Attacks on U.S. Soil
With David Halberstam
Journalist and Author
Friday, Sept. 14, 2001; 11:30 a.m. EDT
Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, in a horrific series of events two hijacked planes hit and destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center, one plane crashed into the Pentagon and another in Somerset County, Pa. Thousands are presumed dead or injured as emergency services and relief workers continue to make sense of the chaotic scenes. The FBI and authorities across the country continue to track down those responsible for the crimes.
David Halberstam, journalist and author of a new book, "War In a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals," (Scribner, 2001) was online Friday, Sept. 14 to talk about Tuesday's attacks and the changes and formation of U.S. foreign and military policy in the 21st century.
Halberstam is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of "The Best & the Brightest," a chronicle of the men who planned and executed American policy in Vietnam. rise of The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and CBS, and portraits of the men and women who built them and made them run. He is also author of several other books, including "The Powers That Be"; "The Children"; "October 1964"; and "The Fifties."
The transcript follows.
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washingtonpost.com: Good morning, Mr. Halberstam, and thanks for joining us. Despite the calls to action from Congress and the president, we're still dealing in large part with an enemy we can't see and at the moment we can't track. Can you speak to this, and any similarities the U.S. military faced in Vietnam? And what might be the differences between warfare and military action in the past versus the 21st century?
David Halberstam: Essentially our military in World War II and Korea had been trained and equipped to fight a comparable army of a comparable developed nation. In Vietnam, by and large, although there were occasional main force unit battles. Essentially it was the power of a the most developed society in the world against a society where the main implement of agriculture was the water buffalo.
This is a highly developed society with enormously sophisticated instruments of war, as we showed in the Gulf War and even more in Bosnia and Kosovo. But the question is the applicability of our traditional instruments of war against an enemy that is driven by this kind of idea, has a willingness to die and does not present a very natural target. We are in some ways a much easier target for them, despite our wealth, than they are for us. And that's a very hard thing for a rich, developed superpower to understand -- that our very strength makes us vulnerable. Our strength makes us a target, and it's hard to respond. There's a danger that if we use our power carelessly, if we just bomb away, then we're doing their recruiting and passing the burden on to our children.
One of the things that was much more done in the French-Indochina War: a French patrol would go through a village where many of the people were on the fence in the struggle. A Viet Minh solder would kill one French soldier. The French would then open up on the entire village, killing all kinds of people. The French would then leave the village that night, at 6 o'clock, and at 7 o'clock the Viet Minh would arrive to recruit the children of those who had been killed. That's something we need to be very aware of: to apply power not just with strength, but with wisdom. And we need to be very careful about that.
I think this is the first step of a new kind of war. But it is a long, prolonged struggle. It demands wisdom, patience, a durable attention span and I'm reminded of John Kennedy's phrase, "a long twilight struggle." We can't, no matter how much we upgrade our security, we're going to be vulnerable and we're going to remain vulnerable because we're an open society. But we can make it infinitely more difficult for those who are our enemies. And we can prevent them, I hope from having days like Tuesday. But we are not immune; there are no immunities, and we have to understand that.
Dallas, Tex.: Mr. Halberstam,
As we consider our military options in response to Tuesday's attack, how can we ensure victory over a enemy who is both difficult to find and considers the fight against the U.S. as a holy war?
Can anyone ever win a war of religion or belief?
David Halberstam: I think the word "win" is the maybe the wrong word, in the sense of "winning" World War II. We can be a great deal more effective against terrorism, we can squeeze appropriately some of the nations who have trained and harbored terrorists. The level of sophistication that was used in the attacks on Tuesday was not out of some little base camp in the Afghani mountains -- there was obviously intelligence at work. You cannot ensure victory completely, but you can make it much much harder for them to train and much much harder for them to operate and execute. We cannot close off our vulnerabilities entirely.
