David H. Hackworth
25 Aug 98


Cruise missiles lit up the skies over Afghanistan and Sudan last week. Seventy-five fell on terrorist training camps and on the bad medicine factory in Khartoum. The going rate for a cruise these days is a million bucks. Throw in what it cost to launch and follow up on the strikes, and you've got a $200 million bonfire of the vanities.

You can declare war on terrorists with missiles. They make the kind of noise the whole world can hear. And there's no question that the message we sent needed to be sent. The problem is that while we can declare war with our tomahawks, we can't really fight terrorists with them. Worse, we won't win if we do.

The counterstrikes last week killed 50-odd terrorists in Afghanistan at a huge dollar cost, leaving who knows how many tens of thousands to go. You don't have to be H&R Block to do the math. Reach for the tomahawk every time and you'll go broke long before the bad guys belly up.

Various reports put Osama bin Laden's personal fortune at anywhere from $150 million to $5 billion. That's what he's got to spend. Here's an interesting thought: If we agreed to limit ourselves to the same assets and made it his $5 billion against our $5 billion, who do you think would win?

Right. Because bin Laden is being a lot sharper than we are. That's what guerrillas and terrorists do. They don't outshoot us. They outsmart us.

Here are the basics. In the war that both sides have now declared, the United States presents a very big, fixed target. The terrorists present a very small, very mobile target. As soon as the President and Secretary of Defense, both of whom dodged the draft in Vietnam and have no first hand knowledge of the basics, get over congratulating themselves on the strike, they are going to have to take a harder look at the truth.

When you've been badly stung by a bee, it ain't exactly swift to try to take out its nest with a baseball bat.

The terrorist strikes on our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were an outrage that demanded retaliation. And the missile strikes did make our intentions clear. That's not the question. Once again, what we need to figure out is what's the smartest way to wage this war.

And the record shows that the sledgehammer approach seldom works against terrorists. Israel's been fighting terrorists for 50 years. When a bomb explodes in that tormented land, bet on it, the suspects home bases get clobbered. But has all this firepower worked? Nope. A month seldom passes when a terrorist bomb doesn't explode on the streets of Israel.

In 1986 , Libyan terrorist's blew up a Berlin disco, killing U.S. soldiers. Ronald Reagan responded with bombs. Reagan's security advisors did attaboys for several years -- until Libyan terrorists struck back, killing 270 people over Scotland on a Pam Am flight.

The Cruise missiles did four things: batted the bee's nest; gave the zealot's cause the world-wide propaganda coup that's always the terrorist's endgame: "Just look at what that bully, the Great Satan, has done to us now. Look at all the innocent dead;" unified Arab anti-American feelings around the globe; and made a ton of money for the missile makers while justifying all those expensive ships.

The Brits, who've been under terrorist siege since the invention of gun powder, take a different approach. While they take the occasional hit, their MO is to catch terrorists through detective and intelligence work. Yes, they believe in punishing the terrorist, but they learned a long time ago that traditional military solutions don't work. So they use a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer, brains over brawn.

We should ask our British cousins to show us their way. Fighting terrorism just ain't about whoever makes the most noise. The smart way is through deterrence and prevention -- through clever intelligence, well trained people and a strong proactive plan.

I hope our generals and admirals change their "bomb-them-back-to-the-Stone-Age" mind-set. Sure, the sledgehammer worked in World War II, but it didn't in Vietnam. And it's a recipe for failure in our newest war.