9/11 was the most effective single military operation in the history of the world

With a single strike al Qaeda changed the course of the world’s hegemonic state, by many measures the most powerful nation (relative to its time) that the world has ever seen. They did this at a negligible cost in money and manpower — never have so few changed so many with so little effort. Our counter-strikes have damaged or crippled al Qaeda, but its leaders may see al Qaeda as the vanguard of their movement, not its body — and hence expendable.

Osama Bin Laden

9/11 changed the course of America in terms of both internal and external policy, changing both in ways almost certainly inimical to our long-term strength and prosperity. Al Qaeda manipulated America as a matador does with a bull, waving a cape to so that the bull charges into position for the thrust of the sword.

Update: The comments show that I was not clear. This is not a decisive battle, where thousands fight to determine the fate of nations. This is a dozen guys with box cutters deliberately setting out to change the course of a nation – and succeeding. The multiple of force to effect is astonishing, beyond anything I can think of in history.

These were “super-empowered individuals” not because of what they did — planes crash, buildings burn, life goes on — but because of what we did afterwards. The leverage came not from their actions but through our reaction.

As RJH said in the comments:  “The purpose of an action is the reaction.”

Ahead of the pack (as usual) in seeing this, Tom Engelhardt discusses al Qaeda’s triumph in “Kiss American Security Goodbye: 15 Numbers That Add Up to an Age of Insecurity, 15 May 2008 — Excerpt:

The principle behind Tai Chi stayed with me — that you could multiply the force of an act by giving way before the force of others; that a smaller person could use the strength of a bigger one against him.

Now, jump to September 11, 2001 and its aftermath — and you know the Tai Chi version of history from there. Think of it as a grim cosmic joke — that the 9/11 attacks, as apocalyptic as they looked, were anything but. The true disasters followed and the wounds were largely self-inflicted, as the most militarily powerful nation on the planet used its own force to disable itself.

Before that fateful day, the Bush administration had considered terrorism, Osama bin Laden, and al-Qaeda subjects for suckers and wusses. What they were intent on was pouring money into developing an elaborate boondoggle of a missile defense system against future nuclear attacks by rogue states. Those Cold War high frontiersmen (and women) couldn’t get enough of the idea of missiling up. That, after all, was where the money and the fun seemed to be. Nuclear was where the big boys — the nation states — played. “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S….,” the CIA told the President that August. Yawn.

After 9/11, of course, George W. Bush and his top advisors almost instantly launched their crusade against Islam and then their various wars, all under the rubric of the Global War on Terror. (As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pungently put the matter that September, “We have a choice — either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or to change the way that they live; and we chose the latter.”)

By then, they were already heading out to “drain the swamp” of evil doers, 60 countries worth of them, if necessary. Meanwhile, they moved quickly to fight the last battle at home, the one just over, by squandering vast sums on an American Maginot Line of security. The porous new Department of Homeland Security, the NSA, the FBI, and other acronymic agencies were to lock down, surveil, and listen in on America. All this to prevent “the next 9/11.”

In the process, they would treat bin Laden’s scattered al-Qaeda network as if it were the Nazi or Soviet war machine (even comically dubbing his followers “Islamofascists”). In the blinking of an eye, and in the rubble of two enormous buildings in downtown Manhattan, bin Laden and his cronies had morphed from nobodies into supermen, a veritable Legion of Doom. (There was a curious parallel to this transformation in World War II. Before Pearl Harbor, American experts had considered the Japanese — as historian John Dower so vividly documented in his book War Without Mercy — bucktoothed, near-sighted military incompetents whose war planes were barely capable of flight. On December 8, 1941, they suddenly became a race of invincible supermen without, in the American imagination, ever passing through a human incarnation.)

When, in October 2001, Congress passed the Patriot Act, and an Office of Homeland Security (which, in 2002, became a “department”) was established, it was welcome to the era of homeland insecurity. From then on, every major building, landmark, amusement park, petting zoo, flea market, popcorn stand, and toll booth anywhere in the country would be touted as a potential target for terrorists and in need of protection. Every police department from Arkansas to Ohio would be in desperate need of anti-terror funding. And why not, when the terrorists loomed so monstrously large, were so apocalyptically capable, and wanted so very badly to destroy our way of life? No wonder that, in the 2006 NationalAsset Database, compiled by the Department of Homeland Security, the state of Indiana, “with 8,591 potential terrorist targets, had 50 percent more listed sites than New York (5,687) and more than twice as many as California (3,212), ranking the state the most target-rich place in the nation.”

