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Go Tell Osama Bin-Laden?

Perhaps you caught the recent report about a band of 500 holding off 100,000 enemy troops. Unfortunately, this time it wasn't the story of the Battle of Thermopylae (horribly portrayed in the movie 300 a while back) where the Spartans defended Greece against an invading Persian army in 480 BC. No, according to the New York Times, those are the numbers that tell the tale of the current war between Al Qaeda and the U.S. military.

According to the Times, Michael E. Leiter, called "one of the country's top counterterrorism officials," puts the number of Al Qaeda operating in Pakistan at something "more than 300." This, the paper noted, constituted "a rare public assessment of the strength of the terrorist group that is the central target of President Obama's war strategy.

The numbers make it perfectly obvious why such revelations are rare. With Al Qaeda's ranks in Afghanistan thought to be under 100, it appears that the U.S. enjoys a numerical advantage over its principal enemy that is in the range of 200-1. Yet it still appears unable to defeat it. Somehow the clandestine war in Pakistan that everyone knows we're fighting, but no one in official government circles will admit to, seems a much more plausible proposition when we can imagine a countryside teeming with untold numbers of enemies of America - rather than just 300 of them.

Osama bin-Laden, and whoever else planned the operation, obviously damaged the U.S. in many ways on September 11, 2001. In the long run, though, one of their greatest achievements may have been the damage they did to America's capacity for critical thought, in the process setting the country on a decade of war that simply makes no sense when you consider the actual numbers involved.


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But as they say, you can't fool all of the people forever and even before this latest diminutive assessment of Al Qaeda's strength, pollsters for Rasmussen Reports found the numbers of Americans believing that the U.S. could "win" in Afghanistan down to 41 percent, with a 48-42 percent plurality in any case considering it more important to end the war than to win it.

Lately even Congress has been showing signs of recovering their ability to think rationally. Or at least House Democrats have, anyhow: in the course of approving the latest $33 billion "emergency" supplemental appropriation for the war, 60 percent of them voted for an amendment calling upon the Administration to outline its exit strategy. And this time their ranks included Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. As the Speaker usually does not actually cast a vote, her choice to do so in this case sends a clear message of her reading of the mood of her district and her party. No, these days the principal problem lies with the Republican Party and their war leader - the Democrat in the White House, who once said there would be no more "emergency" war appropriations.

The Al Qaeda numbers should send up an alarm for more than one reason. Not only do they indicate that the disproportionately large force - the U.S. - is obviously engaged in a foolish course of action, they broadcast a message of heroism about the smaller force - in this case Al Qaeda. Although historians tell us that the famously remembered numbers about the Battle of Thermopylae are not quite right - there were more Greek soldiers there than just the 300 Spartans and the actual number of Persians is quite uncertain - it is no accident that the memory of this battle has survived over the millennia.

In the traditional understanding of the meaning of Thermopylae, the bravery of the Greeks there stemmed from the fact that they were free men fighting to defend that status from foreign invaders. The most celebrated war monument of ancient Greece was later placed on the spot where the Spartans were buried. On it was inscribed an epitaph that, in its most famous English translation, reads:

"Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie."

While Barack Obama has yet to extricate himself from the decade of knee jerk thinking that has led us ever deeper into this unwinnable war, he has seemingly demonstrated the capacity to understand that America's actions may carry a quite different meaning in other parts of the world than they do at home. Does he really want his legacy to be a war in which our opponents will boast of their heroism in defending their homeland against a far more numerous and better armed enemy?

Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher is a former Massachusetts State Representative and the author of 'The Primary Route: How the 99% Take On the Military Industrial Complex.' He lives in San Francisco. He can be reached at

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