Notes & Dispatches December 2001

Councils of War

Matching confusing new realities to historical experience
More

Everything about Washington in mid-September underscored the fact that this was life in unknown territory. The eeriest reminder was the silence. I don't mean silence in some metaphorical sense—the lack of reassuring comments from President Bush in his uncertain first few days after the attacks, the absence of partisan riposte from Democrats in Congress, even the sudden scarcity of inside dope from the White House or the Pentagon, as the real decisions moved to a very small group of people keeping very close counsel. I mean the absence of sound, while National Airport remained closed for three full weeks.

When air travel was suspended nationwide for two days after the attacks, people in many areas noticed the strange emptiness of the skies. But until the weeks passed without traffic at National, it was hard to appreciate that the rumble of a low-altitude approach along the Potomac, every minute or so from seven in the morning until ten at night, is the characteristic sound of the capital. The first time I saw Washington, as part of a crowd around the Pentagon during an anti-war rally in 1967, I was surprised that even speakers with bullhorns had to stop talking when Eastern or Pan Am jets roared overhead. But through September my ears rang with the quiet—except when military helicopters flew past or fighter jets screeched through on patrol, often just before dawn.

When the second jet hit the World Trade Center and it became obvious that this was an attack, some 5,000 civilian airplanes were aloft. Within twenty minutes the Secretary of Transportation, Norman Mineta, and the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, Jane Garvey, had ordered all of them to land, so that the military could isolate any rogue planes still in the air. This quick decision and its subsequent quick implementation by the air-traffic-control system—which brought 700 planes down within four minutes and nearly 3,000 within an hour—are in retrospect impressive, and almost certainly saved lives. However careful with details federal officials were in the weeks after the attacks, they made clear their belief that several other potential hijackings had been thwarted by the rapid grounding.

The aviation authorities were operating with no historical precedent: no total grounding had previously been ordered or seriously contemplated. But they instantly came up with the right answer. Across the government many other agencies adjusted to a situation they would not have thought believable a few days before. After varying degrees of delay most of them coped. Their surprisingly effective modus operandi was to find a historical model that more or less fit current circumstances and then to figure out the appropriate lessons to draw from it.

The adjustment was notably quick at the Pentagon. Professional soldiers spend more of their time thinking about the past, after all, than any other group except historians. Even a great power is usually between wars rather than in one. People in the prime of their careers—the rising colonels or Navy captains spending a year or two at war college—divide their efforts between studying past battles and working through scenarios for future ones.

The day after the attacks members of various high-level military-strategy teams went back to work at the Pentagon, to prepare options in advance of being asked for them by the White House.

"The atmosphere here that day after was very deliberative," a member of one of the teams told me. "The phones weren't ringing. You couldn't get e-mail. Literally, the doors closed, and guys that are very smart sat down and said, 'How have things changed, and what are we going to do?' There was little talk about revenge or picking targets or just carpet bombing and waiting to see what happened. It was obviously going to be a very complicated struggle against a very shrewd and disciplined foe."

There are two contradictory clichés about old soldiers: that as they age, they become more cavalier about sending young men off to battle (the Curtis LeMay model); and that the older they get, the more cautious they become about exposing others to the real face of war (the George C. Marshall-Colin Powell model). In my observation, the second model is more common among U.S. military professionals, and its spirit seemed to prevail at the Pentagon. From the start the discussions emphasized that U.S. strategy must counter the impression that this was a war against Islam. The odd first bombing runs of October 7, in which U.S. planes dropped both laser-guided munitions and MREs ("meals ready to eat"), illustrated the planners' emphasis on a simultaneously military and humanitarian offensive. "We had the conviction that time was on our side," the team member said. "It was important not to rush. The passing days increased our options and decreased the other side's."

The military planners had plenty of historical analogies to look to. The record of the Gulf War against Iraq, a decade ago, argued for the importance of being patient while building a big coalition and amassing troops on the scene. The Clinton Administration's hasty retreat from Somalia in early 1994 suggested how upset political leaders and the public could become when American soldiers died. The NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in the late 1990s was the latest reminder that bombardment is a slow and imprecise means of achieving political objectives: the regimes you are trying to influence or overthrow can usually dig in and endure.

The planners looked further back, too—to Pearl Harbor, but in a subtler way than the rest of the country. Everyone in America was talking about Pearl Harbor just after the attacks. The obvious similarity was the total surprise of the assault, which if anything was even greater this time. The obvious difference was that we didn't know who had attacked. The immediate embrace of the Pearl Harbor image—in speeches and editorial cartoons, on news shows—revealed something not just about the event but also about the current American psyche.