About the author

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years. To catch an audio interview in which he discusses our airborne assassins, click here.

For more information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about al Qaeda, about bin Laden, about jihad, and especially these…

  1. The Fight for Islamic Hearts and Minds.
  2. A look at al Qaeda, the long war — and us.
  3. How I learned to stop worrying and love Fourth Generation War. We can win at this game.
  4. We are the attackers in the Clash of Civilizations. We’re winning.
  5. Handicapping the clash of civilizations: bet on the West to win big.


27 thoughts on “9/11 was the most effective single military operation in the history of the world”

  1. I’ve got a tough competitor:

    Some backward, quite overtly criminal guerillas convinced the worlds’ mightiest alliance to fight a war of aggression for them and to give them Kosovo. Plus they enjoy protection and subsidies till today.
    The most impressive info war campaign that I can think of. None of Sun Tzus sayings came even close to this.

    What OBL did had a huge design fault; it turned powers against him almost as much as against themselves. The Albanians receive support from us till today.

    Fabius Maximus replies: First, the “guerillas” (I doubt that is correct) convincing the US to help them is not a military operation in any usual sense of the word.

    Second, consider two events. The first repainted the borders in a small, volatile part of the world — an event soon forgotten by everybody else. The second might feature in every history of this era written for many generations. The two do not seem comparable imo.

  2. If it’s not, then it’s certainly up there with the battle of Yarmuk, where another tiny Arab force defeated a massive veteran Byzantine army, which allowed the Caliphate to take all those lands that are today, collectively the Arab world.

    Also, I concur with Sven on the subject of Kosovo. But, I still say the Yarmuk campaign may be even greater. 25,000 + 4000 dead = all the millions of the Maghreb, Palestine, Syria and Egypt until the end of time.

    Fabius Maximus replies: This is not a decisive battle, where thousands fight to determine the fate of nations. That’s a different debate. This is a dozen guys with box cutters deliberately setting out to change the course of a nation — and succeeding. The multiple of force to effect is astonishing, beyond anything I can think of in history. Super-empowered individuals, indeed.

  3. OBL has another non-state actor with big results from a limited op:

    Gavrilo Princip and his five fellow terrorists/freedom fighters used a crude bomb to disrupt a motorcade and a handful of bullets and plunged Europe into World War I. One of the outcomes was a Yugoslavia – with a dominant (if not totally so) Serb component, a major goal of Princip’s group.

    Blowback from this “successful” op: Roughly 20 million dead by war’s end, destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, fall of the German Kaiser, ending of the Romanovs and the metastisizing of Communism in Russia, chemical warfare, destruction of European social and cultural norms with unknown and untold effects, and countless other horrible after-effects, culminating in WWII.
    Fabius Maximus replies: This would qualify if they were attempting to start WWI, as al Qaeda was attempting to weaken the US. Creating a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia is not quite in the same league.

  4. “This is a dozen guys with box cutters deliberately setting out to change the course of a nation – and succeeding. The multiple of force to effect is astonishing, beyond anything I can think of in history.”

    A better counter-example would be that actor type [1].

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wilkes_Booth

    Fabius Maximus replies: Killing Lincoln had large effects, including a punative “reconstruction” of the South. I meant effective in the usual sense, obtaining a desired end. As a sourthern loyalst, this was the opposite of what he desired.

  5. Given the deaths from WW I, I think the assassination in Serbia was militarily more effective. The US reactions are large, but they only seem “too much” based on undefined criteria. How many deaths would there need to be in the US to justify the changes?

    If #deaths is not the right metric, what is?

    The 1993 World Trade Center attack, including the unreported cyanide (?), did not change the superpower — which left the US open to the 9/11 attack. It is easily predictable that if preventative measures are taken, and are successful in stopping terrorists from using WMDs against a city, there will be an outcry claiming such preventative measures are too much.

