Dr. Tony Kern, Lt Cool, USAF (Ret)
14 September, 2001
Last Updated: October 29, 2001


Recently, I was asked to look at the recent events through the lens
of military history. I have joined the cast of thousands who have
written an "open letter to Americans." 

Dear friends and fellow Americans: 

Like everyone else in this great country, I am reeling from last
week's attack on our sovereignty. But unlike some, I am not reeling
from surprise. As a career soldier and a student and teacher of
military history, I have a different perspective and I think you should
hear it. 

This war will be won or lost by the American citizens, not diplomats,
politicians or soldiers. Let me briefly explain. 

In spite of what the media, and even our own government is telling
us, this act was not committed by a group of mentally deranged
fanatics. To dismiss them as such would be among the gravest of
mistakes. This attack was committed by a ferocious, intelligent and
dedicated adversary. Don't take this the wrong way. I don't admire
these men and I deplore their tactics, but I respect their
capabilities. The many parallels that have been made with the
Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor are apropos. Not only because it
was a brilliant sneak attack against a complacent America, but also
because we may well be pulling our new adversaries out of caves 30
years after we think this war is over, just like my father's generation
had to do with the formidable Japanese in the years following WW II.

These men hate the United States with all of their being, and we
must not underestimate the power of their moral commitment.
Napoleon, perhaps the world's greatest combination of soldier and
statesman, stated "the moral is to the physical as three is to one."
Patton thought the Frenchman underestimated its importance and
said moral conviction was five times more important in battle than
physical strength. Our enemies are willing --better said anxious -- to
give their lives for their cause. 

How committed are we America? And for how long? In addition to
demonstrating great moral conviction, the recent attack
demonstrated a mastery of some of the basic fundamentals of
warfare taught to most military officers worldwide, namely simplicity,
security and surprise. When I first heard rumors that some of these
men may have been trained at our own Air War College, it made
perfect sense to me. This was not a random act of violence, and we
can expect the same sort of military competence to be displayed in
the battle to come. 

This war will escalate, with a good portion of it happening right here
in the good ol' U.S. of A. 

These men will not go easily into the night. They do not fear us. We
must not fear them. In spite of our overwhelming conventional
strength as the world's only "superpower" (a truly silly term), we are
the underdog in this fight. As you listen to the carefully scripted
rhetoric designed to prepare us for the march for war, please realize
that America is not equipped or seriously trained for the battle
ahead. To be certain, our soldiers are much better than the enemy,
and we have some excellent "counter-terrorist" organizations, but
they are mostly trained for hostage rescues, airfield seizures, or the
occasional "body snatch," (which may come in handy). We will be
fighting a war of annihilation, because if their early efforts are any
indication, our enemy is ready and willing to die to the last man.
Eradicating the enemy will be costly and time consuming. They have
already deployed their forces in as many as 20 countries, and are
likely living the lives of everyday citizens. Simply put, our soldiers will
be tasked with a search and destroy mission on multiple foreign
landscapes, and the public must be patient and supportive until the
strategy and tactics can be worked out. 

For the most part, our military is still in the process of redefining
itself and presided over by men and women who grew up with - and
were promoted because they excelled in - Cold War doctrine,
strategy and tactics. This will not be linear warfare, there will be no
clear "centers of gravity" to strike with high technology weapons.
Our vast technological edge will certainly be helpful, but it will not
be decisive. Perhaps the perfect metaphor for the coming battle was
introduced by the terrorists themselves aboard the hijacked aircraft
-- this will be a knife fight, and it will be won or lost by the ingenuity
and will of citizens and soldiers, not by software or smart bombs. We
must also be patient with our military leaders. 

Unlike Americans who are eager to put this messy time behind us,
our adversaries have time on their side, and they will use it. They
plan to fight a battle of attrition, hoping to drag the battle out until
the American public loses its will to fight. This might be difficult to
believe in this euphoric time of flag waving and patriotism, but it is
generally acknowledged that America lacks the stomach for a long

We need only look as far back as Vietnam, when North Vietnamese
General Vo Nguyen Giap (also a military history teacher) defeated
the United States of America without ever winning a major tactical
battle. American soldiers who marched to war cheered on by flag
waving Americans in 1965 were reviled and spat upon less than
three years later when they returned. Although we hope that Usama
Bin Laden is no Giap, he is certain to understand and employ the
concept. We can expect not only large doses of pain like the recent
attacks, but also less audacious "sand in the gears" tactics, ranging
from livestock infestations to attacks at water supplies and power
distribution facilities. 

These attacks are designed to hit us in our "comfort zone" forcing
the average American to "pay more and play less" and eventually
eroding our resolve. But it can only work if we let it. It is clear to me
that the will of the American citizenry - you and I - is the center of
gravity the enemy has targeted. It will be the fulcrum upon which
victory or defeat will turn. He believes us to be soft, impatient, and
self-centered. He may be right, but if so, we must change. The
Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz, (the most often quoted and
least read military theorist in history), says that there is a
"remarkable trinity of war" that is composed of the (1) will of the
people, (2) the political leadership of the government, and (3) the
chance and probability that plays out on the field of battle, in that
order. Every American citizen was in the crosshairs of last Tuesday's
attack, not just those that were unfortunate enough to be in the
World Trade Center or Pentagon. The will of the American people will
decide this war. If we are to win, it will be because we have what it
takes to persevere through a few more hits, learn from our mistakes,
improvise, and adapt. If we can do that, we will eventually prevail. 

Everyone I've talked to In the past few days has shared a common
frustration, saying in one form or another "I just wish I could do
something!" You are already doing it. Just keep faith in America, and
continue to support your President and military, and the outcome is

If we fail to do so, the outcome is equally certain. 

God Bless America 

Dr. Tony Kern, Lt Col, USAF (Ret)
Former Director of Military History, USAF Academy
LCDR Robert Bennett N78C2A