The World Trade Center war

Posted: Sep 02, 2003 12:00 AM

For digesting news accounts of Iraqi chaos, what background accompaniment might be suitable? Here's a suggestion: the 1,800 pages of freshly released radio transcripts from the World Trade Center, Sept. 11, 2001. Snatches of dialogue such as these:

Christina Olender, assistant manager of Windows on the World: "The fresh air is going down fast! I'm not exaggerating. ... Can we break a window?"

A man on the 103rd floor of the north tower: "People stuck in the stairway. Open up the goddamn doors."

Frank De Martini, the Port Authority of New York's construction manager, working to evacuate victims: "Express elevators are going to collapse."

An unidentified male voice: "We're on the 88th floor. We're kind of trapped up here, and the smoke is, uh, is ... "

A police sergeant to a captain, as the south tower collapses: "Oh, my God."

None of this had to happen. It resulted from an unprovoked attack on innocent American civilians by cutthroats whose extinction in the civilian airliners they commandeered was, if anything, too easy for them. It resulted from malignant and repeated preaching against the United States and from the crazed reception of that crazed preaching. It happened not quite two years ago, and the war that began that day goes on.

That is the only possible context for talking about our present perplexities in Iraq -- a war won, yet not won completely, one in which moral degenerates continue killing the innocent, precisely as on the first day of combat, two years ago.

Getting a handle on this war -- whether as civilian consumers of news or as military planners -- has proved difficult simply because never before was there a war such as this. In the traditional model of warfare, state vied with state or tribe with tribe. Armies and navies fought more or less straightforward battles. At length, one side or the other prevailed. That was generally it.

Not even the Vietnam War offers appropriate parallels with the World Trade Center War, as we might call it. From start to finish, those lavishly lauded "freedom fighters," the Viet Cong, were backed and supplied by a more or less traditional state, Soviet-allied North Vietnam. Not so the stateless terrorists who live and strike in the darkness. Nothing in the style of warfare to which they introduced us on Sept. 11 is clear-cut. That was their purpose. It was what they meant.

At some point, things will start to break our way, if only because guerrillas, even the fruit-cakiest of them, cannot sustain themselves indefinitely against what Robert E. Lee, at Appomattox, called "overwhelming numbers and resources." Only an explicit decision by the United States to tuck tail and run could deliver Iraq back to the Baathists and similar riffraff. It is somehow comforting to know that even Howard Dean rejects this expedient.

There is a trick to this thing in the meantime -- a trick of the eyes. It involves looking around and noting the context in which present events go forward. Properly digested, the upcoming commemoration of Sept. 11 will amply confirm what we are about in Iraq.

And that thing is ... what? This, at bottom: ensuring that innocent Americans in office towers or airplanes never again find themselves set upon by homicidal maniacs howling for the heads of the "infidels." There are subsidiary purposes to the Iraq war. This is the main one -- sticking it to the America haters or, anyway, those who translate America hating into policy and action.

Nothing is neat and impeccably rational in this new kind of war, whose victims include not just the Qusays and Udays but also, presumably, some Iraqis who wouldn't have known the World Trade Center from the Tower of Babel. Who could like it this way? Who could suggest a milder way of, so to speak, clearing the streets of the murder gangs?

The murder gangs can be faceless, as with Al Qaeda, or they can pretend, like the former Baghdad regime, to the traits of organized society -- for which reason judging who hates us and then evaluating how to respond can be hideously hard.

As to the alternative, though, which is refusing to judge: "Hard" isn't the word for that. "Suicidal" is the word. The World Trade Center transcripts drive home this point with unforgettable force.