EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the May 23, 2005, issue of National Review.
A week and a half after the VE Day anniversary, here’s a date that will get a lot less attention: May 19, 2005. On that day, the war on terror will have outlasted America’s participation in the Second World War. In other words, the period since 9/11 will be longer than the period of time between Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the Japanese surrender in August 1945.
Does it seem that long? For the most part, no. The War on Terror has involved no major mobilization of the population at large. In contrast to Casablanca, Mrs. Miniver, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (with Anyone Else but Me),” “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” “Victory Polka,” “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” and “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Town of Berlin,” American popular culture has preferred to sit this one out, aside from Michael Moore’s crockumentaries and incoherent soundbites from every Hollywood airhead who gets invited to European film festivals. And the response of U.S. government agencies hasn’t been much better: In his testimony to the 9/11 commission, George Tenet said blithely that it would take another half-decade to rebuild the CIA’s joke of a clandestine service. In other words, three years after 9/11, he was saying he needed another five years. Imagine if FDR had turned to Tenet to start up the OSS. In 1942, he’d have told the president not to worry, we’ll have it up and running by 1950.
So, while this war may have started with the first direct assault on American territory since Pearl Harbor, it’s clearly evolved into a different kind of conflict, one in which after three and a half years it’s hard for many Americans to maintain the sense that it’s a “war” at all. By now, National Review’s British, Commonwealth, and European readers will be huffing that the Second World War wasn’t three-and-a-half years long, you idiots; it was six years, except for certain latecomers who turned up halfway through. Fair point. But if the Americans were late getting into World War II they were also late getting into the war on terror: Al Qaeda’s bombers, Saudi moneymen, and Wahhabi clerics had been trying to catch Washington’s eye for years only to be dismissed, as then-defense secretary Bill Cohen said of the attack on the USS Cole, as “not sufficiently provocative.” You’ll have to do better than that, Osama!
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