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Winning an Asymmetrical War


Last week a handful of young men captured the attention of the world. Media from around the globe were diverted to Mumbai. The western world seemed to stop, frozen at the spectacle of a group of men who were willing to commit murder and die in the process.

While much of the mainstream media has treated these horrific assaults as a fundamentally distinct and different type of warfare, suiciders are not new, nor are they unfamiliar. We need only look to our own history to understand suicide tactics and learn what we can do to stop suiciders or -- at a minimum -- to render them ineffective.

In the final months of World War II, the Japanese began an experiment in asymmetrical warfare which terrified Americans and sowed the seeds for a new kind of terror attack that has continued to this day, from Manhattan to Madrid to Mumbai.

Japan's new tactic was suicide bombing. It became the great leveler of the Pacific War. Suicide missions had already been used in warfare, most often as a tactical expedient on the battlefield -- one thinks of a soldier diving upon a live hand-grenade to protect his comrades. But these selfless deeds remained isolated incidents, with the critical difference that survival, however unlikely, was a possibility.

But the new Japanese strategy was profoundly different. For the first time in history, Japan's leaders were sending their young pilots out on kamikaze missions, whose success required the pilots' death.

Japan's embrace of this tactic shocked and terrified their targets. As the High Command well understood - and as those who currently employ suicide tactics fully understand - the targets were not the brave sailors and soldiers who were directly affected by these violent attacks but, rather, the civilian population back home.

Japan's leaders hoped their suicide strategy would convince America that the two peoples were fundamentally different -- that they valued religion and human life so differently that a military invasion would be impossible.

Yet American leaders refused to capitulate to the psychological impact of these "special" assaults. Far from halting the American advance, the suiciders hardened American resolve. We responded soberly to the attacks, treating them simply as one more desperate, failing tactic, from a failed regime, soon to be defeated. Quickly fading from the front pages, suicide tactics wound up a footnote to the kamikaze battles.

Japan's suicide tactics forced each sailor in the Pacific to confront his own life and death but, quickly, each man learned to live with the fear. This is the task of leadership. President Roosevelt could have capitulated to the spread of terror from the suiciders. Instead, he led Americans beyond fear. The Israelis have lived with suicide bombings now for a generation. They go about their lives without being consumed by fear or fascination.

Since 2001, though, American leaders have allowed the suiciders to define the struggle. The radical Islamists have attempted to convince Americans that they too are "different," and therefore cannot be defeated. By defining this as a special war, (one which requires altering the Constitution) the Bush administration became complicit in the strategy of Al Qaeda. It is not the bombs of the suiciders but our reaction to these eruptions which determines victory.

Last week, the world stood still as ten terrorists holed up in Mumbai, murdered hostages. The deaths of those innocents is a tragedy, but the fact that ten miscreants could gather the attention of media around the world for three straight days, underscores a fundamental failure of leadership and of the free press. The press, now driven by advertising revenue has become more sensational than informative.

Franklin Roosevelt told Americans that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, and with those strong words, combined by communal effort, he calmed our fears and galvanized the United States to defeat Japan. Americans can live, even comfortably, with danger.

We need someone to teach us how to do that again. We need a president who will no longer allow the terrorists to terrorize us. The media got it wrong. What the terrorists did in Mumbai does not matter nearly as much as how we (and India and Pakistan) respond to what they did.There may be no end to the war on terror, but we can end the terror itself.