“The Die is Cast”
Julius Caesar said those words over two millennia ago, in crossing the Rubicon River to do battle with Pompey in the great Roman civil war. After 52 years, I still remember the Latin I studied as a kid: “Alea jacta est.”
Those three simple words stuck in my mind. Why? Because hazard and risk inhere in any great enterprise, especially armed conflict.
Nothing essential in the human condition has changed in the two millennia since Caesar. You never know enough―about your enemy, about the condition and morale of your own forces, about the terrain, about the weather, or about all the things that can go wrong, like our Black Hawk stalling in bin Laden’s compound.
That’s why, despite all our vaunted information technology, it still takes a great leader to do great deeds. No computer yet devised can sense the unknowable, weigh the imponderable, and make a right decision that works. Certainly no committee can. But the President and Commander in Chief did in ordering, “It’s a go!”
Like Caesar’s, just three words. They sound so easy, but they’re not.
We now know what should have been obvious. Careful and risk-averse advisers were constantly warning of “Black Hawk Down,” the humiliating episode in which unknown rebels dragged the charred bodies of our troops through the streets of Mogadishu. The warning was apropos, for it was Black Hawk helicopters that carried our forces on their successful mission. And it was also one of them that failed on landing, producing the mission’s most harrowing moments.
Of course everyone involved could not forget Jimmy Carter’s failed 1980 mission to rescue the Iranian hostages. Several helicopters went down in a desert sandstorm, Marines died, and the Islamic Republic thumbed its nose at our vaunted military. Jimmy Carter lost the election and became a one-term president, but his diplomacy brought the hostages home unharmed, without another drop of blood shed. (The Ayatollah so hated Carter that he waited until just after Reagan’s inauguration to release them.)
Carter was right to negotiate the hostages’ release after the military mission failed. He was probably right also to authorize the mission. There are always risks in military action, and the dice don’t always come up your way. The electorate was not kind to him, and the right wing now vilifies him. But history will be kinder.
Win or lose, big deeds have long levers. The failure of that 1980 rescue mission tarnished American prestige and soft power for decades. Now we have redeemed ourselves and avenged a heinous crime. The mission to get bin Laden was a stunning success, with no casualties on our side and minimal collateral damage―a single woman used as a human shield.
That, of course, was just what the President intended when he made his fateful decision. Smart bombs or Predators could have killed bin Laden. But Saddam escaped them at the start of the Iraq War. Local bin Laden sympathizers, including Pakistanis, could have covered up bin Laden’s body or falsified evidence, making his fate uncertain and giving him legendary status, like El Cid.
As always, the President understood the human dimension of this mission. This was personal. It was a quest for long-delayed justice for the most terrible mass murder ever to target Americans.
It was, if you will, a personal vendetta. So it required flesh-and-blood Americans, superbly trained and skilled, to pull the trigger, witness the killer’s death, spirit the body away and dispose of it as best fit our own geopolitical objectives (albeit respectfully and without violating Islamic law). And it required boots on the ground to recover a treasure trove of intelligence from bin Laden's inner sanctum, without letting it pass through untrustworthy Pakistani hands.
Everything about this mission was superbly planned. For weeks our forces practiced on two separate replicas of the bin Laden compound. Of course credit goes to the Navy Seals on the mission, to our Joint Special Operations Command, and to our Admiral McRaven, who led the mission.
But none of it would have happened without the right decision from the top. Troops don’t take the blame when things go wrong. That sandstorm in 1980 might have been unpredictable; but military leaders also may have overestimated the ability of our helicopters to survive one. Whatever the reason, Jimmy Carter took the blame, as he should have. Harry Truman said it best: the buck stops there.
As we who support him always knew, the President is a great leader. He has superb perspective and great judgment. His mind can play three-dimensional chess, considering not just the immediate implications of a decision, but the internal political and external geopolitical implications now, next year, and for decades to come. He just gets bogged down when lesser men, like hungry chickens, squawk and peck at this heels in Congress and end up doing nothing.
Oddly, bin Laden had one thing in common with the President. Bin Laden knew the power of myth and legend. By all accounts, he was no military leader. He seldom saw combat and fled it repeatedly. But he was a gifted propagandist who made himself a legend. Quite consciously, he built up a myth of his own invulnerability and favor by God. The President knows that that myth, not bin Laden himself, was and is our real enemy.
Now Muslims everywhere also know. No one is invincible. Allah does not protect mass murderers of innocent people. Skilled, well-equipped, patient and persevering avengers will track down and dispatch killers of our people no matter how long or how much it takes.
And they won’t do it with computer-controlled automatons from the sky, or with unnecessary wars against irrelevant third countries. They’ll do it in person, man to man. That’s an outcome any culture in any time can respect.