I overheard a conversation in a restaurant the other day in which one fellow told another that the war on terror was the first time the United States was engaged in military conflict with a "tactic" rather than a state. This is an indictment that I've heard often from pundits from both the left and right over the last several years; one of them a man whom I greatly respect for writing one of the most inspirational books I've ever read--Dinesh D'Souza. (The book was What's So Great About America?)
First of all, it should be obvious to anyone that the use of the phrase, "war on terror" is nothing more than a deference to political correctness (and therefore political expediency due to the overwhelming power of identity politics these days) on the part of president Bush; and that in reality the "war on terror" is a global struggle with the followers of an ideology: radical extremist Islam.
When put in this context, the accusations of pundits that the present conflict is unique in American history is shown to be wrong. The first example should be fresh in the memory of anyone over 35 years old. Commonly called the "Cold War," the struggle that engaged the military, intelligence, and economic resources of, not just the United States but all the democratic nations of the West for some 45 years, was against the global expansionist forces of Communism.
There is another example from early in American history that bears an uncanny similarity to the struggle we now face: namely the wars conducted by the fledgling American navy from 1801 to 1805 against the Barbary pirates. Christopher Hitchens has written an excellent overview article that you can read here in its entirety, but let me quote one excerpt to give you some insight into what I mean by "similarities."
...one cannot get around what Jefferson heard when he went with John Adams to wait upon Tripoli’s ambassador to London in March 1785. When they inquired by what right the Barbary states preyed upon American shipping, enslaving both crews and passengers, America’s two foremost envoys were informed that “it was written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.” (It is worth noting that the United States played no part in the Crusades, or in the Catholic reconquista of Andalusia.)
Understand that this was not the work of any single nation, but rather pirates operating from the Maghrebian provinces of the Ottoman Empire that conform to today’s Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia. And if the struggle that we now face with elements of radical extremist Islam who employ terror as a tactic can be rightly (though pejoratively) characterized as "war against a tactic", then so must our historic battle against Barbary piracy.