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A Boomer’s Perspective: From Cold War to War on Terror

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

LONDON, Jan. 27, 2010 – Born a 1950s baby boomer, I grew up during the Cold War with the threat of nuclear holocaust looming on the horizon. As a little girl, I had dreams in which Russian troops swarmed over the hill in our back yard.

Maybe that’s what propelled me to serve in the Army for nine years and work as a Defense Department civilian for another 17 years.

No complaints, though. I’ve had an incredibly fortunate career with the military. I’ve enjoyed the fun, travel and adventure those old recruiting ads always offered.

I’ve also seen the world change in a way I never would have imagined possible. I’ve witnessed the end of the Cold War and visited Soviet-bloc nations as they emerged from behind the Iron Curtain. I’ve walked in Moscow’s Red Square and toured the Kremlin.

I’ve also witnessed the emergence and felt the impact of terrorism.

When I began traveling the world with the U.S. defense secretary as an American Forces Press Service reporter in 1995, terrorists existed only in the shadowy, foreign world of spy novels. No one hurt Americans. We were the white-hatted good guys whom everybody loved.

Granted, there was the 1983 bombing of the U.S. barracks in Beirut. But the attack occurred during Lebanon’s civil war, and it happened in the Middle East. Trouble always was brewing there.

Less than 10 years later, in 1993, terrorists bombed New York’s World Trade Center. The attack on American soil had to be an anomaly, or so we thought.

In 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated a Ryder truck full of explosives in front of the government building in Oklahoma City. This wasn’t really “terrorism.” How could it be? McVeigh and his accomplice, Terry Nichols, were homegrown Americans -- disgruntled wackos, perhaps, but still Americans.

But then in 1996, terrorists detonated a truck bomb near a complex in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, that housed U.S. servicemembers. Apparently, the idea of using “nontraditional” means to strike U.S. targets was catching on.

In 1998, terrorists bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Osama Bin Laden, head of a terrorist group, was the main suspect behind the bombings. Suddenly, terrorism had a face.

The tall, thin, bearded Saudi Arabian religious extremist would henceforth haunt our dreams. We began to hear of terrorist training camps in places like Libya and Afghanistan, and we learned of “jihad” and vows to kill all Americans.

In 2000, in the port of Aden, Yemen, a small group of suicide bombers used a skiff to pull alongside the USS Cole destroyer and detonate a bomb. It now was clear that our nation faced a new enemy that had emerged from the shadows.

This enemy couldn’t take on the strength of our armed forces, but it could inflict harm in its own way, in its own time. The terrorists were organized and determined. The name “al-Qaida” gradually wormed its way into our lives.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the reach and horror of this new reality overwhelmed our nation when two hijacked planes crashed into New York’s Twin Towers and another slammed into the Pentagon. A fourth hijacked plane en route to the White House crashed in Pennsylvania thanks to the heroic passengers aboard.

The 9/11 attack traumatized, and united, the American people. Then-President George W. Bush launched the global war on terror, and U.S. forces went into Afghanistan to wipe out al-Qaida training camps. A year later, Bush gave the order to invade Iraq.

The die was cast, but not just in America. Terrorist groups struck the Philippines, Tokyo, London, and Madrid. Security heightened at airports around the world. Travelers on planes, trains, subways and cruise ships now faced the threat of terrorism, as did everyday citizens in everyday places.

Throughout these years, AFPS has covered the spread of terrorism and its impact on the U.S. military. I somehow rose through the ranks to become the director of the press service and the Defense Department’s home page. I foolishly traded globe-trotting for management.

This week, however, we were stretched pretty thin when word came down that the deputy defense secretary wanted an AFPS reporter on his next trip. Since we already had reporters covering the Pentagon, relief operations in Haiti, aboard the USNS Comfort, and on the road with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, I volunteered to take my first official trip in several years.

I accompanied Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III’s official party to London, where he met with top government leaders and addressed two European security groups. He said his overall goal for the trip was to encourage defense cooperation.

Lynn’s message to members of Parliament, European military officers and the media was simple and direct: new threats require new capabilities. Developing these capabilities requires cooperation and collaboration by the militaries and defense industries of the United States and its allies. It boils down to an effort to save time and money in putting the right tools and equipment into warfighters’ hands.

The old days when two opposing armies faced each other on the front lines are long gone. A need still exists for conventional forces and weapons -- troops, tanks, ships, artillery and air power -- but as we’ve all seen, the nation’s new enemy fights in new ways.

Terrorist groups employ car, truck and shoe bombs. The latest thwarted attack involved powdered explosives in a man’s underwear. Kidnappings and beheadings are another means of causing fear and mayhem. Homemade bombs and biological weapons such as anthrax and Sarin gas cause death and destruction.

In Iraq, U.S. and NATO troops first had to deal with homemade bombs known as IEDs -- improvised explosive devices. As we worked to deploy better armor to protect our troops, the enemy developed armor-piercing bombs.

Suicide bombings have been the rage among terrorist groups for years now. It’s not easy to detect and deter walking bombs. Everyone becomes a possible threat.

Defense officials dub these methods “unconventional, nontraditional and asymmetric.” For the life of me, I’ve never been able to get a handle on “asymmetric.” But I think I’ve got the general idea -- terrorists will use any means to strike their target.

That’s what makes it so hard. This enemy wears no uniform and has no allegiance to a particular nation. Troops never know who they’re fighting, or how, when or what the enemy will attack. Consequently, U.S. defense officials are working to change how they train, equip and structure the nation’s armed forces.

They’re institutionalizing the military’s ability to counter terrorism by upgrading special operations forces and strengthening the battlefield “enablers” for “irregular” operations -- helicopter lift, mine-resistant vehicles and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms. They’re expanding the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. Like the grim reaper, no one knows when an MQ-9 will strike.

The U.S. military is changing rapidly to meet the world’s emerging security threats of today and tomorrow. Let’s hope Lynn’s message is heard far and wide among our allies, and that they’ll work together to protect our troops, our people and our homelands.

As for me -- I’m thinking about retiring to a little farm in the country, to sit back with my cats and quietly watch the next couple of decades go by.

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