After Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. built a defense establishment designed to prevent another Pearl Harbor. America spent trillions of dollars spying on potential perpetrators of a surprise attack, building a security establishment to deter or defeat it, and engineering equipment to fulfill those missions.
Though the U.S. and U.S. allies suffered severe surprise attacks -- for example, Korea in 1950 and Tet (Vietnam) in 1968 -- in terms of protecting military capacities from pre-emptive attack, that effort has been successful.
We failed to protect American soil from attack, however, which is the hard shock 9-11 shares with Pearl Harbor. Sept. 11 was another egregious failure of imagination linked with dismissive assumption. Al-Qaida declared war on the U.S., but American leaders preferred to treat the threat as criminal rather than military. Violent cults waging long-term cultural and theological struggles with the terms of social and technological modernity aren’t new. Their ability to employ massively destructive power at strategic distances is, however.
Al-Qaida used jumbo jets as ICBMs; all it lacked was a nuclear weapon. U.S. strategists had wargamed suicide aircraft attacks, but the conventional wisdom labeled the plot too Hollywood. Like Pearl Harbor, post-911 attack examination revealed that U.S. intelligence agencies had clues and facts, but failed to assimilate the data into a design -- the design of an audacious enemy.
Surprise will occur, but the acme of preparedness is limiting its effects. Dispersal of forces is a commonsense military discipline, even in peace time. Neat lines of anchored battleships in Pearl Harbor are a photo op, not common sense. A violent organization that announces it has declared war on America is no mere criminal problem.
As for improving America’s imagination? Eight years ago, former CIA Director James Schlesinger said that CIA needed to recruit “people with insight.” He basically said that CIA needs to hire artists who can enter an enemy’s designing mind. That is a rare gift, one leaders must identify, encourage and reward.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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