The Magazine

A Nation Mobilized

Sep 24, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 02 • By J. BOTTUM, FOR THE EDITORS
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There was much talk in Washington last week of the need for the government to reassure the nation. But it is not just reassurance the American public seeks from its leaders. To talk to people on the street, to listen to friends and relatives across the nation, is to hear something not heard in this country since Pearl Harbor. It sounds at times like the ancient pagan vengeance that would gladly slaughter its enemies and sow salt among their ruins. But that is, at last, only a weak and confused attempt to say something else—something we lack a vocabulary to express naturally these days. It has to do with honor, and it has to do with will. It is a national resolution to alter, redirect, and even surrender our lives to ensure that such evil should never again come against us.

Real war always has this effect. We have been called out of our trivial concerns. We have resigned our parts in the casual comedy of everyday existence. We live, for the first time since World War II, with a horizon once again. If only President Bush would issue the call, the recruiting offices of the armed services would be filled tomorrow. If only he would issue some call commensurate with our willingness, Americans would give freely—"The awful daring of a moment’s surrender" of ourselves to a purpose, as T.S. Eliot described it, "Which an age of prudence can never retract."

No one imagines that the United States will do nothing. But a campaign merely of long-range attacks on terrorist camps and international sanctions—a campaign of missiles and lawyers—means the end of the America we love. Not only will it aggravate, as the truncated Gulf War aggravated, the evil it is meant to eliminate, but it will fritter away, perhaps forever, the potential of Americans to join in common purpose—the potential that is the definition of a nation.

There is a task to which President Bush should call us. It is the long, expensive, and arduous war to replace the government of each nation on earth that allows terrorists to live and operate within its borders.

The origin of the attacks on Washington and New York lies in the shadow world of men seemingly without countries. When members of the Irish Republican Army are discovered in Colombia advising a Communist revolutionary group after aiding Basque separatists trained in the camps of Islamic militants, we have mostly left behind a world of nation-states and intelligible geopolitics.

But we have not entirely left it behind, for this shadow world is finally parasitic on the real world of nations. Unwilling to attack their enemies directly, certain countries gain by allowing—and simultaneously denying responsibility for—independent forces striking from within their borders. It has been this way before. For two centuries, the Ottoman Empire let pirates sail from its North African ports to harass
Europe’s Mediterranean cities. Elizabeth I used English and Dutch privateers in much the same way against the Spanish. And, in every case, the removal of the base—a change in the country from which these men without countries operate—was the only solution that could be attempted.

That solution, a war to topple and replace the governments that allow terrorism, is once again the only solution. It will prove long and difficult. American soldiers will lose their lives in the course of it, and American civilians will suffer hardships. But that, too, is what real war looks like. And in the days since the first plane smashed into the World Trade Center the American people have shown their willingness to fight it—if only our leaders will lead us there.