    At the same time, Bush haters trot out: “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S….,” the CIA told the President that August. Yawn
    This CIA info is not very actionable — especially considering the Wall between internal and external intel sharing created by Dems (and not opposed so strongly by Rep — until after 9/11).

    The biggest threat to the US internally is constantly increasing gov’t size, especially seen by gov’t spending and promises of future spending. Those soon to be retiring baby boomers. It wasn’t 9/11 that stopped meaningful reform of Social Security, it was the Dems who always know that any problem can be fixed by higher taxes on the rich.

    The near-term threat is a shortage of oil. The kind that’s in the ground off the US coasts, and in the ground in Alaska — but the Dems want to keep it in the ground. Admittedly I would prefer more nuclear power stations, both here and in India and China, but also more solar power (covered carports?) and wind power farms, with gov’t subsidies based on employment info. As unemployment goes up, subsidies for solar and wind should automatically go up.

    We need gov’t by rules, and discussion of what makes the optimum rules.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Yes, WWI was a much larger event. I meant “effective” in the usual sense, as accomplishing a desired end. WWI was not a desired result of killing the Archduke.

  6. I’d probably agree with FM.

    But to play devil’s advocate, 9/11’s lead to an increase in the influence and organization of Shiites, and of Iran. Al Qaeda can’t be happy about that.

    And Al Qaeda and any of the other jihadist groups are not going to accomplish their primary goal: a unified Islamic superstate. So they’ve done a lot, but given what all of this bringing down the US and combating western influence is supposed to be in the service of, an Islamic superstate, I think that from their point of view this will turn out to be a lot of sound and fury.

    Fabius Maximus replies: Great point — the second order effects of 9/11 are — as usual — probably not what al Qaeda expected. No uprisings by Sunni masses; massive power gain by Shiite-dominated States.

  7. Al Qaeda manipulated America as a matador does with a bull, waving a cape to so that the bull charges into position for the thrust of the sword.

    A better metaphor – or, indeed apparently a workable analogy – can be derived from the “swarm” discussions that John Robb occasionally posts.

    This posits that many groups, actually as a form of self defense, manifest swarm, herd-like behavior. Hence by forming a herd, cattle for example, make it difficult for wolves or other such predators to target any one of them.

    The problem with this herd-formation strategy, as our neolithic ancestors discovered, is that while it is too difficult to focus upon the behavior of any individual member of the herd, it is quite possible to manipulate the herd as a whole. Henc they would drive herds over the cliff.

    By analogy, the United States was a herd that, because of the 9/11 shock, was driven over the cliff into Iraq. ( Or was driven into a bog, to make the analogy more precise. ) 9/11 provoked the deeply ingrained Pearl Harbor mythos in the American psyche; causing us to act along WWII lines. All of which was entirely predictable and utterly inappropriate under the circumstances.

  8. Borrowing From Literature, I see similarities in 1812 Russian Campaign and Kutuzov/Napoleon symmetric Behaviours.

    Kutuzov decided a strategy virtually alone, criticized by all Russian Army Majors and the Czar himself. But his strategy was perfect, Napoleon was taken in a trap.

    1 – Kutuzov’s behaviour Changed his World
    2 – Napoleon acted as Bush, They both belevied only in the power of the army.
    Unlikely for Russia and France, some hundred thousand people died in between

    I’m basing on Tolstoi Historic framework. Ciao

    Fabius Maximus replies: As above, my comment was in a different context than that of generals and armies, clashes of which changed the direction of history many times. There were no armies on 9/11, just a few men with box cutters.

    I find it odd that that this difference is so difficult for folks to see. A nice demonstration of our difficulty of understanding how modern warfare has changed.

  9. A brief Amendment (I considered it obvious, but i prefer to specify in order to avoid Homeland security dept attentions).

    Very Big difference between 1812 and 2001:
    Russians were the Good Guys
    Americans are the good Guys.

  10. An oldie that I used then (while watching the Pentagon burn) and now is from insurgency training:

    “The purpose of an action is the reaction.”

