Ever since the Democrats announced their “security plan,” parts of it bothered me. Especially the bit where they said they will “eliminate Osama Bin Laden.” In addition to being far more of an aspiration than a plan, it’s also not that relevant. I’ve said before that Bin Laden is not the alpha and the omega of our problem with terrorism — it didn’t begin with him, and it won’t end with him. But I lacked any sort of historical precedent or analogy to make my point better.
Earlier today, though, I did think of a decent comparison.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was the commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy for much of World War II. He was the architect and leader of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (albeit reluctantly — he warned his superiors that “I shall run wild for the first six months… but I have utterly no confidence for the second or third year,” and that’s precisely what happened). He led the Japanese Navy through some of the bloodiest battles of the war.
Then, less than a year and a half after the Pearl Harbor attack, we found out exactly when and where he would be taking a transport flight in the South Pacific. Two squadrons of fighters intercepted his flight, fought past his escorts, and shot down his plane. Yamamoto was struck by two bullets, one through his head. On April 18, 1943, the man who planned and carried out “the day of infamy” was dead.
The war, however, continued. For almost two and a half more years, the fighting went on, with even bloodier battles and hundreds of thousands more to die.
Historians, with the benefit of decades of distance and access to far more information than those living at the time, sometimes speculate whether the killing of Yamamoto was actually such a great move. For all his stupendous reputation, many consider him a very poor naval tactician and strategist. His battle plans were tremendously overcomplicated, he tended to divide his forces and fritter them away on efforts that were ultimately pointless, and his plans always depended on both sides doing everything exactly as he planned. He never made provisions for his own side doing something wrong or our side being smarter than he thought. Had he lived, he very well might have continued to make even greater blunders than those that cost him the Battle of Midway, and the war might have ended sooner.
But that overlooks a critical factor. Yamamoto was revered by the Japanese. He was seen as almost divine, loved and lauded by the Japanese people. His death was a tremendous blow to the Japanese morale, and made all of them face mortality — both their own and their empire’s. If the legendary Yamamoto, who lost two fingers fighting the Russians at the Battle of Tsushima, could fall to the Americans, who was safe?
In some ways, Bin Laden reminds me a little of Yamamoto. Both were highly revered figures among their followers. Both could be stunningly brilliant tacticians, but terrible at strategy. (Bin Laden’s greatest success, the 9/11 attacks, ultimately cost him his sanctuary among the Taliban, dozens of his best lieutenants, thousands of his followers, and the hope for support among any other nation in the world.) Since 9/11, Al Qaeda has pulled off very few successful attacks — and they have almost uniformly been strategic failures. The London bombings did little to shake the British resolve. The bombings in Egypt and Syria only convinced those governments that they had little to gain and much to lose in tolerating Al Qaeda. And their sole success — the Madrid bombings — only achieved their strategic goal of peeling Spain out of the coalition through the incompetence of the former Spanish government, who tried to use the bombings to go after the Basques yet again instead of putting the blame where it belonged.
So, historically, perhaps it’s good for us if Bin Laden is still alive and still directing attacks. I don’t care, though — I still want him dead. Verifiably, unequivocally dead. I just don’t think it matters too much in the big picture.