April 30, 1975 was a clear and bitter day at the special-forces base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. It was a fine day for parachute jumps and training in the expanses of meadows and woodlands, but also a day of defeat and humiliation as the television broadcasts from Saigon showed the city falling to the North Vietnamese as helicopters evacuated to aircraft carriers the last Americans from the embassy roof. It was also the 30th anniversary of Hitler's suicide in his Berlin bunker, but nothing remained of that feeling of elation of the end of World War II - the victory over the ultimate evil and the death of the man whose hated visage personified it.
America climbed out of that deep pit yesterday, at least for a moment, to recapture that old feeling of completing a mission and settling a score; that feeling had last been experienced on the day the war in Europe ended. On the way, the United States was forced to get used to a demanding situation.
The special forces of the 1960s and the start of the '70s were narrow-minded tough guys who showed off to an Israeli guest their training exercises for combat medics. Twelve combat soldiers, led by an officer, lived in the forest for three weeks with a goat, got to know him as a comrade-in-arms, anesthetized him, shot him in the kneecap and then had to take care of the poor animal, carrying him on a stretcher on their shoulders like a wounded comrade. (The film "The Men Who Stare at Goats" derived its inspiration from this heartwarming method. )
In the 21st century, the special forces seek to attract and train recruits, inculcating a combination of operational skills and technological sophistication, while taking full advantage of intelligence, all at a cost of $80 billion a year.
The American system is cumbersome, clumsy and subservient to regulations; a global superpower with a population of 310 million, hundreds of thousands of them in uniform, cannot conduct itself otherwise. But it has also learned from its failures and seeks to improve. John F. Kennedy was a patron of the special forces. After he was assassinated, the army took revenge on his favorites and sent them to make friends with goats. Only after Vietnam, and more so as a lesson of the failure to free the hostages from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in April 1980, were the special operational capabilities rehabilitated; for example, via cooperation with parallel units in the Israel Defense Forces.
The American system knows how to sink its teeth into its prey, or its predator, and hold on. That is what happened with Saddam Hussein in 2003, with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and finally with Osama bin Laden. Gen. Stanley McChrystal was appointed two years ago as commander of the forces in Afghanistan, based on his secret successes in Iraq, to kill bin Laden. President Barack Obama fired him last year after reading disparaging remarks attributed to him or his officers.
Two months after the dismissal, information came in that led last weekend to the end of the hunt for bin Laden. Meanwhile, a probe by the Pentagon's inspector general discovered that the quotes that had led to McChrystal's dismissal were inaccurate. The dismissal cannot be reversed and Obama did not concede his mistake, but McChrystal has once again earned a respectable place in the establishment, working alongside First Lady Michelle Obama and the vice president's wife, Jill Biden, for the families of soldiers at the front.
The assassination of the most wanted man in the world, coming on the heels of the bombing of Muammar Gadhafi's headquarters, is a lethal message to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, to Hamas' military chief in Gaza, Ahmed Jabari, and to Qassem Suleimani of the Iranian Quds Force, which cherishes the memory of Hezbollah's Imad Mughniyeh. It is an achievement of the system, not of a single individual; of continuity, investment and persistence.
When Obama yesterday called former President George W. Bush to inform him of the end of the decade of the exhausting hunt, both knew that without Bush's wars in Asia, Obama would not have been elected president, and that after being elected, he continued on his predecessor's path in fighting terror and interrogating prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. He used the same secretary of defense, Robert Gates, and the same commander, Gen. David Petraeus.
But since everything is personal and everything is a matter of timing, Commander in Chief Obama will get all the glory and will hope that Petraeus doesn't give in to Republican wooing to retire from the military and run against Obama. To judge by the outburst of public enthusiasm, bin Laden's end has put to rest doubts about Obama's devotion to his homeland and to concerns that he is soft and sympathizes with Islam. More than his birth certificate, his speech in which he waved bin Laden's scalp has crowned Obama head of the American tribe.
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