Notes & Dispatches December 2001

Councils of War

Matching confusing new realities to historical experience

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.

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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.

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