I discussed this with Ernest May, a historian at Harvard who has studied the ways people use and misuse historical analogies. In the 1970s May wrote a cautionary book, "Lessons" of the Past, about the mistakes U.S. statesmen make when learning imprecisely from history. For instance, Lyndon Johnson had learned from World War II that appeasement didn't work; he was thus deeply reluctant to compromise with the North Vietnamese, and his determination to avoid another Munich led to the disaster in Vietnam. In the late 1970s Americans were still disagreeing bitterly about the causes of the debacle in Vietnam. But the lesson most had learned from Johnson—that the United States could not sustain a ground war against a guerrilla foe in Asia—made it inconceivable for his successors to commit U.S. troops in Asia when they were actually needed, to resist the murderous Khmer Rouge.

Ernest May eventually wrote, with Richard Neustadt, a prescriptive book called Thinking in Time, about ways in which people can learn from history more successfully. The essential point was that no episode in history is identical to any other, although they may share certain patterns or be linked by one's leading to another. It is important in every case to draw up a list of the resemblances to events in the past—and also a list of the differences. Ho Chi Minh resembled Hitler in being a tyrant; he differed in not seeking world domination.

This reasoning led May to wonder about the implications of the Pearl Harbor metaphor for the recent terrorist attacks. "I was interested in the extent to which the Pearl Harbor analogy popped into everyone's mind right away," he told me. "I'm not really sure it's just because of the similar element of surprise. It may also reflect the idea that this, too, would be an experience that united us. I think people were reaching for that. And in a way the most potent part of the analogy was the one behind that—the immediate definition of the event as war. That empowers a President to do things he might not do otherwise. But it is also confining, because it conjures up the image of 'victory'—an image [Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld, in particular, cautioned against."

For some at the Pentagon, Pearl Harbor represented the need to distinguish between the immediate provocation and the real enemy. "The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, but the weight of the resulting war effort was in Europe," one member of the planning team told me. "The national strategy was to maintain a free and democratic world, and Nazi Germany was the greater threat." Hitler obliged the strategists by inexplicably declaring war on the United States four days after Pearl Harbor. This time no war was declared. Not Iraq, Syria, Sudan, or the Taliban government of Afghanistan repeated Hitler's error; the Taliban authorized "holy war" on the United States only after the U.S. bombings.

The Pentagon planners began their version of what would become the central Washington war-planning debate of the first month: whether a "war on terrorism" could sensibly be confined to the al Qaeda network and its sponsors among the Taliban or whether the real enemy to be defeated was Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Four days after the attack military teams at the Pentagon presented their initial ideas to Donald Rumsfeld. The small group within the Administration which would make the final decisions gathered at Camp David.

It was soon after these meetings that the White House staff overcame its initial paralysis and began functioning effectively. On Monday, September 17, six days after the attacks and the morning after the Camp David sessions, the White House counselor Karen Hughes told Michael Gerson, of the speechwriting staff, that he had until seven that evening to produce the draft of a major address explaining the war policy. This would be an exhausting exercise, but for a speechwriter it was not a discouraging prospect. Many of the best political speeches are produced on tight deadlines, which is one reason candidates often sound more interesting on the stump, when they're improvising, than in office, when they have a bigger staff and more time. Anyone with experience writing speeches—as I did for Jimmy Carter, during the campaign and in the White House, a quarter century ago—knows that composition is the easy part. Writing designed to be heard comes more quickly than writing designed to be seen on a page, because the way you say the words in your head is close to the way the speech should come out. Also, you can worry less about logical flow or possible repetition, because you can assume that the listener will hold only about twenty or thirty seconds of the speech in mind at a time, rather than looking around on the page for consistency.

So if the writer has, say, a couple of hours, he or she has a chance of batting out an interesting draft that advances one or two main themes. A full day might be better—but not a full week, because that leaves time for the hard part: fending off the countless advisers who want to "tune" and "improve" the speech.

The political universe regards a President the way jungle plants regard the sun: everyone competes with everyone else for time, attention, support. The minutes on a President's daily schedule are the main objects of this competition, which makes the President's scheduler both influential and harried. The words coming out of a President's mouth are fought over almost as fiercely, and the more time available to work on a presidential speech, the more complex and bogged down it becomes. The extreme example is a State of the Union address: everyone in the government has a year to see it coming and to try to work in his or her favorite causes. The most enjoyable speech I was involved in with Jimmy Carter was a Law Day address he decided at the last minute to give. Carter wanted to talk about legal reforms, and he forbade any lawyers on the staff to work on the speech. That gave me a clear shot. The least enjoyable was a major foreign-policy address that was months in the making. Different factions of the government fought over each paragraph, and the result read like a Dickensian contract.

