“So keep holding on to hope without assurance
Holding on to a memory of light
But will the morning come?
For all I know we’ll never see the sun
But together we’ll fight the long defeat.”
- “The Long Defeat”, Thrice
Image courtesy of Ricky Flores at The Journal News, taken 11 September 2001
The events of September 11, 2001 are as fresh in this author’s mind as they were twenty years ago, watching in real time with high school classmates as United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the World Trade Center’s South Tower. Smoke was already pouring out from the North Tower when live news coverage began - seventeen minutes earlier American Airlines Flight 11 had torn into the side of the building. And with Flight 175, it was apparent even to a stunned group of teenagers that the horrific “accident” of Flight 11 was in fact the first of two attacks on the World Trade Center, a global symbol of America’s economic hegemony.
Today, on the twentieth anniversary of the deadliest single terror attack on the American homeland in our history, there will be much looking back at the day and counting the costs in between. There will moments of silence and somber remembrances of the lives lost, accounts of heroes and villains, and rehashed arguments of the fact and fiction of that day’s events. It is not this author’s wish to dive into those discussions, at least in this moment. Rather, in the spirit of Fortis Analysis, let us rather explore certain impacts of decisions made in the aftermath, and perhaps point to the dawn soon to break on the past twenty years of night.
The Moral Domain of War
Even as the ruins of the World Trade Center still smoldered, and many brave men and women picked through the wreckage of flesh and steel to rescue any and all lives who might have miraculously survived, Americans gripped by both fear and patriotic fervor surrendered more of our freedoms to an expanded surveillance state. We mobilized the might of our military and marshalled the courage of some of our best men and women to launch the War on Terror. And only now as the last American servicemember - Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, commading officer of the Army’s famed 82nd Airborne Division - has departed Kabul, Afghanistan on 30 August, 2021, may we begin to truly count the cost of 9/11.
In his seminal briefing, “Patterns of Conflict”, US Air Force Colonel John Boyd outlined in exhaustive detail the importance of the moral domain of war. And though many of Boyd’s concepts - especially those of maneuver warfare and mission command - have been adopted by our armed forces, it would seem that the enemies who struck with such precision and devastation on 9/11 adopted and applied a different domain of insights from Boyd. What they learned is that the goal of any asymmetric or guerilla campaign against a larger foe must be to disrupt and degrade the moral authority that permits a warmaking entity to expend blood and treasure on behalf of a constituency.
In the United States, it is an elected civilian (the President of the United States) who is constitutionally designated as the Commander in Chief of our armed forces. However, it is Congress, the legislative body representing the people and states, which holds sole constitutional authority to declare war. Thus, the moral authority to commit our nation to war rests in a deliberative process of the president requesting such permission from the citizens and states of the Union.
Now, the United States has a long history of committing our military and paramilitary resources to extra-constitutional uses of force against nation-state and non-state entities. In fact, our nation embarked upon two different wars (the Quasi-War of 1798 and First Barbary War of 1801) prior to the first constitutionally-prescribed declaration of war against a foreign power (the War of 1812). On many other occasions, Congress has similarly seen fit to authorize funding and release for the president to commit US forces to conflicts of varying duration and intensity, despite the process not being technically followed. Under such process in the days immediately following the 9/11 did President George W. Bush and the 107th Congress formally launch the “Global War on Terror” - a novel and risible commitment of US forces to free the world from some nebulous synthesis of entities, tactics, and ideologies, rather than a specific entity or formal coalition of enemy forces.
It was on that moral level - the perceived righteousness of the United States in committing acts of war - that Osama bin Laden intended to undermine America’s strength by “break[ing] the fear of this false god and destroy[ing] the myth of American invincibility.” Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and its global infrastructure of overt and covert supporters wanted to strike a blow that could make the beating heart of America’s moral strength bleed, setting us on a path to ruin that would release our grip on the Muslim world. And…the violent and horrific strategem worked, albeit in a different way. Though bin Laden did not anticipate the US doubling down on violence by launching a punitive expedition in Afghanistan (rather than withdrawing from international affairs and licking our wounds), the attempt to destroy America’s moral authority globally instead ultimately shattered the moral certitude and cohesion of our body politic.
Lessons Learned and Forgotten
In October 1989, William (“Bill”) Lind, two Marine Corps officers (Schmitt and Wilson), and two Army officers (Nightengale and Sutton) published “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation” in the Marine Corps Gazette. Written in the midst of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the article was the first attempt by national security experts to publicly reconcile what sorts of threats might rise to challenege the United States in the emerent unipolar paradigm. Lind et al drew heavily upon ideas first synthesized by John Boyd, particularly that of how technological advancements in the tools of war had a recursive impact on doctrine and the nature of future conflict.
The authors argued that the world of the late 20th century was rapidly scaling in both technology and connectivity, making it easier for non-state entities to rapidly deploy novel or unconvential attacks against more powerful targets by focusing on agility and “collapsing the enemy internally”. This new form of asymmetric warfare was termed Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW), reflecting a departure from previous generations of warfare marked by nation-state conflicts leveraging advances in force multiplication from small arms (First) to artillery (Second) to mobility (Third) to achieve victory. In short, the authors were able to codify the victorious tactics employed by groups like the US-supported mujahideen of Afghanistan in the Soviet-Afghan War into a recognizable playbook, which had ended only nine months prior to publication of the article.
