Washington — The autumn war now enters a new phase. With Marines on the ground in Afghanistan, with the Taliban in flight and with al-Qaida in range if not exactly in America's crosshairs, the war on terrorism has reached a perilous intersection.
Before long, the character of the struggle will be defined. Until this week it has been a war of words (eloquent turns of phrase from a president whose great gift was considered to be his personality, not his perspective), and then of aerial assault (the relatively safe combat of pilots who knew they would sleep in their Missouri beds that evening).
Now the prospect of substantial casualties is real.
Until now it has been somebody else's boots on the rugged mountainous terrain of Afghanistan (native combatants who knew the difference between Kunduz and Kandahar before mid-October and who have known the mountain passes since their youth). Now the tread on the soldiers' soles reads "Made in America."
Until now, talk of the postwar world has been full of the rhetoric of justice (this may be the first feminist war, conducted in part to free women from the fetters of their male oppressors) and the talk of safety (American soldiers massed on carriers and in Central Asia to permit Americans to stroll safely through malls and down the aisles of jetliners). Now the talk turns to legalisms and the legacy of this war.
That is the most sobering element of this period of cautious joy, brought on both by the onset of the holidays and the apparent success of allied military action. There have been victory celebrations before; a decade later, the gashes caused by the triumphant parade of Humvees through the capital at the conclusion of the Gulf War still have not been repaired on Washington's K Street. The deep impressions, crossed every day by the strategists of this new war, are reminders of the difficulties ahead.
Because the most important question of the war in the new period is the shape of the peace. This is easy to ignore amid the dramatic footage from the front and the retro romance spawned by the startling sight, once considered a quaint memory of past struggles and past virtue, of men on horseback.
But past struggles and virtue also remind us of past folly.
World War I was conducted out of high idealism about the only thing most Americans know about it is the determination to make the world safe for democracy but the terrible carnage was followed by terrible miscalculations. Abroad the punitive peace of Paris provided the tinder for resentment and inflation in conquered Germany, eventually fueling the resentments and inflated sense of grandeur of a subaltern named Hitler. At home, an ailing president, Woodrow Wilson, clung not wisely but too well to his dream of a League of Nations and repeatedly missed opportunities for compromise; his failure shaped the next decade of American politics and diplomacy.
World War II was a noble struggle against tyranny and evil, but from its triumph rose a Cold War that warped the economies, politics and cultures of both Soviet Russia and the United States. For its part, the Gulf War provided the overture to the current struggle; the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia is one of the factors that goaded Osama bin Laden into a life of exile and extremism.
Americans, to be sure, are still at war and may be for some time. Even the Bush administration hasn't determined the next venue of the struggle against terror.
Perhaps it will be Iraq, where some elements of the administration believe the United States has unfinished business. Perhaps it will be in other redoubts of al-Qaida, which American authorities have argued has footholds in five dozen nations, not simply Afghanistan, its base.
For the forgotten part of the war of terrorism is not the effort to combat it but the effort to prevent it.
American troops may hasten the fall of Kandahar. The hunt for al-Qaida warriors and for their chief commander may eventually succeed. But they are only the perpetrators of terror, not its preconditions. Once military officers and their civilian leaders complete their work, the hard work of the war against terrorism must soon begin. It starts with an examination of the causes of terrorism and the will to address them in the State Department with the determination that the Pentagon has shown in its mission to fight the terrorists themselves.
David Shribman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.