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Jewish World Review Nov. 21, 2002 / 16 Kislev, 5763

David Silverberg

David Silverberg
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Maneuvering through the fog of war | It's planes and trains and banks and hospitals. It's threats you don't know, cannot define and are unable do anything about. It's unverifiable reports that sound credible and coincidences that may not be so coincidental. And it's a sense of paranoia and dread - but with real enemies.

Welcome to the fog of war.

Karl von Clausewitz, the famed Prussian military thinker and philosopher who served Prussia and its allies during the Napoleonic wars, created the concept. It's meant to convey the inherent uncertainty of armed conflict, when generals have to make momentous decisions equipped only with minimal information. It reflects situations when commanders can't pin down the movement of their own forces, let alone their opponents' intentions.

Until now, the fog of war was something that concerned only soldiers and generals and students of military history. The main fog that Americans faced was on the interstates.

But on Sept. 11, 2001, the fog of war settled on every American just as surely as Manhattan's twin towers collapsed. Suddenly, an enemy was directing his attacks against every American. All Americans became combatants - and potential victims.

We've struggled with protecting the United States ever since. Now we appear on the verge of actually getting a Homeland Security Department if all the pork and baloney can be stripped away.

But even when the agency is a reality, we shouldn't expect a sudden lifting of the fog of war. Bureaucratic structures may protect us somewhat from the threat, but they can't completely eliminate a determined foe able to strike anywhere.

Meanwhile, we'll have to live with colored alert charts and vague warnings. The alerts are particularly annoying: They seem to accomplish little beyond raising anxiety levels.

On Sunday, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) called the current spate of warnings "sort of Chicken Little alerts," adding that "it looks to me as if people are trying to cover themselves here in case something happens."

Dodd is right: If something horrible happens, officials don't want to be blamed for having downplayed an alert. As a consequence, even the most tenuous indications of a terrorist act become public. But this is what happens when you're trying to make your way through the fog of war.

When it comes to intelligence matters the fog thickens. Now everybody faces the dilemma that only a few people at the top of government have had to face in the past.

What's worse, when the alert is for some kind of possible attack against railroads or banks, rather than something specific, people become nervous. Further, alerts can dampen commerce and everyday activities, putting a further strain on an already strained economy.

From an intelligence and law enforcement standpoint, the alerts unfortunately reveal intelligence-gathering capabilities and targets to the enemy, allowing him to take countermeasures.

Nonetheless, in this environment it's better to be too cautious than too complacent. For what it's worth, I think the government is doing the right thing by issuing the alerts.

This world of ambiguous anxiety will be with us for the foreseeable future. The alerts serve to keep us vigilant. While such alerts may deter planned actions, we rarely know for certain.

A big part of our problem is that, as Americans, we keep expecting life to return to "normal." We want to go back to a pre-Sept. 11 world and focus on celebrity love affairs, stock portfolios and the occasional rampaging gun nut in a distant place. It's hard to accept that the current state of affairs is the new norm. But it is. We're engaged in a long-term struggle of uncertain duration against a dispersed, ideologically driven enemy. Even if we destroy al Qaeda and other terrorist structures, there'll still be individual psychopaths who want to harm us, often using religion to justify their acts.

Nonetheless, just as we don't simply stay home when fog settles on the highway, we can't withdraw into cocoons just because the fog of war has settled on the country. Just as when we drive through real fog, we have to be alert, cautious and take precautions. Accidents and injuries will happen. But with prudence and fortitude, we can successfully reach our destination.

One more thing: Saddam Hussein must be destroyed.

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JWR contributor David Silverberg is managing editor of The Hill and author of "Congress for Dummies." Comment by clicking here.

1/12/02: Congress: Welcome to the 21st century
10/17/02: Terror comes to Indonesia: Establishing another Islamic republic there through violence and intimidation must not be allowed to happen
10/10/02: Learning to live on the knife-edge
09/27/02: The world after Saddam Hussein
09/13/02: Dispatches from the future: Sept. 11, 2003
08/11/02: 'Go ahead, make my day'
06/20/02: InfoTech: Lieberman leaps into high-tech
06/13/02: Pentagon Perspective: Getting ready for the big changes
05/23/02: Welcome to the Wonderful World of Intelligence
05/16/02: Crusaders and cannons vs. rockets
04/26/02: The future of civilization --- and those activists who seek to undermine it


© 2002, David Silverberg