Recently, I was asked to look at the recent events through the lens of
military history. I have joined the cast of thousands who have written an
"open letter to Americans."
14 September, 2001
Dear friends and fellow Americans,
Like everyone else in this great country, I am reeling from last week's
attack on our sovereignty. But unlike some, I am not reeling from
surprise. As a career soldier and a student and teacher of military
history, I have a different perspective and I think you should hear it.
This war will be won or lost by the American citizens, not diplomats,
politicians or soldiers. Let me briefly explain. In spite of what the
media, and even our own government is telling us, this act was not
committed by a group of mentally deranged fanatics. To dismiss them as
such would be among the gravest of mistakes. This attack was committed by
a ferocious, intelligent and dedicated adversary. Don't take this the
wrong way. I don't admire these men and I deplore their tactics, but I
respect their capabilities. The many parallels that have been made with
the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor are apropos. Not only because it was
a brilliant sneak attack against a complacent America, but also because
we may well be pulling our new adversaries out of caves 30 years after we
think this war is over, just like my father's generation had to do with
the formidable Japanese in the years following WW II.
These men hate the United States with all of their being, and we must not
underestimate the power of their moral commitment. Napoleon, perhaps the
world's greatest combination of soldier and statesman, stated that moral
is to the physical as three is to one. Patton thought the Frenchman
underestimated its importance and said moral conviction was five times
more important in battle than physical strength. Our enemies are willing
-- better said anxious -- to give their lives for their cause. How
committed are we America? And for how long?
In addition to demonstrating great moral conviction, the recent attack
demonstrated a mastery of some of the basic fundamentals of warfare
to most military officers worldwide, namely simplicity, security and
surprise. When I first heard rumors that some of these men may have been
trained at our own Air War College, it made perfect sense to me. This was
not a random act of violence, and we can expect the same sort of military
competence to be displayed in the battle to come. This war will escalate,
with a good portion of it happening right here in the good ol' U.S. of A.
These men will not go easily into the night. They do not fear us. We
must not fear them.
In spite of our overwhelming conventional strength as the world's only
superpower (a truly silly term), we are the underdog in this fight. As
you listen to the carefully scripted rhetoric designed to prepare us for
the march for war, please realize that America is not equipped or
seriously trained for the battle ahead. To be certain, our soldiers are
much better than the enemy, and we have some excellent counter-terrorist
organizations, but they are mostly trained for hostage rescues, airfield
seizures, or the occasional body snatch, (which may come in handy). We
will be fighting a war of annihilation, because if their early efforts
are any indication, our enemy is ready and willing to die to the last
man. Eradicating the enemy will be costly and time consuming. They have
already deployed their forces in as many as 20 countries, and are likely
living the lives of everyday citizens.
Simply put, our soldiers will be tasked with a search and destroy mission
on multiple foreign landscapes, and the public must be patient and
supportive until the strategy and tactics can be worked out. For the most
part, our military is still in the process of redefining itself and is
presided over by men and women who grew up with - and were promoted
because they excelled in - Cold War doctrine, strategy and tactics. This
will not be linear warfare, there will be no clear centers of gravity to
strike with high technology weapons. Our vast technological edge will
certainly be helpful, but it will not be decisive. Perhaps the perfect
metaphor for the coming battle was introduced by the terrorists
themselves aboard the hijacked aircraft -- this will be a knife fight,
and it will be won or lost by the ingenuity and will of citizens and
soldiers, not by software or smart bombs.
We must also be patient with our military leaders.
Unlike Americans who are eager to put this messy time behind us, our
adversaries have time on their side, and they will use it. They plan to
fight a battle of attrition, hoping to drag the battle out until the
American public loses its will to fight. This might be difficult to
believe in this euphoric time of flag waving and patriotism, but it is
acknowledged that America lacks the stomach for a long fight. We need
only look as far back as Vietnam, when North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen
Giap (also a military history teacher) defeated the United States of
America without ever winning a major tactical battle. American soldiers
who marched to war cheered on by flag waving Americans in 1965 were
reviled and spat upon less than three years later when they returned.
Although we hope that Usama Bin Laden is no Giap, he is certain to
understand and employ the concept. We can expect not only large doses of
pain like the recent attacks, but also less audacious sand in the gears
tactics, ranging from livestock infestations to attacks at water supplies
and power distribution facilities. These attacks are designed to hit us
in our comfort zone forcing the average American to pay more and play
less and eventually eroding our resolve. But it can only work if we let
it. It is clear to me that the will of the American citizenry - you and I
- is the center of gravity the enemy has targeted. It will be the fulcrum
upon which victory or defeat will turn. He believes us to be soft,
impatient, and self-centered. He may be right, but if so, we must change.
The Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz, (the most often quoted and
least read military theorist in history), says that there is a remarkable
trinity of war that is composed of the (1) will of the people, (2) the
political leadership of the government, and (3) the chance and
probability that plays out on the field of battle, in that order.
Every American citizen was in the crosshairs of last Tuesday's attack,
not just those that were unfortunate enough to be in the World Trade
Center or Pentagon. The will of the American people will decide this war.
If we are to win, it will be because we have what it takes to persevere
through a few more hits, learn from our mistakes, improvise, and adapt.
If we can do that, we will eventually prevail.
Everyone I've talked to in the past few days has shared a common
frustration, saying in one form or another, "I just wish I could do
something!" You are already doing it. Just keep faith in America, and
continue to support your President and military, and the outcome is
certain. If we fail to do so, the outcome is equally certain. God Bless
Dr. Tony Kern, Lt Col, USAF (Ret)
Former Director of Military History, USAF Academy
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