Magazine article History Today

What Happened Then. (Frontline)

Magazine article History Today

What Happened Then. (Frontline)

Article excerpt

AFTER WE ALL HAD WATCHED endless ghastly replays of the World Trade Center crashing to the ground and listened to the chaotic, breaking news of September 11th until the wave of unimaginable horrors had passed, one urgent task was to find language with which to make sense of what had occurred, and what would happen next. The immediate, universal sense that the world had changed utterly was accompanied by a groping for historical analogies with which to map out the frightening new world into which we had been thrust.

We often claim, in general terms, that `what happened then, matters now'. But in the aftermath of September 11th, specific responses were needed to the question: `of everything that's happened in the past, which events are the ones that matter the most now?'

It was probably inevitable, given the, conjunction of an unforeseen attack from the air and kamikaze pilots (and the film recently in our multiplexes), that the first analogy to spring to President Bush's mind would be Pearl Harbor, but his consequent declaration of unlimited war on the hidden enemy soon appeared simplistic. Others sought parallels elsewhere: they included June-August 1914 (surely one to give even the most hawkish pause for thought), and the bombing of USS Maine in Havana in 1898. But the limitations of such analogies were soon clear: 2001's conjunction of events was obviously unique.

When thought turned to the appropriate response to the outrages, however, history had more useful dimensions to offer. The US had been in a remarkably similar situation, curiously, exactly two hundred years ago against the corsairs of Tripoli and Tunis who had harrassed American shipping, attacked American citizens and forced the young Republic to pay them tribute. And Jefferson's unlikely military action against the Barbary pirates of the North African coast eventually paid off. Meanwhile, all sorts of other past actions against dispersed enemies in hostile terrain -- the French and Indian War of the mid-18th century, as well as more recent engagements -- were dusted down by strategists and military planners anxious to ensure old and unnecessary mistakes were not repeated.

Once the attention had been fixed on Afghanistan, the world's policy-makers were repeatedly reminded of the many failed invasions of that country by Great Powers in the past. It is now a commonplace -- though still a chilling one -- that the only people to conquer that country have been Alexander the Great (so ruthlessly that his name was until recently apparently invoked by Afghan mothers as a bogeyman for naughty children) and Genghis Khan, who `pacified' the country by building a tower from the skulls of 20,000 inhabitants of Herat. …

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