The atmosphere these days is marked by the same mists that those who were in Paris and Berlin in 1938 can still recall. The air was heavy with ominous feelings that war was about to burst on Europe, like a violent autumn storm, with jagged lightning and clattering thunder.
The whole continent was in denial. There would be peace, there had to be peace.
But there was not going to be peace. One could feel it in the air.
It feels like 1938 all over again.
I was only five years old then, but I remember still the dread in the voices of adults. When our little radio reported at the beginning of September, 1939, that the Nazi tanks had (at last) rolled into Poland, in defiance of disarmament treaties, peace treaties, and every other kind of treaty, my father sat me down near the empty fireplace and said: “Remember this day. It will change your whole life. The world will never be the same again.”
We were living in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, at the time and had just moved into a new home — one that my father, many years before, had improbably told his fiancée, later my mother, that they would one day live in. There were boxes, packed and unpacked, strewn all over the large living room. It was my father’s tone of voice that impressed me most. His eyes suggested much that was then unknown, and I saw in them an intimation of how awful the war might become. He was only 28, and could imagine his own conscription.
From then on, I collected little news stories and photos from magazines, and eventually I put them in a scrapbook. I especially remember plotting, from 1944 on, the advance of the Allied troops through France after D-Day. (My cousin Gene was over there, and my dad’s best friend, Mickey Yuhas, was killed by a bullet through the head in the Battle of the Bulge just at Christmas time.) The gold and silver stars newly affixed to the little banners in every family’s front window told of rising numbers of dead and wounded.
Well, the danger to our country in 2006 is even greater than it was in 1938, in at least one respect: The destruction may well be borne into our midst not by armies, air forces, or ships, but by suicidal individual terrorists. Self-defense is a little bit like screening out mosquitoes and hornets when you can’t help opening the doors on which they gather. Every so often, one slips in. And this new enemy wants to convert us to Islam by force, with guns at our heads and knives on our necks, to make sure we understand that from now on we practice perfect submission.
As I see it, the congressional election of 2006 is about one, and only one, issue: It is a vote for victory, or for defeat. There is no middle ground.
Like many others, I have been following closely the words of our enemies. President Bush recited many of them in his speech on September 6: bin Laden, Zarqawi, Zawahiri. They have all seen Iraq as the central battle in this Third World War (counting the Cold War, it is the Fourth). They have said the whole Islamofascist dream of a Universal Caliphate, holding all of humankind in submission, hinges on this battle.
They are willing to wager everything in Baghdad and its surroundings. Either they will reap glory, triumph, and sure victory in Iraq, having humiliated the proud United States and shown what a phony it is — or they themselves will be deflated, humiliated, and put on the ashbin of this century. Here is where the line has been drawn.
Our enemies understand media campaigns, which have a high priority in their strategic plans, and they know the weaknesses and sentimentalities of our society, and how to turn them against our own leadership. They play critics of the war like violins. The only way they can win is through psychological warfare, by way of the media. (Why is the only story out of Iraq each day a bombing that kills six, when there are more murders than that each night in a group of a half-dozen cities or so in the U.S.? Our enemies count on that. They want the drip, drip, drip of American blood, because they think we do not have the moral toughness to stand it.)
We are testing whether what bin Laden said six years ago is true — that people around the world see the difference between a strong horse and a weak horse, and will passionately side with the first, and have contempt for the other.
Opponents of the war in Iraq may opine that it has no relation to the war on terror, and that our retreat from Iraq will even help us in the war on terror.
Their views may be honorable, but our enemies have declared Iraq to be the decisive battlefield. That makes it so.
And if we had to choose a single battlefield in the region at which to bait our enemies, Iraq is by far one of the two best. But whatever the strategic reasons for choosing Iraq, the reality today is that our enemies have taken the bait. Destroyed there, they will be humiliated, and enter the next decade the contemptible weak horse that they have unrealistically dreamed that others might be.
The enemies of the United States always underestimate the courage and determination of the people of the United States. Too bad. They pay a big price for that.
– Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.