Now at the conclusion of our own costly misadventure in the Graveyard of Empires, we can plainly see that the US stumbled into the same trap as did the Soviets: the moral certainty of our cause, and belief in our monopoly of force, made us unable to reorient to the changing realities of the world. Fundamentally, we did not recognize that in that short time between 1989 and 2001, the accelerating pace of technological innovation and increasing US dependence on other nations for our manufacturing and economic growth, had opened an opportunity for future enemies to accelerate from Fourth Generation Warfare into the Fifth.
Though there has yet to be an article or strategic document formally codifying Fifth Generation Warfare (5GW) such as Lind et al did for 4GW, there are certain trends that allow us to recognize and reorient to a generational shift in conflict. In this author’s view, we can identify three key domains that differentiate 5GW from 4GW:
Asymmetric vulnerabilities, especially in the cyber domain
Novel vectors for information operations
Military-civil fusion and weaponization of the commercial domain
Each of these will be explored in extensive detail in future missives. For the moment, and on this day, we will return to the real legacy of 9/11.
A House Divided
“Terrorists use a free society's freedom and openness, its greatest strengths, against it. They can move freely within our society while actively working to subvert it. They use our democratic rights not only to penetrate but also to defend themselves. If we treat them within our laws, they gain many protections; if we simply shoot them down, the television news can easily make them appear to be the victims. Terrorists can effectively wage their form of warfare while being protected by the society they are attacking. If we are forced to set aside our own system of legal protections to deal with terrorists, the terrorists win another sort of victory.”
- Lind et al, “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation”
What bin Ladin proved on 9/11, and is now being exploited in unconventional ways by America’s enemies (especially the “Dragonbear” axis of China, Russia, and to some extent Iran) is that the United States is most vulnerable to “Fifth Column” assaults from inside the city walls. That is to say, the most effective way to attack the United States is not by invasion, but by exploiting the natural processes of how a diverse republic reconciles issues of conflict through cultural and political debate. One strategy especially utilized is that of nudging ideologues or agent provocateurs from within the citizenry to agitate for divisive policies or actions, or to commit espionage on a grand scale.
Twenty years after the fall of the Twin Towers, we must now be willing to recognize this war for what it really is: an existential conflict between Hope and Despair. America, for so long and to so many, had been a beacon of belief that man could be free and prosperous, that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights” granted not by government indulgence by by virtue of simply being alive. Our greatest export was not cars or guns or grains, but a culture of hope and plenty. We stood opposite the brutal and stark will to power embodied by collectivist ideologies and nations, and embodied an ethos that Hope is the star by which we chart the course of our lives. But Despair has a power all its own, impossible to resist once amplified by division and directed action.
It took 9/11 and the subsequent million bad decisions to reveal this hidden fracture within our national psyche. The meteoric rise of Barack Obama in 2008 was a direct response to the war-weariness of a nation who'd endured years of pain and loss from the War on Terror. It was Hope he explicitly offered. But his two terms in office were ultimately marked by deepening divisions within the US; particulary in regards to matters of race, and the tension between liberty and creeping authoritarianism. Then in 2016, the slow-burn (cold) civil war under late-stage President Obama burst into the open as Donald Trump ascended to the head of the Republican Party to challenge the Democrats' nominee of Hillary Clinton. Trump's promise to “Make America Great Again” was a thunderous rallying cry for Hope.
The victory and tumultuous single term of President Trump marked a final inflection point in the culture war born on September 11, 2001, as the establishment declared open war on Trump and his supporters, a conflict that has only worsened in the first months of President Joe Biden’s presidency. The fourth turning is upon us again, but different than before. We have no central ethos upon which to find equilibrium. Once, that ethos was the spirit of Hope, but it seems too few people carry that flame in their hearts these days.
The wolves are circling within and without, defining our new reality through dialectic and drafting all souls into the conflict whether they choose to care or not. China or a US-led Anglosphere? Corporatocratic authoritarianism or fascistic traditionalism? And thus we each find ourselves locating our place in this age of the Long Defeat. It will not end easy, and likely not bloodlessly. May God curse the weak men and women who have succumbed in this moment to the easy siren songs of nihilism, collectivism, or authoritarianism. They who have betrayed liberty, the most precious of gifts granted to man.
Yet, the end is just the beginning, as it always has been and ever will be. We will burn the fields of our civilization, because that is what humans are fated to do. But a remnant will rise, because that too is what humans are fated to do. There is an indelible character to the American people, one that has manifested in ways both incredible and terrible, but is inescapably unique: a reckless and unstoppable confidence in our ability to bend the arc of history towards our will. And so we shall, even if it’s just a few foolhardy souls.
The days of renewal are ahead, not just for America, but for the world. We, and our allies, will emerge with a recognition for respecting the moral domain of trade and war alike, and upon that build new strategies and civilizational infrastructure. The desire for individual sovereignty is inborn to all men, a fire that only grows stronger the more one attempts to douse it. The Founding Fathers provided us a blueprint for turning that fire into a forge of liberty for all men. All we must do is pick up the tools around us, and get to work.
And so this, at last, is the legacy of 9/11: a more perfect Union rebuilt upon a foundation of sorrow, loss, defeat…and Hope.
Dum spiro spero,