As last week’s SEAL strike on Osama bin Laden continues to sink in, the military codenames given to earlier efforts to eliminate this one-man terror superpower come to mind: Operation Infinite Reach was the Pentagon’s codename for the 1998 missile attacks on bin Laden’s compound in Afghanistan and a purported chemical facility in Sudan with tenuous links to bin Laden; and the original codename for the post-9/11 campaign actually was Operation Infinite Justice—not Operation Enduring Freedom. To be sure, these codenames are just words. But set against the backdrop of the last decade—and especially last week—these words have a deep meaning that is not lost on America’s enemies.
In short, the enemy is learning that the U.S. military has staying power—and gets its man. This is an important message to get across because America’s enemies—especially bin Laden and his ilk—grew to doubt both propositions over the last few decades.
From bin Laden’s vantage point, America talked tough but seldom if ever followed through. “When tens of your solders were killed in minor battles and one American pilot was dragged in the streets of Mogadishu, you left the area carrying disappointment, humiliation, defeat and your dead with you,” he yelped. “The extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear. It was a pleasure for the heart of every Muslim and a remedy to the chests of believing nations to see you defeated in the three Islamic cities of Beirut, Aden and Mogadishu.”
For the record, he was referring to the suicide bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 Marines and forced President Reagan to abruptly pull out a U.S. peacekeeping force; the “Blackhawk Down” debacle in 1993, which ended with 18 Americans killed in an ambush, the man responsible for the ambush—Farrah Aidid—granted safe passage and U.S. forces hastily withdrawn by President Clinton; and the 2000 USS Cole attack in Aden, which claimed 17 sailors and went unanswered. Add to this list Iran’s attack on the U.S. embassy in 1979, a humiliation which was never punished or avenged, and Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which was reversed by a U.S.-led coalition but left Hussein in power and left many in the Middle East with the impression that America didn’t have the nerve to finish the job.
This is the prism through which bin Laden saw America. This is why he concluded, with a smirk, that America was a paper tiger lacking both the stomach and the staying power for the kind of war he unleashed on 9/11.
He was wrong.
Indeed, in my discussions with active-duty officers, many say the reason we had to go into Afghanistan and Iraq—boots on the ground—was not only to topple terror states like the Taliban’s Afghanistan, not only to remove regimes with the means and motives to do worse than maim Manhattan, not only to begin the long-overdue process of remaking the Middle East, not only to end the cynical realism that propped up Hussein and his kind, but to obliterate this notion that America could not or would not fight.
This is, after all, the land of fast food and FedEx. It's little wonder why the quarter-century before 9/11 was marked by a series of push-button, almost bloodless wars. In the shadow of Vietnam, each mini-war conditioned the American people to expect less blood and less sacrifice than the previous conflict. And this, in turn, conditioned enemies like bin Laden to doubt America’s resolve. For all the imperfections and mistakes of the post-9/11 campaign of campaigns, that cycle has ended—thanks to the tenacity of the U.S. military.
Once it is unfettered, the U.S. military can be the most audacious and fearsome force on earth. Japan realized that on April 18, 1942, just four months after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Doing the unthinkable, Jimmy Doolittle used Navy aircraft carriers to launch Army bombers into the skies over Tokyo. The bombers arrived in broad daylight, throwing a stunning counter-punch at Japan's once-invulnerable homeland and foreshadowing the war's devastating final blow.
When all seemed lost in Korea, Douglas MacArthur stunningly swung his troops around and behind the massive communist armies and landed some 70,000 men at Inchon. In a matter of days, they recaptured Seoul, smashed the communist invaders and reversed the momentum of the Korean War. The war would rage for another two and a half years, but South Korea's existence would never be threatened after MacArthur's daring amphibious landings.
Yet the American military's special brand of audacity doesn't always manifest itself with bullets and bombs. When Stalin tried to squeeze the allies out of Berlin by blockading the city's western half, the United States used a mix of restraint and resolve to win the first battle of the Cold War. Blending the principles of strategic bombing with the efficiency and ingenuity of the Ford assembly line, Curtis LeMay’s airmen preserved the tiny island of freedom known as West Berlin for a year. Although the Cold War would continue for decades, the Berlin Airlift laid the foundation for everything that followed—on both sides of the Iron Curtain. With the world watching, the siege and subsequent rescue of Berlin exposed the stark differences between the two postwar superpowers. One looked like a common street thug, bullying his neighbors to extort protection money. The other resembled Hercules, swooping down from Olympus to defend the defenseless.
The hard-earned victories of Task Force 121 and Task Force 5, David Petraeus and Ray Odierno, SEAL Team 6 and countless other units whose successes we may never know, now take a deserved place alongside those stories from last century. As a result, these men are rewriting the pre-9/11 narrative that America lacks the stomach to wage war and the staying power to defeat its enemies.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.