National Security & Defense

Are We Willing to Pay the Price of Victory?

Radical Islam is beatable, but it will cost us in blood and treasure.

On December 7, 1941, while Japanese aircraft were strafing Bellows Field in Hawaii, Second Lieutenant George Whiteman attempted to take off in his P-40B Warhawk fighter in order to engage the enemy.

His plane was attacked as he was taking off; Lieutenant Whiteman was struck by machine-gun fire, lost control of his aircraft, and was killed in the ensuing crash. He was the first American pilot to die in aerial combat in World War II.

When the news reached his family that night – they lived in Sedalia, Mo., – his mother was interviewed by the local paper. Lieutenant Whiteman, the eldest of ten children, had been very proud to serve in the Army Air Corps, and his mother was proud of him. Mrs. Whiteman gave the newspaper a photograph of her son sitting in an aircraft. He had written three words on the photo: “Lucky, lucky me.”

She told the newspaper: “It’s hard to believe. It might have happened anytime, anywhere. We’ve got to sacrifice loved ones if we want to win this war.”

The United States hadn’t yet declared war on Japan. But Mrs. Whiteman knew what was coming, knew what was at stake, and knew the sacrifice that winning would demand.

We are in a war now too, with Islamic terrorism, and it’s sometimes hard to tell whether Americans are willing to acknowledge the sacrifices we’ll need to make.

On our side is most of the world, including most of the Islamic world, which believes, albeit for different reasons and to different degrees, that human beings have some measure of dignity and should have some measure of security. The enemy is a group of people motivated by the ancient totalitarian impulse to grind their boots in the faces of everyone else.

They are, in relative terms, small in number, but the danger they represent is disproportionate to their size, because they believe fanatically that God has sanctioned their cause and will reward them in the next life for the atrocities they commit in this one.

The United States and the other developed democracies are vulnerable in this war. Our societies are networks – financial, transportation, communications, and social – on which our lives and our way of life depends. Those networks depend on a level of social trust in their efficacy, yet they are linked through nodes that are easy to attack and hard to defend — a strategic weakness that the enemy is determined to exploit.

Seventeen innocent people were killed in the recent attacks in France, and a serious blow was struck against freedom of speech. But it could have been far worse. There are asymmetric weapons – biological agents, nuclear devices, dirty bombs — that can kill thousands of people and render cities uninhabitable. Our enemy has the organizational sophistication and capability to acquire these weapons. They are trying to acquire them, and if they do, they will use them without scruple if they believe it advances their cause.

We will not win this war by marching in the streets or launching Twitter campaigns. To win, everyone across the political spectrum will have to make victory the priority, and making something a priority means being willing to sacrifice other things of importance to achieve it.

Relatively few of us will have to sacrifice as much as George Whiteman or his mother, but we will all have to challenge our assumptions in light of the conflict.

Conservatives must be willing to spend money on the tools of power and preparation, even if it means disturbing their deficit projections and their ten-year budget plans. Liberals must be willing to abandon some of their notions about multicultural equality and the progress of human nature in the 21st century. Libertarians must recognize that for the purposes of this conflict, the CIA and NSA and FBI are not the enemy, but are instead the agents we depend on to engage the enemy in defense of our homeland. 

There are difficult operations ahead. America will have to be involved in places — such as Libya, Nigeria, and Yemen – that otherwise we would not much care about, because the enemy trains, recruits, and plans to attack us from those places. We must seek alliances with countries and peoples whose values we do not otherwise share. We must exhibit a degree of ruthlessness foreign to our nature in capturing and interrogating and killing the enemy. And we will have to do this consistently over time even when we are weary of doing it and would rather the conflict go away.

We need to be mindful of the war in choosing our leaders, and – because administrations of both parties will probably be in power during the war — there will be times when all of us must, on issues relating to the conflict, give the benefit of any reasonable doubt to leaders we did not vote for and oppose in other respects.

It is well within our capacity to win this war. In numbers, and material terms, we are much stronger than the enemy. But to this point they have been more purposeful and more motivated, and for that reason they are defeating us despite our strengths. In 2004, there were 21 Islamic terrorist groups in 18 countries. Today there are 41 Islamic terrorist groups in 24 countries.

On August 24, 1955, ten years after World War II had been won and 14 years after George Whiteman died, the Air Force Chief of Staff informed his mother that Sedalia Air Force Base would be renamed Whiteman Air Force Base. It was a tribute to her son, and indirectly to her – a recognition that they both had the courage and clarity to understand, and pay, the price of victory.

Do we?

— Jim Talent is a former U.S. senator for Missouri. He is a senior fellow and director of the National Security 2020 Project for the American Enterprise Institute.

Jim Talent, as a former U.S. senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower Subcommittee and is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute.

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