- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2002

Here is one more reason this country needs to restore the draft and, in deference to women's equality, make military training universal. It might lessen the chances of the defense secretary being asked a question like this one put to Donald Rumsfeld at a military briefing:

"You said that the air strikes are deliberately designed not to hit residential centers, but you also say that the Taliban is hiding weapons, stockpiling weapons in residential areas. Have you ruled out the possibility of dropping leaflets days in advance of an air strike to get residents out and saying, 'This could become a military target'? Is that something without discussing future operations could you see that possibly coming to fruition?"

So much for the theory that there is no such thing as a dumb question. Then again, to preserve the element of surprise, maybe the leaflets could be headed: Taliban: Do not read.

This question came from a mercifully unidentified male reporter who deserves the journalistic equivalent of a court-martial. He could plead innocent on account of stupidity.

Then there's the journalism that actually makes it into print, like a story in The Washington Post back in October that explained how the Army's Ranger battalions differ from regular infantry:

"Rangers are more heavily armed than most light infantry units. Their automatic weapons units carry M240G machine guns that can fire up to 1,000 rounds a minute at a range of 1,000 yards. Some Rangers also carry grenade launchers." Also, Rangers "train with live fire actual bullets under all conditions, including night and bad weather." And they "travel light, usually in rifle companies of about 200 men each."

Wow. Actual bullets. Did the reporter think other outfits train with blanks? What next? Will the artillery fire only powder bags out the tubes? Will our armor train in cardboard tanks?

This incisive bit of military analysis attracted the attention of a writer for Reason magazine, Chris Bray, the way a sharp stick in the eye would. His reaction:

"There's a very particular tone-deafness at work here. U.S. infantry units of every type tend to be grouped in rifle companies of 200 armed in part with machine guns and grenade launchers, and likely to train at night and in bad weather. Imagine one of The Post's science writers telling you that human beings are unique among animals because they alone have lungs and a spine. The very thing that distinguishes the Rangers, if you're inclined to be picky, is not that they are more heavily armed than other infantrymen, but rather that they are often less heavily armed; they are a raiding force, organized not for firepower but for speed and agility."

These are not isolated instances of the military illiteracy that has become endemic in our post-Cold War society. There are various explanations for it: The country now has an all-volunteer army so defense has become an occupational specialty, not a common obligation. ROTC was kicked off the country's more with-it campuses long ago. By now it's a wonder any reporter can tell the difference between an M-1, an M-16 and a Big Mac.

To employ some more military jargon, this country has just been the victim of asymmetric warfare, that is, the ability of just a few terrorists to deliver a devastating blow against a superpower. Long before September 11, the militarily literate had seen it coming, but they couldn't get the attention of the rest of us. We had too many other, important things to worry about, like Gary Condit and O.J. Simpson and Al Gore's hirsute phase and Building a Bridge to the 21st century. Even while terrorists with an eighth-century mentality were planning to use their box cutters and our jetliners against us.

The signs were everywhere to those who were paying attention. See a 1999 strategic review for the Joint Staff titled "Asymmetric Approaches to Warfare." That same year, on the Chinese mainland, a couple of colonels in the People's Liberation Army wrote an eerily prophetic book called "Unrestricted Warfare." "Both soldiers and civilians," they warned, "will be disturbed to see items in their everyday lives become weapons that can attack and kill." Like box cutters.

Stephen Sloan, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, wrote a paper for the Army War College back in 1998 warning: "In a very real sense, terrorists now have the capacity to engage in what could be called low-intensity aerospace war. They have at their disposal what are for all practical purposes human intercontinental delivery systems composed of skyjackers, and terrorists who are carrying out operations thousands of miles from their base of operations." Ho hum. Just another report to file.

By 2000, a congressional commission was warning of the likelihood of terrorist attacks on American soil. But our intelligentsia knew better. Bruce Shapiro, a contributing editor to the Nation, saw through the commission's report in short order. Here's how he summed up its findings for the online magazine, Salon: "The hyping of domestic terrorism: Why a new report on the threat of international terrorist attacks on U.S. soil is a con job."

As the country begins to move past the War of September 11, one can already feel the familiar old apathy settling back in. Celebrities are news again. Partisan maneuvers have begun in preparation for this year's midterm elections. How long before Gary Condit is all the rage again?

While we guard against a repeat of the terrorist attack that briefly woke us from our stupor, the next one isn't likely to come in the same form. The essence of asymmetrical warfare is surprise. Yet we're already moving into our post-post-September 11 period. Lassitude returns. But asymmetric warfare remains a not very clear but still present danger.

I've seen a number of commentaries on the Events of September 11 that attempt to explain why they crept up on us. They could all have been subtitled "While America Slept."

I've seen all too few pieces, like Chris Bray's in Reason, that could be titled: "While America Still Sleeps."

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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