near the front steps of our headquarters, and in the early morning of 31 August, it exploded. I was still at home, dawdling over breakfast. From more than a kilometer away, the blast knocked flower boxes off our windowsills. Maj. Gen. Joe Moore, newly arrived as USAFE’s deputy for operations, was badly wounded entering the building. Joe was an old friend who had succeeded Neil Eddins as Thunderbird lead in 1969. He came to work earlier than most, so he was the only serious casualty, though 20 others received minor injuries. A few minutes later and the explosion would have caught a lot more of us. Joe Moore spent a week in the hospital and returned to duty, limping a bit.
It’s amazing how much damage a Volkswagen and a few liters of fertilizer can do. The command’s front offices, including Gabriel’s and mine, were completely shattered. The entire building was nearly destroyed. It didn’t look so bad from the outside, but load-bearing structures throughout had sustained major damage.
The Red Army Faction, successor to the Baader-Meinhof Gang that had metastasized out of the 1960s student protest movement, took credit for the attack. No longer much to brag about—a total strength of maybe 10 people—the organization certainly had a knack for expressing citizenship concerns in an eye-catching way. In 1979, they took a shot at Al Haig, then SACEUR, narrowly missing him. Shortly after bombing our building, they struck again at Heidelberg, launching a rocket through the rear window of Gen. Fritz Kroesen’s staff car, with him in it. Kroesen was Gabriel’s counterpart as commander of the US Army in Europe. Near the end of 1981, down in Italy, the Red Brigades, Axis ally of the Red Army Faction, kidnapped Army brigadier general James Dozier, holding him for 42 days.
Terrorists were beginning something like a war on us. Here in Europe, we were on the conflict’s margins. At this place, and at least for the moment, the local opposition was quaint, out of date, the residue of a toothless Marxism. The main battleground was the Middle East. When Jimmy Carter allowed the exiled Shah of Iran to come to the United States for medical treatment, radicals in Tehran seized our embassy, took 66 diplomats hostage and held most of them for 444 days, a drama that accounted, as much as any single factor, for Carter’s reelection defeat. Thus, 4 November 1979, the beginning of the Iran hostage crisis, has a fair claim as the starting date for what some would eventually call the War on Terror, or the Long War.
Americans were not the only casualties; in fact, the terrorists killed many more who were related to them by blood or religion, including for instance Anwar Sadat. Nevertheless, for at least a generation, we were a special target. In April 1983, a suicide bomber in a pickup truck blew up our embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including the CIA’s director for the Middle East. Later that year, another truck bomber attacked the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing nearly 250, the biggest one-day loss of Marines since Iwo Jima. (We often forget the coordinated attack, six kilometers away and 20 seconds later, that killed 58 French paratroopers.) In April 1984, attackers bombed a restaurant near Torrejon, Spain, killing 18 airmen and wounding 83 people. A series of spectacular airline hijackings took place. The format was established in 1985, when two Hezbollah terrorists took over TWA Flight 847, en route from Athens to Rome, forcing it to Beirut. They held eight crewmembers and 145 passengers for 17 days, killed one captive, a US sailor, and released their hostages only after Israel freed 435 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners. Four members of the Palestinian Liberation Front captured the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro in October 1985, taking 700 hostages and murdering one American passenger before Egypt offered the terrorists safe haven. In 1993, a car bomb exploded in the underground garage of New York City’s World Trade Center, leaving six dead and a thousand wounded. In June 1996, a fuel truck carrying explosives blew up outside the Air Force’s Khobar Towers housing facility in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 airmen and injuring 515 others. In 1998, our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were attacked, the death toll including 13 Americans and nearly 300 foreign nationals. In Aden harbor, in October 2000, a dinghy carrying explosives rammed the side of the USS Cole, killing 17 sailors and wounding 39. When, finally, this phase reached a climax with the second assault on the World Trade Center, on 11 September 2001, a president whose strengths did not include a deep understanding of modern history said the attack had “changed everything.”
Some things change; some do not. Contemporary conflict of all kinds springs from the same ancient sources: cultural collision, territorial ambition, economic despair, religious fervor, political miscalculation. But the various modes of warfare differ markedly. By and large, my generation of military professionals trained for and thought about what one might call Type A war—modern war, featuring the clash of mechanized forces fielded by industrial states. We got quite good at this kind of war, but the main idea is pretty simple: the side with air superiority wins, a situation that, for now and maybe only temporarily, plays to our strengths.
Terrorists fight a different kind of war, a Type B war that is in some of its essentials postmodern and, like postmodernism itself, may not represent a coherent set of ideas. The context is an international setting in which power increasingly diffuses to individuals, gangs, corporations, and other nonstate actors, producing both a different sort of violence and a different sort of enemy. The violence can be very painful indeed but must be produced at relatively low cost because the Type B enemy will have little in the way of a treasury. In fact, he’ll probably have nothing to lose—no territory to protect, few important targets at risk, perhaps even no life worth living. We therefore cannot expect to deter, but will have to fight this enemy. And we will be unable to entice him to join us in battle since, to be successful, he must pick the time and place. In a way, even the mission, the very purpose for which we fight, must be different. Type A war presents the comparatively simple task of destroying the enemy. In Type B war we take on the much more complicated job of defeating him.