Mid-morning on September 11th 2001, as I was watching the Twin Towers burn on my TV screen, I got a phone call from Kathy Lopez at NRO. Could I give her eight hundred words on what had happened? I said I sure could, and went to my computer and knocked out a column, and emailed it in to Kathy. It's there in the NRO archives somewhere, and on my own website.
Here's part of what I wrote, quote:
This is not an easy enemy to confront. This will not be a matter of great troop movements, of trenches and fleets and squadrons and massed charges. This will be small teams of inconceivably brave men and women, working in strange places, unknown and unacknowledged. But is the same enemy, the same truth, of which Kipling spoke: evil, naked and proud: "a crazed and driven foe." This is what humanity has faced before, since our story began to be written down. This is civilization versus barbarism.
Last Sunday's mission, the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, was precisely the kind of thing I was predicting: "small teams of inconceivably brave men and women, working in strange places, unknown and unacknowledged." That's the right way to conduct a War on Terror.
Our government had other ideas. We sent great armies into Afghanistan and Iraq. We spent colossal sums of money — well over a trillion dollars to date. We sacrificed thousands of our military personnel — four and a half thousand in Iraq, one and a half thousand in Afghanistan. Still it goes on: we've had eight combat deaths in Iraq this year, seventy-two in Afghanistan.
Osama bin Laden once boasted that his 9/11 operation was the most highly leveraged investment in history. It cost him $500,000, he said, but it had cost the American economy $500 billion — a return on investment of 99,999,900 percent. He was speaking of the operation's effect on Wall Street, on the stock of airline companies and so on.
If you look at the numbers I quoted a moment ago, though, they are just as embarrassing. Those 19 dead martyrs of his led to three thousand American civilian deaths and six thousand military. That's a rate of return of nearly fifty thousand percent. Taking the cost of Iraq and Afghanistan so far as one and a half trillion dollars, that's a return on investment of three hundred million percent. You see why I'm not cheering?
If we had stuck with operations like last Sunday's— the operations I foresaw on 9/11 — supplemented by the kind of diligent intelligence work that makes such operations possible, and further supplemented by the kind of remote drone attacks that have decimated Al Qaeda's senior ranks, there'd be cause for unrestrained jubilation at our victories. As it is, those victories are glowing lights in the shadow of much waste and folly.