Nearly all of us of a certain age remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news that an assassin had slain John F. Kennedy, just as our parents remembered where they were on "the date that will live in infamy." The news of the fall of the Twin Towers is similarly burned into memory. A good many of us watched, unbelieving, as the second plane sliced through the steel and concrete.
The reality seemed unreal, as if it were one of the science-fiction fantasies the special effects men of the movies do so well. It was no fantasy, but our generation's "Pearl Harbor, Live from New York." Five years after Pearl Harbor, our enemies lay at our feet, defeated in the ruins of Europe and Asia. Five years after this time, the war against the terrorists grinds on with neither victory nor respite in sight. The focus has become the "why not" rather than what must be done to win -- and to survive.
Armchair generals, hindsight experts and politicians are eager to score points against those in charge, and there's blame enough to go around. Finding fault with the leaders during a war is always tempting. The death of every soldier, sailor and Marine weighs heavily on the nation's conscience, and on the conscience of the commander in chief, too. George W. Bush can feel the presence of the ghosts of Lincoln, Wilson and FDR, of Truman, LBJ and Nixon restlessly prowling the corridors of the White House in the wee hours of the new day.
What's so frustrating about this war is that it's not like any before it. If 20th-century wars were about violent new technologies of death -- "perverted science," in Churchill's phrase -- to support evil ideologies to threaten the free civilizations, our war throws perverted religion into the mix. Never in history have so many killing instruments been available so cheap to so many free-lance warmongers. The Internet enables evil-doers to send messages of hate across national boundaries with lightning speed.
The Islamic fascists do not long for the glories of a past where Islam thrived, as in the Ottoman Empire, with theological insights into how to live the ethical life. The radical Islamic theology appeals to death, the "blessed terror." Some historians draw comparisons between the suicide bombers of Palestine and Iraq and the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II, but such comparisons are flawed. The kamikaze pilot flew in defense of an established, aggressive state, and letters and diaries recently found suggest that many were reluctant "volunteers," often forced by their commanders into cockpits which were then welded or bolted shut.
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