The Sept. 11 attacks jolted the U.S. armed forces into a new era of war-fighting in which commando strikes, intelligence collection and manhunts often overshadowed heavy armor and big bombers of yesteryear’s conflicts.
The attacks by Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda on the World Trade Center and Pentagon prompted President Bush to launch ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and send troops to other hot spots to confront terrorism.
“There had been a fairly lengthy hiatus there where we had been a peacetime force, training people for an eventuality we hoped would never come,” Gen. Conway said. “But it put us back on a war footing. We realized it from Day One. Things changed dramatically on 9/11 because we knew that our country would not sit still and let that go unpunished.”
The attack on Pearl Harbor ultimately made the U.S. the world’s dominant military power. The Vietnam War took it down a notch, a defeat that led to a “hollow force.” The Cold War saw it re-emerge in the 1980s, able to intimidate the Soviets and execute 1991’s Desert Storm in high-tech fashion.
Likewise, the 9/11 attacks fundamentally changed the way the U.S. military thinks, plans and fights.
New enemy, new tactics
The new enemy did not wear uniforms or march in formation or follow the rules of war. The U.S. military for the first time began a prolonged struggle against Muslim fundamentalists and Iraqi insurgents who used suicide bombers, roadside explosives, beheadings and ambushes to try to defeat Americans.
There was not much talk about such people before Sept. 11, 2001. But today at West Point or the Pentagon or any divisional headquarters around the world there is relatively less talk about big land wars across Europe or Asia. The brainstorming often focuses on “irregular warfare” - the counterterrorist and counterinsurgency missions that belatedly turned the tide of battle in Iraq in 2007 and promise to do the same in Afghanistan.
In midwar, the military had to stop, reassess and change tactics. It produced a historic doctrinal shift in how to root out the enemy, village by village, city street by city street.
Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel and military analyst, said the Bush administration made one big mistake. Unlike in World War II and Vietnam, the U.S. decided not to conscript a wide number of Americans to do the fighting.
Instead, it relied on the active, volunteer force and the standing National Guard and Reserve. The same units, and often the same troops, went back and forth from the U.S. to the war zone while the vast majority of Americans watched.
“We ignored our whole tradition and history and instead drafted the Guard and Reserve and sent them to Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times,” Mr. Allard said. “In Vietnam, everybody went for one year. Now, people are going back three and four times. I never thought I would live to see a day in which we actually had more casualties from suicides than from the Taliban. We failed to mobilize. We sent other people’s kids to everybody’s war.”
Perhaps no service was jolted by 9/11 more than the Army. It reaped the benefits of developing a new way of fighting. But it also underwent the stress of fighting two wars at once and saw its suicide rate jump.