    Back then it was the more traditional sniper on a school building, where the unprepared patrol/ protectors put themselves in the position of a) be killed, or b) kill dozens of innocent school children. Both paths are defeats. This style does depend upon your opponents placing themselves in that vulnerable position, but this has always happened when your opponent does not consider the consequences of their actions.

    In other situations you use phrases like “Seven generations”, as in think through the consequences of action and reaction for seven cycles of likely outcomes. It requires putting yourself in your opponents shoes. This has been anathema to the Neo-Cons, et al. To put yourself in their shoes you must truly grasp that they are ordinary people with human motivations and feelings just like you. They disagree (violently) with your motives and goals, and they have motives and goals of their own. You need to understand and accept their goals sufficiently to predict their likely reactions. If you read Qutb or any of the more recent takfiri writers you see that they do this. You might not like or agree with their explanation for Western behavior, but it does give reasonable predictions.

    So when fighting the takfiri go to seven generations, understanding that they also go to seven generations, and understanding that they are misled by the takfiri view of the West, and act in ways that lead to their defeat.

    Fabius Maximus replies: Wonderfully said! I will add that to the post.

  11. Do we realy believe that this rag-tag organization, created and funded by the CIA, envisaged and planned this event just as it happened? Even if they do exist, and had no outside help, how could they have forseen, or even desired, that the US would subsequently invade Iraq? As someone noted above, that has only resulted in elevating Shia Iran to power.

    Fabius original point can only be taken as an example of the irony of history, the coincidence of a very small actor with very small means with a large historical force (the Bush cabal and the American empire) operating on a wholly different level of means and ends. The significant thing about 9-11 is not the startling achievement of a rag-tag band of outlaws, but the hysterical response of a global hegemon.

    Fabius Maximus replies: I totally agree with your last point. That the CIA “created and funded” al Qaeda is disputed. See the Wikipedia for a summary of the debate.

  12. Robert Petersen

    The discussion is interesting, but honestly…it is too early to tell. I am pretty sure back in 1969 some intelligent people thought that the Vietnam War was the most important war ever. Today hardly anyone thinks about the war (except as a faint memory or when they watch “Platoon”). Today the war on terror might seem as a very important conflict, but we can only tell its importance when the dust has settled. Everything depends on how George Bush’s successor will handle things. If he is good the American empire might survive a few more decades. If he is as bad as Bush and the American empire ends then 9/11 was truly a strategic masterstroke of the weak.

    Fabius Maximus replies: The consequences of 9/11 go far beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Do you believe that President Obama will shrink the Homeland Security Department, or repeal the Patriot Act and the many other important but hidden Legislative and Executive initiatives that have significantly restricted our freedom (the seeds have been planted, although their full fruit is not yet visible to everyone).

    Even worse IMO is to conflate our freedoms and Republic with survival of the American Empire. In fact they may be opposites, the health of one innimical to the other.

    As for your opening point, of course it is too early to tell. That is why this is a debate. Once we know the answer, all we can do is cry.

  13. I’ll bet Fabius has a theory about the causes of big shifts in global power. Napoleons and Hitlers don’t just come along, they are somehow called for by the needs of their times.

    In any case, obviously there is a huge shift of global power going on at the present, in which Asia and parts of the Third World are replacing the West as dominant economic actors. Possibly, in order for this shift to occur, the West (or America, particularly) has to simultaneously destroy itself in some compulsive action, such as the hallucinatory war on terror.

    Blowback is a helpful concept here, since it posits a causal connection between our actions (our global strategies) and their unintended consequences. Possibly the West could have kept its dominant position in the world for awhile longer, if it had proceeded less greedily, but it seems too late for all that now.

  14. You guys are smoked. There is no way 19 cavedwellers with laptops and box cutters pulled off 9-11. OBL is still not wanted for 9-11. See his FBI wanted poster here, where he is NOT wanted for 9-11. http://www.fbi.gov/wanted/topten/fugitives/laden.htm

    This is just one of over 300 “coincidences” that makes up the “Official” story, and I think “story” is the best description. The US has a long history of false flag operations in the past that has been declassified, what would make you think it did not happen on 9-11?

    Hundreds of witnesses claiming “explosives” in the wtc’s.

    The BBC reported building 7 collapsed 26 minuets before it fell, Pretty good fortune telling here on that one. Read and Actualy watch the video here.

