September 3, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

War is Hell

“September 11th was our generation’s Pearl Harbor.”

Sen. John Kerry, a leading Democratic presidential aspirant, recently said that. Most of his Republican colleagues would agree. Yet in both parties, there are more than a few individuals who are hesitant to acknowledge the obvious implications of such an insight, reluctant to accept that after a Pearl Harbor must come a war — with all the hell that war entails.

A war against terrorists may prove to be the most hellish war of all because the enemy, by definition, is one who recognizes no rules or limits. And in the 21st century there is the very real possibility that those terrorists may succeed in acquiring weapons that terrorists of previous centuries could not have imagined.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, at this point, we are losing about a solider a day. Every one of those deaths is a tragedy. But the toll is very low compared to World War II, or the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

After Pearl Harbor, would anyone have said that America can’t possibly sustain 365 combat-related deaths a year to defeat the Axis? Yet that is exactly what is being heard from many politicians and pundits – even those who claim to recognize that we are in the equivalent of 1942.

For perspective also consider this: Every year, 42,000 people die in accidents on America’s roads – an average of 315 deaths a day. Who would argue that such tragic carnage is unsustainable and that the U.S. must quickly find an alternative to the automobile?

Perhaps President Bush bears some blame for the impression – most widespread among his critics – that once the brief “major combat” phase of the war against Saddam Hussein’s regime was over casualties would be few and far between. Perhaps Mr. Bush left that impression when he landed on an aircraft carrier in May and declared the “mission” of topping Saddam’s regime accomplished.

But beyond the imagery, were the President’s words which should have been clear to anyone who listened. He said a “battle” had been won. He called that “a crucial advance in the campaign against terrorism.” But he added that there was still “difficult work to do in Iraq” and that there were “parts of that country that remain dangerous.” 

Did anyone seriously expect those dangers to have been pacified by the end of summer? And if Saddam did have ties to international terrorism, surely it had to be expected that terrorists would arrive to assist him and his loyalists.

What’s more, back last March, Bashar Assad, Syria’s pro-Saddam, Ba’athist dictator, threatened to turn Iraq into another Lebanon (from which U.S. forces fled after suicide bombings exactly 20 years ago). Hezbollah (the terrorist organization responsible for those 1983 bombings) also has been calling on Islamic militants to target US forces in Iraq. So too, has al Qaeda and Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia. Iran’s mullahs obviously don’t want a pro-American democracy on their doorstep.

Despite all that, members of the left/right coalition that opposed the war in Iraq are now saying they are shocked that foreign terrorists are in Iraq. Not only that: They place the blame for this predictable development squarely on the shoulders of — can you guess? — those who advocated the overthrow of Saddam as part of the war against terrorism in the first place.

 “No one believes anymore that there were ties in the beginning between the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda,” wrote the paleo-conservative Georgie Anne Geyer in the Washington Times. But now, “even U.S. generals say the old secular Saddam Huseein Ba’athists and the religious al Qaeda militants are working together.”

Among the “no ones” who would disagree with Ms. Geyer is the venerable scholar Fouad Ajami, who said: “The distinction between secular terror and the terror of religiously based movements was always a distinction without substance.”

“Before the war, hawks insisted that Iraq was a breeding ground for terrorism,” wrote the leftwing columnist Paul Krugman in The New York Times. “It wasn’t then, but it is now.”

Iraq was no breeding ground for terrorists when the Salman Pak terrorist training camp — with its Boeing 707 fuselage for training hijackers — was up and running, and Ansar al-Islam, an al Qaeda affiliate, was operating freely in northern Iraq?

“The Bush administration’s unproven allegations of Iraqi links with terrorists who threatened the United States …have become self-fulfilling,” writes the liberal Walter Pincus in the Washington Post. 

There’s not a shred of evidence to support that analysis. But even if it were true: So what? Surely, we don’t want the enemy hiding in mountain redoubts plotting acts of terrorism against civilians on the U.S. mainland. Surely, we’d prefer to have the enemy come out and fight our most skilled and trained combat troops on what was formerly enemy turf. Such a war will be hell. But it’s a hell that must be endured if we sincerely believe that these are the days following “our generation’s Pearl Harbor.”

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.