Two weeks ago, a small, single-engine plane inadvertently strayed into the closed air space above Washington. The result was panic. Both the White House and the Capitol were evacuated, with police shouting "Run! Run!" at fleeing staffers and visitors. Senators and Congressmen abandoned in haste the floors of their respective Houses. Various RIPs (Really Important People) were escorted to their Fuehrerbunkers. F-16s came close to shooting the Cessna down.
The whole episode would have been funny if it weren’t so sad. As an historian, I could think of nothing other than the behavior of an earlier profile in courage, the Persian king Darius, at the battle of Issus. As the Roman historian Arrian described it,
The moment the Persian left went to pieces under Alexander’s attack and Darius, in his war chariot, saw that it was cut off, he incontinently fled — indeed, he led the race for safety . . . dropping his shield and stripping off his mantle — even leaving his bow in the war-chariot — he leapt upon a horse and rode for his life.
Not surprisingly, Darius’s army was less than keen to fight to the death for its illustrious leader. As one British officer said, commenting on U.S. Marines’ love of running for exercise, "We prefer our officers not to run. It can discourage the troops."
I suspect that more than a few of our soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, enjoying as they do a daily diet of IEDs, ambushes and mortarings, were less than amused at watching Washington flee from a flea. More importantly, what message does such easy panic send to the rest of the world? Osama bin Laden has whole armies trying to kill him, but as best I know he has shown no signs of fear. Here again we see the power of the moral level of war. In cultures less decadent than our own, few men are likely to identify with leaders who fill their pants at one tiny blip on a radar screen.
The episode also reveals what has become one of the main characteristics of America’s "homeland defense:" a total inability to use common sense. We have already seen that in our airport security procedures, our de facto open borders immigration policy and the idiotic "Patriot Act." Here, it seems that no one was willing to act on the obvious, namely that if a small plane is approaching Washington, it is probably because the pilot got lost (which pilots do frequently). Why? Because to bureaucracies what is important is not external reality but covering your own backside politically. Putting on shows serves that purpose well, even if the shows make us look like both fools and cowards.
There was also a message to the American people in the Cessna affair, and from a Fourth Generation perspective it was not a helpful one. The message was that the safety of the New Class in Washington is far more important than the safety of other Americans. As the first really serious terrorist incident is likely to show, America remains ill-prepared either to prevent or to deal with the consequences of a "dirty bomb" or a suitcase nuke or an induced plague. Not only will ordinary people die in large numbers, it will be realized in retrospect that many of the deaths could have been avoided had the New Class cared about anyone other than itself. But, of course, it doesn’t.
As I have said many times before, what lies at the heart of Fourth Generation war is a crisis of legitimacy of the state. In America, that crisis can only be intensified by any instance where the Washington elite draws a distinction between itself and the rest of the country. When the same people who have sent our kids to die in Iraq and left our borders wide open run in panic because of a Cessna, the American people get the message: Washington is "them," not "us." At some point, that gap may grow wide enough to swallow the state itself. Kings who become cabbages, like Darius, end up history’s losers.