    America needs to wake up before there is no America to wake up to. We have completed the 10 steps to a fascist takeover already. Watch this: “The BBC’s ‘WTC 7 Collapsed At 4:54 p.m.’ Videos

    You can be an honest unbeliever or a dishonest unbeliever. The difference is if you will dismiss it without even investigating.

    Fabius Maximus replies: The ten steps Marlin refers to is from this: “Fascist America, in 10 easy steps“, Naomi Wolf, The Guardian (24 April 2007) — “From Hitler to Pinochet and beyond, history shows there are certain steps that any would-be dictator must take to destroy constitutional freedoms. George Bush and his administration seem to be taking them all.” It is a thought-provoking article. More interesting than this somewhat typical bit of Bush-bashing: keep track of how many of these things are reversed in the Obama Administration.

    As for 9/11, it is unfortunately true that there are many anomalies in the official story. The 9/11 Commission, despite its length, answered astonishingly few of these — and in a slipshod fashion. Private efforts seem to have had as the primary goal branding any questions as crazy or illegitimate. The best-known of these is “Debunking the 9/11 Myths: Special Report“, Popular Mechanics (March 2005), which avoided the important anomalies and misstated several of the ones examined.

    But these are just anomalies. That we have so little interest in these questions might be more serious than the answer. But history is full of such things, including President Kennedy’s death. By definition we do not know enough to draw conclusions. This is where folks like Marlin lose their audience, filling in the blank spaces with theories — often wild theories.

  15. Non linear feedback (ref climate post). The timing was exquisite, -5 years and the reaction would have been different, +5 years different again.

    The key was the rise of the neo-cons. Note that the Bush Govt (this is well documented) when they came into power killed anti AQ studies and activities. They (again well documented) started studying attacking Iraq.

    You had a section in the elite of the US starting to worry about oil, relative economic decline (vis a vis EU and China) and they scented an opportunity. The USSR has collapsed, the EU and China were bent on making money. There were many economic competitors .. but no miltary ones (China, e.g has not started its growth in military spending at that time, following Mais’s maxim that it was a chimera). ‘Full spectrum Dominance’ came out before 9/11.

    The neo-con dogma was perfect for their ears, use that great military to colonise a poor, militarily weak, nation. Plus control the ME, in 20 years when all the oil left is there, who controls that controls the World. But there had to be a rational. The US public (who are basically far smarter than their leaders) would not support that, quite logically would rather that money being spent on them and the US economy.

    Then came 9/11. Perfect moment to impliment their plans .. and they did (again well documented). And the neo-cons won. Their beliefs (whacko as they are) are now the dominant beliefs of the US elite. Worked out well (dripping sarcasm here).

    But, BL got everthing he wanted (well except an attack on Iran which he hates .. but he is hoping, also Hezbollah thumped the Israelis which is why AQ has declared war on Hezbollah). He probably nearly had an orgasm when Hussain was executed.

    He was a very rich man, he knows the West, especially the US, he knows the politics, he knows the weaknesses. He has stated his strategy in public – bankrupt the US by bringing it into unwinnable conflicts (the neo-cons go “Duh lets do what he wants”).

    So BL goes to that great pantheon of military strategists that have achieved every goal set. A short list, no Germans there, in recent times only Allan Brook and Stalin come close.

  16. In fact, with less than 5000 US casualties, and Iraq well on the path to becoming a multi-ethnic Majority Arab young democracy, Iraq is becoming a pretty good success.

    To those who think otherwise, I’d like any documentation of a BETTER success at creating an Arab majority country that is a functioning democracy. Of course, compared to a Hollywood film, reality doesn’t look as good as Return of the Jedi.

    Once we know the answer, all we can do is cry.
    Should the USA get out of Vietnam? Question for 1972? (voter answer, NO!) for 1974? (Dem Congress answer, Yes!) for 1975 (after N. Viet commie violation of Paris Peace Accords)? (Dems, Yes, stay out!)

    I cry over the the boat people, the re-education camps, and especially The Killing Fields. But it seems that few anti-war (Vietnam) folk do. Why is that?

