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America must come to terms with a new vulnerability

Our enemies no longer need to win a war, or even a battle, to bring the nation to its knees.

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All talk about "victory" and "defeat" in our current wars may actually be beside the point. Whatever happens in Iraq and Afghanistan, the vulnerability of American cities to both mass-destruction terrorism and ballistic missile attack will remain more or less unchanged.

Oddly, this new and ironic military reality is still generally unrecognized, even in the fundamentally transformed US national security policy outlined by President Obama at West Point last week.

Consider how different matters were in the past.

At Thermopylae, we learn from Herodotus, the Greeks suffered a terrible defeat in 480 BC. But then, Persian King Xerxes could not even contemplate the destruction of Athens until he had first secured a decisive victory.

Only after the Persian defeat of Leonidas and his heroic defending forces would the Athenians be forced to abandon Attica. Transporting themselves to the island of Salamis, the Greeks would witness the Persians burning their houses and destroying their sacred temples on the Acropolis.

Why should this ancient Greek tragedy be significant for us? Until the onset of our Atomic Age, states, city-states, and empires were essentially secure from homeland destruction unless their armies had already been defeated.

For would-be aggressors before 1945, a capacity to destroy had always required a prior capacity to win. Without a victory, intended aggressions were never really more than military intentions.


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