Capstones: First Responder and Last Line of Defense

By Alan W. Dowd, 9.8.15

By now, most of us know about the three American heroes—two of them off-duty military personnel—who foiled a terrorist attack on a packed Amsterdam-to-Paris train. Armed with an AK-47, a handgun, nine magazines of ammunition and a box cutter, the lone-wolf terrorist opened fire. Most passengers ducked for cover. But the Americans “immediately took action,” as The Washington Post reported, citing the firsthand account of a British businessman. They rushed the gunman—a Moroccan man tied to “radical Islamist movements,” according to French officials—subdued him by force and then began treating the wounded. “We just did what we had to do,” said Alek Skarlatos, an Army National Guardsman and veteran of Afghanistan. U.S. Airman Spencer Stone, who was stabbed during the attack, said the jihadist “seemed like he was ready to fight to the end.” But Stone added: “So were we.”

This is one of those microcosm moments that serve as a metaphor for much larger truths.

I. We are at war. The enemy is real. It is tenacious. And it wants to kill those who oppose its death creed.

The president may not like the term “war on terror.” He may want “to focus on nation building here at home.” He may truly believe that “It is time to turn the page on a decade of war.” But as Gen. Jim Mattis explains, “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over.” And this enemy is anything but defeated. The evidence is everywhere.

  • Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called 2014 “the most lethal year for global terrorism in the 45 years such data has been compiled.”
  • ISIS, al Qaeda, AQAP, AQIM, Boko Haram and the rest of bin Laden’s heirs are surging. There are 41 jihadist-terror groups  in 24 countries today—up from 21 groups in 18 countries in 2004.
  • Those groups are inspiring attacks like the one foiled in France, the Charlie Hebdo massacre and Marine recruiting-center shooting earlier this year, the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, and the Ft. Hood shooting in 2009.
  • ISIS is arguably stronger than al Qaeda was on 9/11. It controls more territory (34,000 square miles), commands more footsoldiers, reigns over a population of some 2 million, looks and acts like a nation-state, and has fought a U.S.-led air armada to a stalemate. Plus, ISIS is attracting a steady flow of recruits (1,000 per month) and is spreading beyond Iraq and Syria, with affiliates in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Egypt’s Sinai and Nigeria.

“The moment they cease to be fought against,” as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said of our jihadist enemies, “they grow.” And that’s what has happened as Washington has turned inward.

Well-meaning policymakers may want to define this as a law-enforcement matter, but ISIS, al Qaeda and their kind define this as a war: In 1998, Osama bin Laden called on his followers “to kill the Americans and their allies…do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians; they are all targets.” A recent ISIS statement warned Americans, “We will drown all of you in blood.”

In short, these are not drug dealers, mobsters or scofflaws. They are mass-murderers. Hence, repackaging this as something other than war—or trying to fight global terrorism with lawyers rather than warriors—is counterproductive. Indictments didn’t stop bin Laden from waging war on America. SEAL Team 6 did. Presidential addresses didn’t blunt the Islamic State’s blitzkrieg through Iraq. The U.S. Air Force and Navy did. And jobs programs didn’t thwart the Euro-rail jihadist. Overwhelming force did.

II. The world is a dangerous place. When the danger threatens us, we turn to warriors to protect us.  

John Keegan argued in his History of Warfare that “All civilizations owe their origins to the warrior.” But more than that, all civilizations owe their continued existence to the warrior.

Think about the train attack: When the terrorist took aim, three American warriors—joined by a Brit and a Frenchman—fought back. Without them, France would be reeling from another mass-murder, another assault on civilization.

The same holds true in the macro. The U.S. military provides a security umbrella to more than 50 nations, keeps the sea lanes open, polices the world’s toughest neighborhoods, and serves as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense. Foreign governments invite the U.S. onto their territory: Ukraine wants America’s help today. The Iraqi government begged America to return in 2014. In 2011, Libyans appealed to the U.S. for protection. Kosovo and Korea and Kuwait, Jordan and Japan, want U.S. troops to maintain regional stability. From Germany to Georgia, those who remember a Europe of concrete walls want U.S. forces on their soil as a hedge against Russia. And all across the Asia-Pacific region, those who fear China’s rise are strengthening their ties with America.

