September 26, 2001
Different call to muster
By Paul Greenberg
It is often and aptly said that the great and central mistake of generals is to fight the last war. This still new commander in chief seems determined to avoid that fatal error. From the beginning, George W. Bush has made it clear that this will be a different kind of war against a different kind of enemy, one without a clearly identified base yet supported to one degree or another by a wide and loathsome variety of accomplice governments.
To wage such a twilight war in which success may be sporadic and sometimes secret, yet must be complete, will require the one quality Americans find hardest to summon, and this is precisely the quality their president asked of a rambunctious people in his call to arms: patience.
One of the many paradoxes of this republic and empire, this peace-loving and fierce-when-attacked people, is how impatient yet enduring we can be in war. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed that paradox long ago, as he did so many of our national traits, observing that "whereas interests and tastes turn the citizens of a democracy away from war, the habits of their souls prepare them to fight it well."
Now we are asked not just to fight well but, more important, to fight intelligently, wisely, patiently. The most American of prayers may be: Lord, give us patience — right now. This will not be the kind of war Americans are best at, as we will be warned repeatedly, but we will need to be.
The task of this president last Thursday night was not to unite the American people — the dastardly nature of the attack upon us has united us far beyond the power of any speech. ("The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of the nation." — Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dec. 8, 1941.)
The task of this president, as it was Franklin Roosevelt's, is to focus our unity, to take our grief and anger that are fast melding into resolve, and concentrate it on a new kind of war and a new kind of victory. This president has begun to do just that, for in the beginning of all great endeavors is the word. And some of George W. Bush's words last Thursday evening may be remembered, like FDR's, long after we have gained the inevitable triumph:
"Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.
"I know there are struggles ahead and dangers to face. But this country will define our times, not be defined by them.
"Great harm has been done to us. We have suffered great loss. And in our grief and anger, we have found our mission and our moment."
So perhaps has George W. Bush, 43rd president of the United States and not by nature an eloquent leader. Yet there was something of the eloquence of the 40th president about his words last Thursday night, as if Ronald Reagan were still president and Peggy Noonan still speechwriting.
There is a continuity in the greatest of American leaders that their less-gifted successors echo when the occasion demands it. This occasion is piled high with difficulty, and this president begins to rise to it. The American people already have risen to it. As one.
Of course the criticism from the usual quarters began before the speech did. One of the talking heads wanted to know if this country was responding to an act of war or a crime, for the president had referred to both. This is the kind of distinction a wartime president named Abraham Lincoln would and did call a "pernicious abstraction."
What matters is that the war be prosecuted, the crime punished, victory be achieved, justice done. Any distinctions between those goals can be sorted out later, when there is time and leisure to debate whether a crime was punished or a war won — as if America could not do both.
Another critic warned that this country's response should not be "disproportionate." Huh? I can understand the grave dangers and awful injustice of an indiscriminate response, but a disproportionate one? How could any response be disproportionate to what was done Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, another date which will live in infamy? By all means, let our response be proportionate to the offense; I can think of nothing more fierce.
Then there are those who wonder why this president chose to name Osama bin Laden's gang and the Taliban who shelter it, but not Hamas and Hezbollah and the ragtag regimes that give them free rein, and use terrorism for their own purposes when it suits them.
The best answer to that question also comes from Mr. Lincoln, who early on was urged to declare war on the European powers that were encouraging the enemies of the Union. His response: "One war at time."
As for Osama bin Laden's partners in terror, even those who now piously declare their opposition to terrorism, their turn will come. Let what now happens in Afghanistan prove a model and example for terrorists of all persuasions and all localities.
Success in this endeavor will require far more than words. But words are a necessary beginning, and this president now has supplied the right ones. For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for the battle? This battle will require firepower and brainpower, force and cunning by turns, strong allies and adroit diplomacy in handling those regimes only pretending to be. But what will be required most of all is the sustained courage and true strength that is patience.
Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.Copyright 2001 The Washington Times