Today is the eighth anniversary of the day after 9/11. This newspaper being an artifact of modern printing, I am of course filing this column on the anniversary of the day itself. In my first column on the terror attacks, written on the day, for the day after, I quoted Rudyard Kipling:
"Our world has passed away, / In wantonness o'er-thrown. / There is nothing left today, / But steel and fire and stone."
It is from a poem written at the outset of the First World War. Kipling was prophetic.
That poem begins (and is entitled) For All We Have and Are. It was quite frankly a call to arms, such that the line immediately preceding the passage I quoted reads: "The Hun is at the gate." It tells Englishmen they are now at war, that they must stand and fight, and that even if everything dear to them is lost, the old Commandments stand. "In courage keep your heart, / In strength lift up your hand."
So far so "war-mongering," and I am perfectly aware that far fewer of my own contemporaries have the stomach for this kind of instruction, than had Kipling's. Part of the reason is our taught memory of that First World War. It has been presented in our schoolbooks as a great waste of lives.
It was not. The challenge to Europe of Prussian militarism was not an illusion. Germany's bid for the mastery of Europe was faced down, at terrible cost in human lives, exacerbated to be sure by terrible mistakes on the battlefields. We judge the generals only in smug hindsight, however.
The real, excruciating tragedy was that Germany, after the rise of Hitler, had to be defeated again. We're taught, falsely, to blame the "mistakes of Versailles." The implied lesson -- that we must never again impose such harsh reparations on a defeated enemy -- is nearly the opposite of the one we should have taken away.
The mistake we actually made was not pursuing that war to its conclusion, with a full invasion of Germany, to obtain an unconditional surrender. Such an invasion would have visited reciprocally on the people of Germany the experience of the people of France: the total violation of their security and dignity by German invaders; the humiliation that contributed to the pusillanimity of France in the next generation.
Germans were left with the possibility of believing that they hadn't really lost the war, that they had been somehow cheated at Versailles, that in the upshot of their military aggression they were somehow victims not perpetrators; that scores remained to be settled.
This is precisely what made the Hitler phenomenon possible in Germany. And it was the bitter experience of 1945 -- the unconditional surrender of Germany, in the ruins of Berlin -- that ultimately cleansed the German nation of militarist ambitions.
The Second World War was the unfinished business of the First World War; just as in our own time the second Iraq War was the unfinished business of the first.
Again: I know that most of my readers will flinch from such an assessment. This is the flinch that has made it impossible to pursue the unfinished business of 9/11. We have dawdled bloodily and painfully in Afghanistan and Iraq, to no foreseeable conclusion. The forces of Islamist chauvinism have not been defeated. They have instead revived, in Iran, Syria, Libya, and many other Middle Eastern nations, cowed at first by the sight of American arms. Even the Taliban have revived, to threaten Pakistan as well as Afghanistan, in the end thanks to our own pulled punches.
It is much worse than that. We have the spectacle of open co-operation between enemies of the West across ideological boundaries. We see this in the alliance between Hugo Chavez's Venezuela and Ahmadinejad's Iran; in constant significant diplomatic exchanges between all the enemies of the U.S.; in renewed Russian and Chinese malice.
And when we turn to the United States itself, we have the spectacle of the Obama administration, now seeking to prosecute the very people -- very decent people so far as I have met them myself -- who had the unwelcome job of protecting Americans from fresh domestic terror strikes. We have innumerable signals of apology and weakness from the same administration on almost every international front. And this further compounded by many naïve acts of economic self-immolation, from the extravagant bailout schemes to massively bureaucratic "health-care reform."
The U.S. is once again shrinking its military, and piling up debt -- the latter on an unprecedented scale. America's allies have meanwhile shirked their own responsibilities, leaving the U.S. to carry all bags, first in Iraq and soon in Afghanistan.
We are courting catastrophe on a scale vastly larger than 9/11.