Washington Great events make great presidents, and George W. Bush has his event. The terrorist attack on the United States is the most horrific tragedy to unfold on American soil since the Civil War. The Bush administration will be tested and defined by this terrible act.
The most significant development is the overnight change the attack brought in our thinking about military casualties. Ever since the end of the Vietnam War, Americans have imposed upon their political leaders a fear of sending service people into harm's way.
Americans have always placed a high value on human life, and the loss of one person military or civilian is appropriately viewed as a tragedy. But the military exists to protect the nation. It exists to protect the civilian population, and a reluctance to use it can have terrible consequences.
As a result, except for the Gulf War, all of America's military actions since Vietnam have been surgical in nature, designed to achieve objectives with the least number of casualties always an appropriate goal. But, in the course of such thinking, we have come to place objectives and casualties on the same plane.
In fact, anticipated casualties must be a factor in deciding whether or not a given objective is worth the cost. The question is whether, since Vietnam, America has been willing to properly assess those objectives and costs.
Then came the Gulf War in 1991. Saddam Hussein was running amok, and Middle Eastern oil resources were threatened. Americans were braced to expect between 30,000 and 50,000 casualties albeit, we considered our numerous advantages and wrote at the time: "The war will last as long as it takes a tank to drive to Baghdad, and American casualties will be under 500." In fact, 143 American lives were lost in the war because our allies and we employed overwhelming force backed by technologically superior weaponry.
In the 10 years since that war, America fell back into its casualty-averse attitude, only to witness the loss of thousands of lives mostly civilian on Sept.11. Suddenly, America was awakened. Now America will do what it should have done years ago. It will root out the terrorists and their governmental sponsors at the source. Americans will accept the prospect of military casualties because the objective requires it. The problem is that the objective required it before Sept. 11.
We can hope and pray for the young men and women who are about to risk their lives for us and our nation's future, but we must see this thing through. It is time to stamp out terrorism, whether it originates from Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria or Libya. It is time to bring an end to the threats posed by Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Moammar Khadaffy. And we are going to lose brave people in the process. The alternatives including terrorist attacks with chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons are too gruesome to contemplate.