    If Pres. Obama creates defeat for democracy in Iraq, when the ME Killing Fields start, I’ll cry over it. But I won’t have voted for it.

    And when Tel Aviv is nuked, and there is a huge nuke retaliation, I’ll also cry — as well as accuse all the pro-Obama folk of willful ignorance about the much higher likelihood (50% instead of 20%? 0.5% instead of 0.2%? There is no law of large numbers here, only Bayesian prior distributions) of terrorists getting nukes.

    (With already a couple of comments here, I’d like to express sincere thanks for a thoughtful blog to mostly disagree with.)

    Fabius Maximus replies: Here is an archive of my articles on the Iraq War, in which I discuss these things at some length. Most importantly the factor seldom mentioned by pro-war folks: the cost. I doubt even full success, in terms of the White House Victory Conditions and the Congressional Benchmarks (neither of which reflect our real goals, imo), would be worth the cost.

    “Iraq well on the path to becoming a multi-ethnic Majority Arab young democracy.” Perhaps, but there is little evidence of this (Saddham held elections, too). As indicated by leaks about the proposed Status of Forces Agreement, our vision of Iraq is a neo-colonial one — in keeping with our actions to date.

    I hope you meant to write “If Tel Aviv is nuked”. Unless you are the hidden power behind “The Psychic Hotline.”

  17. @Tom; my threshold for a successful war is whether to fight the war left at least your nation better off than not fighting it.

    The relevance of democracy in Iraq for the U.S. is marginal, it can even be detrimental to its interests.
    The costs are obvious and huge, in lives/health, reputation/political capital and in economic assets.

    The Iraq war is a disaster, even if it became a Swiss democracy tomorrow.
    You need to look at the costs and suffering, not only at the minimal improvements.

  18. Strange conclusions:

    “From then on, every major building, landmark, amusement park, petting zoo, flea market, popcorn stand, and toll booth anywhere in the country would be touted as a potential target for terrorists and in need of protection. ”

    So in other words, it isnt the war on terror that is the problem, it is the sick bureaucracy so typical of a Government run operation.

    “goading the fundamentalist leaders of the United States into using the power in their grasp so — not to put a fine point on it — stupidly and profligately as to send the planet’s “sole superpower” into decline”

    Decline in what manner? Military? The US is no more weak than it was 10 years ago militarily, in fact on can say it is stronger in having upgraded its hardware after field testing (in Iraq) and has a very experienced fighting force. To argue that we are “tied down” in Iraq is silly given that at this point it is no more than a peacekeeping mission and troops will be coming home in droves no matter who is elected.

    Unless you want to argue that we are weaker because we have no stomach to confront the real threats such as Iranian nukes and the like. This is true but can hardly be blamed on Bush. The blame lies with those who consistently have a fundamentalist anti-war viewpoint who propagandize the US populace against any military action. The fact that we are now weaker in this manner can be lain entirely at the feet of Democrats who used the Iraq war as a cudgel to beat the GOP who now are left with a country with no stomach to defend its interests.

    Perhaps you mean economically weaker. If so, what is the cause of economic weakness? Runaway entitlement spending, pork, and refusal to mine our own resources to counteract rising energy costs. So again,it would seem that the Deomcrat solution would be worse than whatever you blame the GOP for….

    I cant see how this article was written by an anti-Bush Dem given that his points contradict his conclusion…
    Fabius Maximus replies: We are weaker in many ways. Here are a few:

    First, the cost of the war was in effect borrowed from foreign central banks. That debt is a burden, as it was taken on with no thought about repayment — how? when?

    Second, the poor conduct of the war has weakened our reputation — our leadership — amidst our allies. See “The Myth of Grand Strategy” for more about the importance of allies.

    Third, the Army has been weaken materially by the long war. This this archive for links to dozens of reports and articles about this.

    Fourth, the cost of the wars to date is in the $1 – $2 trillion range, include the long-tail of post-war costs. Consider how such a sum could have been better spent to improve our national security. As an illustration, we could have converted much of the US electric power grid to solar and wind for $1 trillion.

