THE SHOOTING has begun. We've seen little, and heard a lot of words since the attacks of Sept. 11, and some commentators have suggested that there have been no American strikes until this past Sunday because President Bush hasn't really known what to do next, against an invisible, perhaps omnipotent enemy.
But listening to the news every hour can be deceptive. In a real military campaign, much of the time, words are issued to mask action. The reality is that Delta Force and British SAS commandos infiltrated Afghanistan within days of Sept. 11 to pinpoint the air strikes that have just begun. The purpose is not to destroy aspirin factories, but to "take out the enemy’s eyes and ears" in preparation for a ground attack. U.S. Army Rangers and 10th Mountain Division troops are ringing the country preparing to roust detachments of Taliban troops from their tunnels.
No doubt the Talibans and their Arab mercenaries are tough. On the other hand, to make Ranger, you have to run a 5:30 mile carrying a 60lb. pack on your back, followed immediately by a second mile at a 5:50 pace and be one of the first 50 men to finish the race. Those who qualify get a year's pressurecooker instruction in weapons, tactics, and handtohand fighting, if they last.
Mountain Division troops can do all that on skis, and live outdoors in any weather for two weeks (or more) without resupply.
Technology will probably be more important to this conflict than we can now imagine. Satellites and Northern Alliance scouts have probably been mapping the movements of individual donkeys. In short, the experiences of the British and the Soviets in this country may or may not be relevant. This will be an American war.
I'm reminded of the closing of John Keegan's brilliant book Warpaths Travels of a Military Historian in North America:
There is, I have said, an American mystery, the nature of which I only begin to perceive. If I were obliged to define it, I would say it is the ethos masculine, pervasive, unrelenting of work as an end in itself. War is a form of work, and America makes war, however reluctantly, however unwillingly, in a particularly workmanlike way.
Once they have been forced to take up the task of war, Keegan observes, "Americans shoulder the burden with intimidating purpose."
Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden, the Yuppie murderer and drug dealer, seems to have lost a little of his swagger. Trapped in a darkened Afghanistan of his own making, he is no longer declaring that the Americans will not dare come after him, and that the descendants of the Crusaders are soft and impotent. Instead, he is calling on Muslims around the world to come to his assistance. Please. Now.
Like most men from the East, bin Laden is acutely aware of history in a way that puts our ignorance of it to shame. Four hundred and thirty years ago, the Ottoman emperor Selim II pursued the same Islamic imperialism to which bin Laden lays claim today. The Ottoman Turks controlled an army and navy that had conquered Turkey, the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe, and Greece, and were poised to take Italy. Ali Pasha, commander of the Muslim fleet, announced that he would pull down the cross atop St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and replace it with the crescent moon. It was a similar gesture to destroying the World Trade Center.
But before Ali Pasha could carry out his threat, Pope Pius V, an astute diplomat, united squabbling factions from Spain, Venice, and the Papal States to mount a lastditch resistance headed by Don John of Austria, the 25yearold, illegitimate son of the Austrian emperor. On September 17, 1571, although badly outnumbered, Don John led a fleet of ships in search of the Muslim navy and finally met them on October 7 in the Gulf of Lepanto, off the western coast of Greece.
Back in Rome, Pope Pius led processions of the faithful, praying the Rosary for a Christian victory.
Four hours after hostilities commenced, the Ottoman fleet had been destroyed. The Battle of Lepantomemorialized in G.K. Chesterton’s poem "Lepanto" was the turning point in the long war to save Europe from the steady march of Islamic conquest.
In thanksgiving, the Pope fixed the date of the naval victory at Lepanto as the Feast of the Holy Rosary. That feast is October 7, the same date that we commenced air strikes on Afghanistan.
The campaign against Islamic terrorists may be long. But as the terrorists themselves are well aware, it has begun on an auspicious day for the West.