice? In a real war, terrorists who participated in deadly attacks on innocent non-combatants would not “be brought to justice”, at least not the genteel brand of justice reserved for American civilians. Most of them would be hunted down and slain, hopefully before they struck again. Those who insisted upon surrendering would be swiftly tried by military tribunals.

Alas, this is not a “real” war, lip service to the contrary. Post-WW II Americans and Europeans, conditioned by decades of political correctness, multiculturalism and guilt over their relative prosperity, have grown soft and magnanimous. When attacked, we look first to find fault within ourselves. If people hate us, it must be because we were insensitive to their values and we have only to reach out to them to eventually win their hearts and minds. To execute terrorists would be barbaric. We are better than that. They deserve the same justice that we enjoy, no matter what. That’s the moral high road. It’s what makes us different from them

Unfortunately, it’s also what makes us more vulnerable. American-style justice presumes innocence, whatever the initial circumstances, until proven guilty which, in the case of 9/11 terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, took approximately four years and millions of dollars, much of which he spent mocking American values and justice. American justice favors the defendant by providing him the benefit of the doubt, free counsel if needed and almost unlimited opportunities for appeal. It operates under the generous principle that it is better to let many guilty parties go free than to wrongfully convict one.

Terrorists, bent on destroying us, will happily exploit this system and use it, as Moussaoui did, to promote the terrorists’ cause and heap contempt on America. After the court heard the now-standard testimony regarding difficult childhood, abusive upbringing, lack of self-esteem, etc., the jury predictably sentenced him, not to death, but to life in prison where, as the saying goes, he will supposedly rot in prison forever.

Not likely. Instead, he will receive free room, board, air conditioning, medical care and freedom from taxes and responsibilities for the rest of his life, at considerable expense to the taxpayers. Keeping him alive, moreover, may well result in hostages being taken by other terrorists and held for his ransom. He will perhaps, become a celebrated legend in the perverted world of terrorists. This, then, is how American justice treats terrorists because, of course, we are better than them.

Defiant to the end, Moussaoui shouted at his sentencing that he won and America lost. He has a point. In the words of Andrew C. McCarthy, who led the federal prosecution against the dozen terrorists involved in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, “This is no way to fight a war”. ONE

copyright 2006 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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