I think you can do this with high attention span, with a media that is professional and a government, because the media is giving more scrutiny, that is operating better. But it's not going to happen with a media that are TV celebrity feather merchants who are more concerned about Nicole and Tom than they are about foreign policy.
There's a scene in my book when Bill Clinton's just been elected, hasn't yet been inaugurated and he's going to get briefed by committee chairs, asking them what their problems were. [Rep.] Lee Hamilton [R-Ind.] said well, Mr. President, you've got China, you've got these foreign policy issues, and there will always be some people for you and some against you. And Clinton says, "Lee, I've been out campaigning for a year and no one cares about foreign policy except six journalists." Clinton didn't think there were any votes in it. He was going to put his energy into where the votes were and what was going to get covered on the domestic agenda, and so it got downgraded. Robert Kagan said, "When you're president, you don't find foreign policy. It finds you."
What is possible, if we are lucky, is that whatever terrorist group that did this may have been too successful for its own good. It may have finally woken us up to the idea that we are no longer invulnerable. In the past, the incidents of terrorism were more sporadic, and we were able to think that this does not apply to us. In fact, the bell has been tolling for us for a long time.
Bethesda, Md.: There's been a lot of discussion about the possible involvement of Iraq and Saddam Hussein in this week's attacks. Do you think that's likely? Should we have done more during the Gulf War to incapacitate or destroy him?
David Halberstam: I think it's a very very good time to be careful, and to be extremely precise and to act accordingly.
For all the talk by the media critical of the intelligence agencies over the last two or three days, I think the intelligence agencies have been more knowledgeable about some of the sources of sponsorship of terrorism than we have been willing to act on it, because the political constituency for action has not been there. I think there's been a fair amount of evidence -- I'm not an expert on it -- that there's been some real knowledge. But I think the willingness to act on it has been marginal because the political base for it has been more marginal.
Chantilly, Va.: David: Thank you for joining this chat.
How do we avoid "the making of a quagmire"?
David Halberstam: I think be strong, be wise, be patient. Know who the forces allied against you are, act in concert with other nations, do not rush to easy acts of counter vengeance.
washingtonpost.com: Your new book examines warfare and military and foreign policy after the Cold War. What would a U.S. operation in a "war on terrorism" look like? What do the people who make the decisions and plan the military movement need to keep in mind?
David Halberstam: I think the thing they need to keep in mind is going for a real enemy that is really sworn to be against you, and that the number of people who believe in a jihad are really a small minority. Not to do their recruiting for them by indiscriminate bombing, and to understand that the Arab world is not a monolith. It's not a conflict between the Judeo-Christian world and the Arab world; it's a struggle between the forces of modernity and the forces that want to go back to a dark world. People like bin Laden want us to lash back in such a crude or clumsy way so we do their recruiting for them, and pass this on to our children.
Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: There hasn't been much finger pointing at Congress -- intelligence and justice oversight, the FBI, CIA, and White House for the miserable lack of resolve up to now at stamping out the viper's nest of world-organized terror. Will these power wielders get a formal and public comeuppance once the sanctimony, grief, and outrage has played out? After all, they get all the money. The intelligent and rational have to hold them all at least partially responsible for Tuesday's insanity. Thanks much.
David Halberstam: I think we get the kind of intelligence services we deserve. If we're on automatic pilot, if the focus of the American public is that we don't have to pay attention to foreign policy, your intelligence services will perform comparably. The more attention the public pays, the more scrutiny it demands by being involved, the better the debate it demands in its elections on issues of foreign policy, the more we are going to upgrade the quality and attention and the scrutiny of the intelligence services. It's probably true that these people are better than you think, that they work harder, and that it's really hard. The more you get away from the U.S. and into the Middle East, the magnetic field of our power and our intelligence operations weakens. It's also probably true that we've become a little too dependent on high-tech intelligence. Because it's the kind of thing we do so well and we're better than anybody in the world at it, it's the kind of thing we tend to reinforce. We don't do the other so well.