With the blessing of a tight deadline, Gerson and his associates streamlined the composition process by organizing the speech as answers to a series of questions. "Americans are asking, 'Who attacked our country?' ... Americans are asking, 'Why do they hate us?' ... Americans are asking, 'How will we fight and win this war?'"

"Americans lacked some very basic information about the nature of the forces against us," Gerson told me. "We decided in the speechwriting process to present the questions as questions. It helped organize the speech quickly, and it gave us a lot of momentum, so we could go through and answer them one by one. Unlike an inaugural, we didn't really have time to go read Woodrow Wilson on war aims, or Harry Truman on containment."

The draft appeared on Monday night; Bush worked on the speech Tuesday and Wednesday, for his big appearance on Thursday night. He apparently felt that this was his opportunity to rise to a great moment, as Rudy Giuliani had done with an accumulation of impromptu comments. The most memorable line was a late addition to the draft: "Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done." The most effective passage was one Bush worked on particularly hard. It was the ending, when he switched from the "we" of most of the speech ("We will not tire ...") to the "I" of personal commitment, and expressed confidence in the outcome: "I will not forget the wound to our country and those who inflicted it. I will not yield. I will not rest. I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people. The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war. And we know that God is not neutral between them."

"He worked on the conclusion for days," Gerson told me. "It very much embodied a vow on his part. He wanted to finish with a statement of moral confidence in ... in the makeup of the universe. Which is appropriate. He did not feel the outcome was up in the air. He wanted to do so not in a sectarian way but with a broad confidence in Providence, which is the way that American Presidents have often talked."

Read on the page, the speech may seem unexceptional—the units of thought are too short and choppy, the "Americans are asking" structure is too obvious. But it was meant to be seen and heard, which is something different, and as a performance it was tremendous.

The speech did wonders, of course, for Bush's personal standing and plausibility. It also did something less obvious but quite important: it resolved, or at least deferred, a fundamental disagreement within his Administration about war aims. The disagreement will reappear, but it did not hamper the decisions of the first month.

This disagreement, widely discussed in the press, could be described as "maximalist" versus "minimalist," or "big enemy" versus "big coalition." The maximalist, big-enemy view, most clearly expressed by the deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, is that a serious war on terrorism means attacking and overthrowing the regimes that harbor terrorists.

Although Wolfowitz had a major policy job during the first Bush Administration, as an undersecretary of defense, intellectually and spiritually he is a figure from the days of Ronald Reagan. (Under Reagan he was a State Department official and then the ambassador to Indonesia.) His tone is that of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, or the old Commentary magazine. He loves highlighting rather than papering over differences, and pushing arguments to their logical extreme. (I should say that I know and like Wolfowitz.) His current boss, Donald Rumsfeld, has a variant of the same approach. Rumsfeld, a former fighter pilot and CEO, makes the corporate big man's assumption that he'll get his way in an argument; Wolfowitz, a former professor and defense intellectual, makes the scholar's assumption that he'll win on debating points.

In the early Reagan years Wolfowitz honed his technique by arguing over the big issues of the day—nuclear weapons and arms-control strategies. Nice, normal attempts to limit the arms race, through treaties, made the world more dangerous, he said; they actually gave each side an incentive to build threatening first-strike weapons. The safest thing the United States could do for itself and the world was simply to forget about arms-control talks and build a self-defense system. This was Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, better known (and by some still loved) as Star Wars.

His current maximalist case about terrorism rests on the contention that without friendly governments to harbor them, groups like al Qaeda will no longer be major threats. Sophisticated terrorist networks can't just live like bandits in the hills. They need a haven in which to use stores and banks, buy weapons, get some rest, and feel safe from capture. Changing the regimes in sponsoring countries—principally Iraq but also Sudan, Libya, and, of course, Afghanistan—is necessary, because otherwise new terrorist networks will spring up to replace those that are eliminated. A nation as big and open as the United States can never adequately protect itself by "playing defense" against terrorist attacks—guarding every bridge and building, keeping watch on every suspicious character. So it must play an effective game of offense: that is, as Wolfowitz memorably put it at a press conference just after the attacks, it must "end states that sponsor terrorism." From the maximalist perspective, the sign of a serious military campaign would be dropping bombs on Baghdad at the same time they fell on Kabul. And we'd know the war was won when Saddam Hussein was overthrown.

