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Jewish World Review Nov. 6, 2001 / 20 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Bob Greene

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Words we never
thought we would hear -- THE other week Vice President Dick Cheney said something that received relatively little attention. His words may be the most important spoken by anyone in authority since Sept. 11.

In a speech to the International Republican Institute, Cheney said:

"For the first time in our history, we will probably suffer more casualties here at home than our forces will overseas."

What an extraordinary sentence.

Cheney did not expand on it, so it is not possible to know his exact meaning. It could simply be a somber statement of fact about what has already happened, combined with an air of great confidence about the capabilities of our military. Cheney may have been referring to the thousands of American lives already lost in New York, in Washington, on the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, and to what he hopes will be the minimal loss of life among U.S. troops across the ocean.

Or he may have had something more fatalistic in mind; he may have been referring to future terroristic attacks against us.

What he said -- for whatever reason he said it -- points out the one thing about this war that makes it different from anything the U.S. has ever been through. One reason Americans have never appeared to worry obsessively about the prospect of warfare here at home is that it seemed all but impossible -- our nation is so large, our military is so well-equipped, that the picture of foreign aggressors successfully launching an offensive against us just would not form in American minds.

When we thought of what an attack on the U.S. might consist of, the image was of planes bearing the insignia of far-away countries buzzing our cities, of enemy ships approaching our coasts. We couldn't quite see that, partly because we felt so confident we were prepared to repel it.

So when the planes that attacked our country bore the logos of United Airlines and American Airlines . . . when agents of death arrived not in warships flying enemy colors, but in the U.S. mail (coming from we know not where, other than a postmark that tells us virtually nothing). . . .

When that happened, we were caught as unawares and as unprepared as a modern power can possibly be. Of all the words that have been written and spoken since Sept. 11, Cheney's words last week may be the ones worth writing down and trying to absorb:

"For the first time in our history, we will probably suffer more casualties here at home than our forces will overseas."

Speaking of our history, I have come across some other words that may guide us in these terrible days.

Fifty years ago -- in 1951 -- Time magazine named as Man of the Year for the year just past not one person, but a group: "The American Fighting Man."

With Korea as the backdrop, Time's editors wrote: "As the year ended, 1950's [Man of the Year] seemed to be an American in the bitterly unwelcome role of the fighting man. It was not a role the American had sought, either as an individual or as a nation. The U.S. fighting man was not civilization's crusader, but destiny's draftee....

"Most of the men in U.S. uniform around the world had enlisted voluntarily . . . [but] few had thought they would fight, and fewer still had foreseen the incredibly dirty and desperate war that waited for them. . . . [The American soldier] loved and expected order; he yearned, like other men, for a predictable world, and the fantastic fog and gamble of war struck him as a terrifying affront."

That Man of the Year from half a century ago undertook the fight, thousands of miles from home, for one reason. It was summed up in the words with which the story concluded:

"Most of [the American soldiers] know what they are fighting against -- `The sight of death in our own backyards, of women and children being victims of these people.'"

War in our own backyards -- that was what was unthinkable, that was what our soldiers were traveling across the ocean and giving their lives to prevent. "The sight of death in our own backyards. . . ."

Half a century later -- the vice president of the United States:

"For the first time in our history, we will probably suffer more casualties here at home…"

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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