III. America is a force for good in the world.

America is anything but perfect, but its motives are usually good. And its people are generally guided by that ancient admonishment, “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

Few nations have so often and so freely used their power—military, economic, political—to expand the circle of freedom, defend the defenseless and help the helpless. Within the Pentagon’s walls, Americans have planned peacekeeping missions for Kosovo, Bosnia and Lebanon; humanitarian efforts to save Berliners, Somalis, Kurds and Yazidis; rescue operations to defend Korea and Kuwait; democracy-building missions in Haiti, Afghanistan and Iraq; the defeat of German fascism, Japanese militarism and Soviet communism; and countless counterstrikes against jihadism.

In short, Pope Benedict XVI was not overstating things when he asked then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to deliver a message to the U.S. military: “Thank you for helping to protect the world.”

IV. Freedom and peace cannot be preserved without force of arms.

The freedom to speak and think how we wish, the freedom to worship or not worship, the freedom to travel from Amsterdam to Paris and anywhere in between or beyond, all of these come at a price. These freedoms didn’t emerge by accident, and they don’t endure by magic. They are under constant threat—and in need of constant protection.

The president, hoping our enemies live up to his hopes, is fond of saying that we are “heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends.” He believes not in peace through strength—a proven policy embraced by Washington and TR, Truman and Ike, JFK and Reagan—but in peace based on “a gradual evolution in human institutions, on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements.” From his perspective, Europe is “peaceful, united and free” and the Cold War won “because ordinary people believed that divisions could be bridged.” When the Berlin Wall crumbled, according to the president, “history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one.”

There is nothing wrong with praising peacemakers, building institutions that promote justice, finding common ground with our neighbors and celebrating international cooperation—that’s the world America has tried to forge since the end of World War II. But there is something fundamentally wrong with not understanding that those Americans who “won the peace” first defeated our enemies, with airbrushing the hard work of defending civilization:

  • Before Europe was united and free, it was scarred by Soviet aggression. In fact, the Berlin Wall came down because the world did not stand as one. Half of the world—the half led by America—refused to be imprisoned by the other half and instead engaged in what President Kennedy called a “long, twilight struggle.”
  • Before President Reagan called Gorbachev a “friend,” he revived America’s deterrent strength, waged economic warfare against the Soviet state and won the Cold War.
  • Before President Truman and Secretary of State Marshall conceived a plan to rebuild Western Europe, they vanquished two appalling regimes; rallied the war-weary West against Moscow; and poured unprecedented sums into a standing peacetime army to deter Stalin.
  • Before he rescued West Berlin with an armada of food-laden planes, Gen. LeMay destroyed Hitler’s war machine with waves of warplanes.
  • Before he transformed Japan from a militarist society ruled by a god-king into a normal nation, Gen. MacArthur waged and won a just war against Japan’s armies.

In short, history shows that freedom and peace are byproducts of military strength, which is why the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration is so dangerous. In a time of war, the defense budget has fallen from 4.7 percent of GDP in 2009 to 3.2 percent today—headed for just 2.8 percent by 2018. We haven’t invested so little in defense since 1940.

According to former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, today’s Army has “the lowest readiness levels” since he entered the service 38 years ago.

The Air Force is reducing its fleet by 286 planes. “Back when I was a young pilot growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Gen. Herbert Carlisle of Air Force Combat Command recalls, “we used to make fun of the Soviet Union because they only flew 100 to 120 hours a year. That’s what our pilots are flying now.”

At the height of President Reagan’s buildup, the Navy boasted 594 ships. Today’s fleet numbers 284 ships. “For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” explains Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.”

What happens when civilization’s first responder and last line of defense is unable to respond, when its reflexes are dulled, its resources atrophied, its reach shortened? America’s warriors may be ready to defend us, but they need the tools to do so.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose