Civilization's Reluctant Warrior - America and the War on Terror

Article excerpt

Alan W. Dowd is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis. His work appears in The World & I, Policy Review, the Washington Times, Jerusalem Post, American Legion Magazine, Indianapolis Star, Intellectual Capital, and other publications.

I have lived through a period when one looked forward, as we do now, with anxiety and uncertainty to what would happen in the future," Winston Churchill sighed in February 1934, reflecting on the Great War and contemplating an even greater war. "Suddenly something did happen-- tremendous, swift, overpowering, irresistible." Sixty-eight winters later, with the carnage of September 11 behind us and the chaos of a strange new war ahead of us, we can relate well to Churchill's feelings of uncertainty and angst.

After being saturated with news and images about the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, our information-hungry society has been left with the very opposite when it comes to the early counterstrikes of this war on terror. And we can expect more of the same as the war progresses. As President Bush blandly explained in a letter to Congress, "It is not possible to predict the scope and duration of these deployments [or] the actions necessary to counter the terrorist threat to the United States." His advisers and war cabinet talk of an invisible, unconventional war. Echoing the president, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sprinkles his speeches with words like "shadowy ... nuanced ... subtle." In his own words, the battle plan crafted for the war on terror is "distinctly different from prior efforts."

Of course, we didn't need to be told this war would be different. That much was clear at precisely 8:48 a.m. on September 11, when the first of four airliners became a guided missile and slammed into the World Trade Center's north tower. But if the methods and tactics of this war are different, the objectives are not. This first war of the twenty- first century, like the great wars of the twentieth century, is a battle for civilization itself. And as before, the United States is reluctantly marching to the front.

WHAT IS CIVILIZATION?

It may be helpful to define what civilization is and what it is not before considering how it has been defended over the last hundred years. Indeed, one person's civilization is another's Philistia. (Of course, even the Philistines achieved a kind of civilization, which emphasizes my point.)

Contrary to popular opinion, civilization is not necessarily found where there is Bach or Rembrandt, running water or power grids, interstate highways or Internet access. These things and others may be the byproducts of civilization, but they are not the signs of civilization. Nor is their absence necessarily an indicator of barbarism. Civilization is at once much more and much less than the trappings of modernity. It is the intangible, not the material, that separates the civilized world from the barbaric. It is what motivates a culture or society or group that determines whether it is a part of civilization or an enemy of civilization. Consider the authors of September 11, for example. They possessed vast stores of creativity, exhibited remarkable sophistication, mastered the tools of civilization and modernity, and yet conceived and executed an act of unthinkable barbarism. To paraphrase Churchill's assessment of the Nazis, the men who carried out the homicidal hijackings and suicidal mass murders of September 11 spliced togther "the latest refinements of science [with] the cruelties of the Stone Age."

Some of them were educated at the great institutions of higher learning in Europe and America. They were polyglots and world travelers, speaking Arabic, German, and English, while living in Hamburg and Cairo and Boston. They had all the trappings of wealth, relied on computers and cell phones, and were trained to fly the most modern of jet aircraft, but they were anything but civilized. Thousands of their kind still roam the earth. …