America must come to terms with a new vulnerability
Our enemies no longer need to win a war, or even a battle, to bring the nation to its knees.
West Lafayette, Ind.
All talk about "victory" and "defeat" in our current wars may actually be beside the point. Whatever happens in Iraq and Afghanistan, the vulnerability of American cities to both mass-destruction terrorism and ballistic missile attack will remain more or less unchanged.Skip to next paragraph
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Consider how different matters were in the past.
At Thermopylae, we learn from Herodotus, the Greeks suffered a terrible defeat in 480 BC. But then, Persian King Xerxes could not even contemplate the destruction of Athens until he had first secured a decisive victory.
Only after the Persian defeat of Leonidas and his heroic defending forces would the Athenians be forced to abandon Attica. Transporting themselves to the island of Salamis, the Greeks would witness the Persians burning their houses and destroying their sacred temples on the Acropolis.
Why should this ancient Greek tragedy be significant for us? Until the onset of our Atomic Age, states, city-states, and empires were essentially secure from homeland destruction unless their armies had already been defeated.
For would-be aggressors before 1945, a capacity to destroy had always required a prior capacity to win. Without a victory, intended aggressions were never really more than military intentions.
This is no longer the case. From the standpoint of ensuring any one state's national survival, the goal of preventing a classical military defeat has become secondary. The strategic implications of this transforming development are utterly far-reaching.
Lessons from Thermopylae
After suppressing revolts in Egypt and Babylonia, Xerxes was finally able to prepare for the conquest of Greece. In 480 BC, the Greeks decided to make their final defense at Thermopylae. This particular site was chosen because it offered what military commanders would call "good ground."
Here was a narrow pass between cliffs and the sea – a place where relatively small numbers of resolute troops could hold back a very large army. For a time, Leonidas, the Spartan king, was able to defend the pass with only about 7,000 men (including some 300 Spartans). But in the end, by August, Thermopylae had become the site of a great Persian victory.
For those countries currently in the cross hairs of a determined jihad – and this includes the United States, Israel, and much of Europe – there is no real need to worry about a contemporary Thermopylae. But there is considerable irony to such a "freedom from worry."
After all, from our present vantage point, preventing any form of classical military defeat will no longer assure our safety from either aggression or terrorism.