  19. Robert Petersen

    I suppose any judgment of 9-11 depends on understanding what OBL was trying to achieve. Was the plan to make a symbolic strike against the United States? To lure the United States to invade Afghanistan (and repeat the holy war against the Soviets)? Or to achieve a global depression by knocking down the World Trade Center? Did he even have a battle plan or was he simply trying to revive a dying movement (which had failed in many countries before 9-11) by making an act of defiance against the Great Satan?

    One note: On a video tape found in a hideout in Afghanistan OBL expressed amazement that the planes managed to bring down the two towers. He certainly didn’t expect the level of destruction and he was an engineer so he should know. How much of a difference would it have made if the towers – however damaged – would have remained standing and “only” hundreds instead of thousands would have been killed? Would we be fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan today?

    I feel it is difficult to judge 9-11 as long as we don’t know for sure how OBL and the leadership of AQ were thinking before that day. Were they brilliant strategic thinkers or simply darn lucky because of our stupidity? There is certainly no question that Tom Engelhardt is right: Many of the wounds from 9-11 were self-inflicted. There was no need for invading Iraq, declare global war on terror, use torture and – perhaps worst of all – believe that we could fight and not raise taxes at the same time. That helped to create the financial meltdown.

  20. Of course there is always the possibility that 9-11 was planned and directed by elements in the US, and Al Q was simply a cover-story. It did fall in rather conveniently with PNAC’s admission that public and congressional approval for the vast militarization they envisaged would require a “new Pearl Harbor.”

    But Robert is right — we don’t know enough about what Al Q intended. And a lot of what we do “know” — the tapes and cumputer drives “found” in caves, the forced confessions — appear to be, or could have been, manufactured.

    We do know, however, or can make the judgement that, the administration acted in an irrational way in response to the attack. Did Al Q know that we would act in such a way? In addition to toppling a government that was protecting them, did they know that we would call off the hunt, at Tora Bora, just when we had them trapped? Did they know we would then turn our attention to Iraq? Did they know that their attack fit in so well with our secret agendas?

    It would be a stretch to say that, so we are left with the surmise that accident played a big role in the sequence of events. Here were a bunch of grandiose arm-chair generals with a cock-eyed plan to change the world, and a marginal group of terrorists in caves who stumbled upon the very thing that gave the “generals” the cover they needed to launch their world-changing plan. Almost unbelievable!
    Fabius Maximus replies: The success of military is often (usually?) a surprise — either vastly more successful than planned, or less!

  21. Literary / historical / legendary precedent: The abduction of Helen of Troy.

    The House of Atreus reigned as superpower of the Mycenaean world, dominating both Mycenae itself and Sparta. In that world, queens were not just royal wives. They symbolized the honor and might of the dynasty. ( See, eg., how important it was for the suitors to marry Penelope in the Odyssey. ) Indeed, even slave girls could symbolize that honor and might ( See how important Brisies was to Achilles in the Illiad ).

    Moreover, this was a society based upon guest friendship. Being a good host or a good guest was the centerpiece of how people interacted with each other. Odysseus confrontation with the Cyclops, Polyphemus, was the epitome of poor host/guest relations; the suitors were being very rude guests; while Telemachus, on his jourey to Pylos and Sparta, both behaved and was treated properly.

    For Paris to visit Sparta as a guest and to abduct Menelaus’ wife was therefore, a devastating strike against Mycenaean society.

    This provoked the ruinous Trojan war, during which the House of Atreus debased itself. ( E.g., Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter. ) Civil discord arose back home, as Clytemnestra dallied with Aegisthos and the suitors stirred. Many Greek heroes died in the war or were lost on the way home.

    Mycenaean society, weakened by the war, soon fell to Dorian invaders from the North.

  22. Great comment, Duncan! I suppose you know Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly, a compendium of the disastrous decisions made by world historical leaders, from the Trojan War, and the Counter Revolution, to George III’s intransigence toward the American colonies, and the American decision to invade Vietnam. If she ever published a new edition, it would surely include America’s response to 9-11.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I second both parts of Senecal’s comment. “March of Folly” is a great book, and I’ve often had exactly the same thought (that’s our reponse to 9-11 would make a great chapter in her new edition).

