Much debate has been had, especially since the coming of the 5 year anniversary of 9/11, about the legitimacy of the War on Terror, and specifically about the veracity of invading Iraq as an extension of it.
To paraphrase George Santayana, "Let us remember the past lest we be condemned to repeat it."
This war is unlike any other in history in how it is being waged. But it is very much like the two Great Wars in that it is being fought around the whole globe. An argument could be made that the War on Terror is World War III.
I've always been a student of the times of World War II. Many Americans are under the impression that WWII lasted from Dec. 7, 1941 to Sep. 2, 1945 - but they forget that England (including the dominion countries like Canada and Australia) and France were already embroiled in the European conflict for more than 2 years at that point. But even that portion of the war had been delayed through inaction, hesitancy, cowardice, weak leadership, financial insecurity (the Great Depression was going on), and empty diplomacy. In fact, it was only after Hitler signed a non-aggression pact with Russia that he felt free to invade Poland on September 1, 1939, assured that he wouldn't have to fight a two-front war. He was a master of convenient lies - he invaded Russia just two years later, in June of 1941.
So Germany invades Poland, France & England declare war on Germany (finally!), and they embark on a royal scrap for two years, with England and France purchasing weapons, aircraft, and ships from the USA. At this point there is no formal status between the three as "Allies."
Meanwhile, Japan is doing its own thing:
Japan seized on the opportunity offered by the European conflict to press forward toward her goal of the domination of Asia. [...] The desperate position of Britain and the increasing preoccupation for the United States made it difficult for either of those countries to take strong measures. [...] Negotiations with the United Sates led to a virtual demand for the acceptance of Japanese supremacy in the Orient. An American counteroffer of co-operation in return for a Japanese pledge of nonintervention in neighboring states simply confirmed Japan's conviction that no compromise was possible. A special envoy was sent to Washington to spin out the discussions while Japan completed her final preparations for the great gamble on which she had decided.
The blow fell on Peal Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941.
source: The American People's Encyclopedia, 1951 - emphasis added
Since Japan, Germany, and Italy had a pact to support each other in war, when the United States responded to Japan's act of infamy with a declaration of war - thus breaking its cherished state of neutrality - Germany responded in kind and declared war on the US. These two key Axis countries, separated by the span of the globe, identified with each other that they had a common foe in Western liberal democracy.
While no proof of a similar arrangement has been established between Iraq and Al Qaeda (which isn't even a state to have formal arrangements with anyway), it is obvious, based on their actions and utterances, that they viewed the West as a common enemy. And they're not alone in that characterization: Iran and North Korea are also part of what President Bush termed "The Axis of Evil." And we could add more to the list as well. There are people - even nations - out there that hate us, that hate everything about us: our liberty, our materialism, our sinfulness, our purity. Can anyone negotiate with that? If through some incredible gesture of openness, the powers of Islamic fascism agreed to meet the powers of Western freedom at a bargaining table, could we really approach them without first searching them for dynamite vests? Could we look them in the eye and truly believe they wanted to work peaceably for a solution to our infidelity?
I wouldn't believe a friendly word they said. If (as they already do) they demanded we convert to Islam or die, I would take them very seriously. But I could then suggest a third option. That third option is the only viable one right now - to fight. They do not want peace. They want global Sharia law. That desire cannot be reasoned with.
Ultimately, the lesson I would have us learn is that once our enemies figured out the way Western democracies think & act, they knew how to "work the system" so as to delay any real action on our part and thus build up strategic advantage themselves. This is as true for the Islamic fascists today as it was for the Nazis and Imperial Japan.
The lesson our troops in Afghanistan and the other coalition troops in Iraq are learning is similarly valuable: they've figured out this new type of warfare and have adapted to it. The enemy no longer has a strategic advantage, after more than 4 years of fighting.
In World War II, the Allies also had to establish new tactics and learn from their enemies' expertise. It took more than 4 years to claim back territory occupied by Germany - and the cost in human life was much more than the reports we get nowadays of 1, 4, or 5 soldiers killed in daily skirmishes.
I'm currently reading Air Power At Sea by John Winton (1976) (did I mention how much I love old books?) which has a fascinating evaluation of the legitimacy of strong military action based on a battle fought between the British aircraft carrier H.M.S. Ark Royal and the Italian navy near Taranto, Italy (not this Taranto), in 1940.
At this point in the war, nobody yet knew how aircraft would contribute to the overall effort. Battleships had been the clear dominant naval force up to that point, but it quickly became apparent that if you could fly in 10 times faster than a ship could move and could launch a couple of torpedoes at it, it was a relatively efficient way to send it to the bottom of the ocean. Even if you had multiple bombers come in to attack a ship and several were shot down in the process, if you could sink the ship or put her out of action for several months, the cost to the enemy was far greater (in lives and in dollars) than the cost of a few airplanes. Quote:
Taranto was... a victory very essential to England at this moment. It must have convinced the last doubters of the power of aircraft at sea. [...] Certainly, it made the Italians even more cautious. On 27 November, off Cape Spartivento, Sardinia, a powerful Italian force including two battleships retreated from a favourable tactical position on the threat of torpedo attack by Ark Royal's aircraft.
This demonstrates that when you have an effective military strategy and aren't afraid to use it, you can often change the outcome of events by mere deterrence.
Or in other words, the best defense is a good offense.
Fight on, brave soldiers. I'm ashamed that I'm not out there with you.