The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge—and more."... ...John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961.

Commentary of the Day - September 30, 2001:  The Knowledge War.

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 was a signal event in the history of the United States.  Before that day most Americans felt far removed from the conflicts raging in Europe and Asia, and most did not want the nation to become embroiled in those controversies.  The surprise attack made it clear to almost all that our isolationism was no longer tenable, and a divided nation rallied behind the leadership of FDR.

Pearl Harbor initiated a paradigm shift in military strategy.  It quickly became obvious that the day of the battleship was over.  The aircraft carrier was the weapon that afforded the Imperial Navy of Japan the element of surprise at Pearl Harbor.  In an instant it became clear that victory or defeat in the Pacific (and Europe) would hinge in large part on the ability of the United States to control the skies.

Although the surprise attack inflicted incredible damage on the battle fleet at Pearl, the Japanese war lords had miscalculated badly.  The few aircraft carriers in the American Pacific fleet were at sea on December 7th.  The failure to destroy our carriers proved to be a major mistake.  Although American forces suffered numerous defeats during the early days of the war in the Pacific, the presence of the American carriers and the air power that they were able to project denied the Japanese a quick and total victory.  That circumstance gave a nation that was weak militarily but strong industrially the time to arm and to turn the tide of battle.

The Japanese war lords also totally misread the response of the American nation to the surprise attack.  Instead of further dividing and demoralizing a country that up to then wanted to avoid conflict, it united the nation as perhaps no other single event in its history had.  In fact, at both ends of the Axis the resolve of Americans to defend their vital interests had been sorely underestimated.

Some parallels can be drawn between the attack on the World Trade Center and the attack on Pearl Harbor.  In both cases the United States was caught napping, and both attacks inflicted devastating damage and casualties.  Until September 11th we had paid little attention to the actions of international terrorists although our vulnerabilities should have been obvious given the warnings provided by the embassy bombings in Africa, and the attack on USS Cole.  Nevertheless, recent conversations about military readiness had focussed most sharply on more conventional threats.

Again, an almost instant paradigm shift has occurred.  It has become obvious that terrorism represents a far more significant threat to our vital interests than intercontinental ballistic missiles.  The WTC attack has killed nearly 5,000 innocent Americans (more than twice the number lost at Pearl Harbor), and nearly 1,000 innocent civilians from some 80 other countries.  The attack has dealt a significant blow to the economy of the United States.  By some estimates the cost to the economy may reach more than $80 billion.  Clearly, the vital interests of the United States have been threatened by these terrorist acts.

And again, our foes have seriously misread our resolve.  No matter what reasons  -- real or imagined -- that these terrorists may claim to justify their murderous behavior, their actions show their real intent.  Namely, their inability to tolerate a free society.

Universal access to education and an unrivaled system of public and private higher education are pillars upon which our freedom rests.  The creativity of a free and educated citizenry together with our industrial strength proved to be a formidable combination during World War II.  That combination is stronger than ever.  Our ability to make the paradigm shift needed to fight terrorism has its seeds in that strength.

Success in the fight against terrorism will depend in large measure on our ability to obtain and interpret information.  We will need to go well beyond the immense electronic data gathering capacities of our intelligence agencies.  It will be necessary to infiltrate widely dispersed terrorist cells to obtain the information needed to counter their intentions.  The diverse nature of our population is one key to success in such an effort.

The war against terrorism is not going to be easy.  Fighting terrorism is much like fighting crime.  The victories may not be as decisive as we would like, but over time it should be possible to disrupt the terrorist networks to the point where it becomes more and more difficult and costly for them to launch coordinated attacks on us.

World War II eventually became known as "the physicists' war" because so many of the weapons used in W.W.II had their origins in the physics laboratory.  The war against terrorism ultimately may become known as the "knowledge war", because success will depend critically on how well we can understand both the motivation and and intentions of the foe.

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© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.