  23. For a less literary, more archaeological view on the link to the Trojan War, read Lessons of the Bronze Age Collapse, The Doomer Report, 28 March 2009 — Excerpt:

    As I look for historic precedents for the imminent collapse of industrial civilization, I am discovering frightening parallels between our time and a surprisingly obscure previous era of apocalyptic change: the Bronze Age collapse of eastern Mediterranean civilization circa 1200 B.C.E. As Wikipedia describes it:

    “As part of the Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age Dark Ages, it was a period associated with the collapse of central authorities, a general depopulation, particularly of highly urban areas, the loss of literacy in Anatolia and the Aegean, and its restriction elsewhere, the disappearance of established patterns of long-distance international trade, increasingly vicious intra-elite struggles for power, and reduced options for the elite if not for the general mass of population.”

    Fabius Maximus replies: I nicked my finger today, and “discovering frightening parallels between” my suffering and the Black Death.

  24. “Did they know we would then turn our attention to Iraq?”

    They very well might have. They should have. It would not have taken a crystal ball, just a little common sense. George W. Bush had been looking for an excuse to invade Iraq since the day he took office. 9/11 gave him that excuse. That he was able to pull this off when the 9/11 hijackers were all Saudi or Egyptian and not one of them was an Iraqi shows how gullible and easily led the American people are.

  25. Pingback: KeepNet 12 June 2008 « ubiwar . conflict in n dimensions

  26. More about the effects of bin Laden on America, update

    “Osama bin Laden’s American Legacy”, Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch, 5 May 2011 — Excerpt:

    Unfortunately, in every way that matters for Americans, it’s an illusion that Osama bin Laden is dead. In every way that matters, he will fight on, barring a major Obama administration policy shift in Afghanistan, and it’s we who will ensure that he remains on the battlefield that George W. Bush’s administration once so grandiosely labeled the Global War on Terror.

    Admittedly, the Arab world had largely left bin Laden in the dust even before he took that bullet to the head. There, the focus was on the Arab Spring, the massive, ongoing, largely nonviolent protests that have shaken the region and its autocrats to their roots. In that part of the world, his death is, as Tony Karon of Time Magazine has written, “little more than a historical footnote,” and his dreams are now essentially meaningless.

    Consider it an insult to irony, but the world bin Laden really changed forever wasn’t in the Greater Middle East. It was here. Cheer his death, bury him at sea, don’t release any photos, and he’ll still carry on as a ghost as long as Washington continues to fight its deadly, disastrous wars in his old neighborhood.

    … Don’t be surprised, then, that in these last months or even years bin Laden seems to have been sequestered in a walled compound in a resort area just north of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, doing next to nothing. Think of him as practicing the Tao of Terrorism. In fact, the less he did, the fewer operations he was capable of launching, the more the American military did for him in creating what collapsing Chinese dynasties used to call “chaos under heaven.”

    As is now obvious, bin Laden’s greatest wizardry was performed on us, not on the Arab world, where the movements he spawned from Yemen to North Africa have proven remarkably peripheral and unimportant. He helped open us up to all the nightmares we could visit upon ourselves (and others) — from torture and the creation of an offshore archipelago of injustice to the locking down of our own American world, where we were to cower in terror, while lashing out militarily.

    In many ways, he broke us not on 9/11 but in the months and years after. As a result, if we don’t have the sense to follow Senator Aiken’s advice, the wars we continue to fight with disastrous results will prove to be his monument, and our imperial graveyard (as Afghanistan has been for more than one empire in the past).

    At a moment when the media and celebratory American crowds are suddenly bullish on U.S. military operations, we still have almost 100,000 American troops, 50,000 allied troops, startling numbers of armed mercenaries, and at least 400 military bases in Afghanistan almost 10 years on. All of this as part of an endless war against one man and his organization which, according to the CIA director, is supposed to have only 50 to 100 operatives in that country.

    Now, he’s officially under the waves. In the Middle East, his idea of an all-encompassing future “caliphate” was the most ephemeral of fantasies. In a sense, though, his dominion was always here. He was our excuse and our demon.

    When the celebrations and partying over his death fade, as they will no less quickly than did those for Britain’s royal wedding, we’ll once again be left with the tattered American world bin Laden willed us, and it will be easy to see just how paltry a thing this “victory,” his killing, is almost 10 years later.

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