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Saturday, 15 September, 2001, 10:30 GMT 11:30 UK
War without warfare
The Pentagon on fire
One side of the Pentagon caught fire after the crash
By Tom Carver in Washington

It is Tuesday 11 September, and I am standing on a rooftop watching the Pentagon burn. But I don't feel frightened, because this is not a war in any sense that I have ever known.

This is war without the warfare. A battle without an army. Death without an occupying force.

Car ablaze outside the Pentagon
All bystanders could do was stand and watch
The missile was one of America's own civilian planes, turned against herself. Passengers were hurled at stockbrokers and military clerks working at their desks. How could Mr Bush's missile shield have stopped that?

As George Bush says, this is the first war of the 21st Century. No border has been transgressed. No enemy troops swarm in the streets. Instead, this city of my home for the last four years looks just the same - a mosaic of green trees and cool white marble.

Everything is standing. Except, that is, part of the Pentagon - the world's safest office block, which is now in ruins.

Brave new world

How ill-equipped I feel I am to deal with this new world. It feels like a scene from that strange Russian novel, The Master and Margarita, when the devil visits the earth, turning one part of life utterly upside down. Everything else he leaves intact, cunningly loosening the ties which bind us to normality.

I stand watching the president's spotless helicopter fly out of the golden blue sky of the west, and land on the lawn of the White House just in front of me. Everything looks normal.

America is now at war with terrorism. And this is what will define Mr Bush. Either it will be his finest hour, or his Vietnam

But next to me a cameraman is reading today's Washington Post, full of yesterday's news, with headlines about social security and the baseball. The past seems irrelevant.

When I eventually get home that night, I am too tired to sleep. Katty, my wife, and I sit in the garden. Through the darkness, invisible military aircraft head for secret destinations.

The world feels as it's shifting. The main road in our suburb is lined with military policemen leaning on their humvees.

The babysitter tells us that when she picked up my stepson from his school at midday, there were only three children still sitting in the classroom. He was one of them. All his other schoolmates had been whisked away by anxious parents, fearful of some coming Armageddon.

Bush's biggest test

So America is now at war with terrorism. And this is what will define Mr Bush. Either it will be his finest hour, or his Vietnam. It is too soon to know.

George Bush
George Bush faces the toughest test of his presidency
But I see a glint in the eyes of the Pentagon. If I was Mr Bush, I would be worried. Paul Wolfowitz, the under-secretary of defence was almost licking his lips at Congress's promise of $20bn to fight this war.

And that, said Mr Wolfowitz, puffing his chest up, is only the down-payment.

The warriors, who have been pacing the corridors of the Pentagon like unquiet ghosts ever since the cold war ended, have found their new role.

And, of course, this time it's personal. The Pentagon itself has been attacked, and the warriors are out for revenge.

But if they thought the Viet Cong were an elusive enemy, they haven't seen anything yet.

If the terrorists thought they would somehow weaken the American spirit, they are miscalculating as badly as the warriors of the Pentagon

A successful war needs a beginning, a middle and an end. But in this war there will be no targets to fix on, no land to occupy and conquer, no enemy to come out at the end waving a white flag.

One of the wiser heads in the Pentagon said: "I realise we cannot extinguish religious fanaticism with missiles." But I'm afraid that some in the Pentagon are now about to try .

American spirit

It is easy to find fault with the Americans, to laugh at their gaucheness and ignorance of the outside world.

But if the terrorists thought they would somehow weaken the American spirit, that all they needed were a few civilians slaughtered to bring down this corrupt house of capitalism, they are miscalculating as badly as the warriors of the Pentagon.

The Pentagon from the air
America's symbol of military might went up in smoke
This crisis has not caused Americans to descend into doubt and anxiety about themselves, as I suspect the British would. Nor have they rampaged in orgies of xenophobic hatred against Arabs. Instead, they have just gone on calmly and cheerfully.

Americans are not interested in conquest and feel no need to justify themselves to anyone.

In their response to this crisis, I have seen the resilience and tolerance of this broad society, and the strength and kindness of their innocence.

The BBC's Tom Carver reports from Washington
"This is war without the warfare"
See also:

13 Sep 01 | Americas
'190 dead' in Pentagon attack
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