I don't want to get partisan, but if we are debating and allocating resources and we have limits in how much we can spend on intelligence and defense, this brings up the issue of the missile shield, which seems to me to be a high-tech Maginot Line. The Maginot Line, if we remember, in 1940, would have been a great defensive shield against the Germans if the Germans had not had in their war plans and instruments airplanes and tanks, but unfortunately they did. What it seems to me that this shows is that the missile shield protects us against countries against whom we already have significant retaliatory capacity, and in no way protects us from the new threat against whom we are trying to figure out what our effective retaliatory capacity is.
If we had had the missile shield on Tuesday, would it have helped? No. It just seems to me that there are other ways to go in order to be strong.
Washington, D.C.: What's your assessment of Colin Powell and Dick Cheney's skills?
David Halberstam: I like Colin Powell very much -- I think he's a very good man, a very decent man; careful. Thoughtful.
I don't know Dick Cheney as well, but my instinct was going back to the Gulf War is that he's very careful. I hope the government will not be in a rush to lash out. I think the American people at this moment will trust the government -- if the government says we're going to take our time and make sure we get the right people, not the wrong people, and it's going to take a long time and we're going to squeeze them, I think the American people will trust them.
I think the American people will respond the way their government asks them to. I have a great faith in the strength and the resilience in the American people. One of the things about totalitarian groups -- and I would include the terrorists in this -- going back to Germany in 1941, Japan in 1941, the Soviets in the Cold War and Slobodan Milosevic, is the tendency to see democracies as being weak and decadent. They don't understand that we have other things on our agenda, and we didn't get to be this strong by being decadent. The people who built those buildings are not decadent. The people who built New York are not decadent. The people who go to work every day in this terrible time and work hard every day are not decadent. And the firemen who rushed into that building on Tuesday even as everyone else was fleeing are not decadent. I think they underestimate how strong this country is, but it takes a long time to gear that up. Think back to Pearl Harbor -- I think the draft passed by one vote.
Washington, D.C.: Is there any foreign policy expert or adviser who isn't in the current administration who you wish were there?
David Halberstam: I think Dick Holbrooke's been very good. I think he came out of the Clinton administration as the ablest of people.
But I have tremendous respect for Colin Powell. He's very good.
Boston, Mass.: Thinking about the national mood right now, what strikes you as the most comparable past moment? The days after the attack on Pearl Harbor? Or is this somehow different?
David Halberstam: I was 7 years old at the time, so I wasn't up on taking the national mood, but I remember being in first or second grade and going down into the bomb shelters.
There is such a sign of rallying, and that was an easy thing to rally to. The rest of the world was at war, and we had been on the brink of it. It was a more traditional act of war.
The mood is very comparable. The difference will be in sustaining it. Right now you have that comparable sense of unity, that comparable sense of strength. The images on your screen. The difficulty right now is sustaining that mood of strength. An impatient nation -- will we continue to pay attention, will we have that nice, slow burning fuse? If we have a change in our policy in the Middle East, we will be willing to pay an extra dollar for gas, for example? Will we too eager to getting back to our own lives? Will we make hard decisions as opposed to easy ones?
washingtonpost.com: Why did you write this last book?
David Halberstam: I was bothered by how trivial the agenda was for a great power. That we had this illusion that we could be a monopoly superpower and pay no attention to the rest of the world, and that life was going to be easy and safe when we all knew that it wasn't going to be.
Arlington, Va.: Mr. Halberstam... are we setting ourselves up for a protracted engagement? Will this be another Vietnam?
David Halberstam: It's a protracted engagement. In Vietnam, we by mistake ended up fighting the wrong war, at the wrong time, in the wrong place for the wrong reason, based on tragic miscalculations from the Cold War. And we got ourselves impaled in what was a war for independence and what was a colonial war there.
This is different. We didn't seek this. It sought us. Is it going to be a long, protracted struggle? Yes. Do we have a choice? No.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the
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