The minimalist, big-coalition view—most often associated with Colin Powell—is that the United States can't afford any such sweeping crusade. Powell is, of course, far more familiar to the public than Wolfowitz, but two of his formative experiences, from which he clearly draws his own lessons, deserve emphasis. One is his service as a combat commander in Vietnam. This left him, like many other career soldiers of his generation, with the embittered conviction that the Army must never again be sent to fight a war without the support of the whole political system. His instinctive reaction to maximalist arguments would be How will the battle actually play out in Iraq? And what will the politicians say when our troops get poison-gassed?

Powell's other and less well known experience is as a skillful aide, insider, and bureaucrat. He was a White House fellow after his tour in Vietnam and first attracted Rumsfeld's notice then. (Rumsfeld was the director of the Economic Stabilization Program, and Richard Nixon's right-hand man.) He was a successful Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the very different Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He is known for his skills in negotiation and coalition building. Vice President Dick Cheney shares some of these traits, and during the Gulf War, Cheney, as Defense Secretary, and Powell together did a slow, patient job of building a huge coalition for the purpose of driving Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.

At least in the first weeks after September 11 Powell seemed to look to the Gulf War model. Strong as it is, the United States needs cooperation from the Gulf nations to solve the immediate problem of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. It needs intelligence from Pakistan, it needs overflight rights from Muslim countries, it needs the world's mullahs to refrain from calling for a jihad. Therefore it does what it did in the Gulf War. It chooses an objective so contained and specific that no reasonable country can object: catching the murderers of more than 5,000 people. And unless the United States wants to gird, Israel-like, for perpetual conflict, it does no more.

The tension between these views will, I think, affect our foreign policy for years to come, no matter which party is in the White House, much the way the specter of another Vietnam has affected military commitments by both parties in recent decades. Bush avoided exposing a split within his Administration with the artistry of his speech. His claims were strongly maximalist: "From this day forward any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime." Hostile regimes are those we may attack. But the actions following the speech were aimed specifically at al Qaeda and the Taliban, and were consistent with keeping the coalition as large and as stable as possible. The minimalist team, concentrated in Powell's State Department, was satisfied, because it was guiding day-by-day policy. And the maximalist team, whose most vocal members, apart from Wolfowitz, are conservatives outside the Administration, could tell itself that the logic of Bush's commitment would eventually lead in its direction. "All the ideas in the President's speech were maximalist," a member of the maximalist camp who is outside the government told me. "So I consider the first steps as that—first steps."

Much of the continuing interest in the way the war is prosecuted will lie in examining the varying historical experiences that are brought to bear on a novel event. Except for the President, nearly every leading member of the war-planning team played an important part in the Gulf War. The lessons of that war inevitably shape the approach to this engagement, although interpretations of them vary. Caution and patience pay off, by building a broad coalition; or caution backfires, leaving Saddam Hussein in control. Since George W. Bush was more closely involved with his father's politicking than with his foreign policy, the most vivid lesson of the Gulf War for him must be the transience of wartime popularity. His father seemed such a colossus in 1991 that Dick Gephardt and all the other "strong" Democratic candidates were afraid to run against him. Then the economy slowed down, and a year later he watched his father lose to Bill Clinton.

Ernest May's latest book, Strange Victory, is about the Nazis' lightning conquest of France in 1940. May told me he thinks of that, too, as a useful analogy: "The Germans thought very hard about what were the procedural vulnerabilities on the other side. How the way they did things made them vulnerable. Obviously, that's been done to us in this case."

May started running through other precedents and parallels—for instance, the way Tom Ridge's new Office of Homeland Security resembles efforts by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to straighten out bureaucratic snarls during World War II. But then he cautioned against spending too much time in this pursuit. "One of the functions of historical analogy is to try to give you a sense of the contours of a situation that is otherwise unfamiliar," he told me. "Because this situation is so unfamiliar, you've seen more of the analogies and 'lessons' than you usually get. But that will recede as it becomes more familiar."

Carl M. Cannon, Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., James Kitfield, Mark Murray, Alexis Simendinger, and Peter H. Stone, of the National Journal staff, contributed to the reporting of this article.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Remote Warehouse Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Elsewhere on the web

Video

Where the Wild Things Go

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Adults Need Playtime Too

When was the last time you played your favorite childhood game?

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In