"But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Seven years has gone so fast...

It's an overcast, cloudy morning here in San Diego. It's sobering. Appropriate. Because after all this time I would hate to think we'd reached a point where the attacks that took place seven years ago today no longer make us stop for a second and remember. Last year I broke up my thoughts into two parts, one positive, one negative. I'm not in such a crappy mood this year to devote a whole post to what hasn't changed since 9/11. But I think it's worth noting the ups and downs since last year's anniversary.

Downs:
  • Our legal approach to punishing terrorists is even more laughable that it was before 9/11, when bin Laden blew up our embassies and the USS Cole, and we responded with: an indictment. A recent Supreme Court decision gave the fanatics we have locked up in Guantanamo the same constitutional rights enjoyed by Americans, despite the fact that they're not American citizens and we've never prosecuted combatants captured in other wars until the war was, well, over. Hamdan, Osama's driver who claimed that antiaircraft weapons found in his car were "not his", was given a slap on the wrist and sentenced to time served. One presidential candidate lauded the effectiveness of the pre-9/11 approach to fighting terrorism - with more of those indictments - in the case of the first WTC bombing, ignoring the fact that many of those indicted were never captured and remained free to plot other barbaric acts. Many of those in the courts and halls of power in D.C. remain fundamentally unserious about fighting radical Islamists.
  • Our attempts to secure our borders have been uneven at best and criminally negligent at worst. Of the 700 miles of fence-line proposed for our southern border, most remains unbuilt due to problems getting money and land. Illegal immigrants still pour into our country, and more sympathy is generated by hearing of all the terrible hardships they endure by getting sent back than by statistics of the resources they drain from our economy and, in heart-breaking cases whose numbers are on the rise, the violent and deadly crimes some commit. Airport security improvements have been cosmetic at best, and seem more successful at annoying travelers than catching terrorists.
  • Still waiting on a national call to service, particularly service in uniform, from our administration.
  • Ground Zero, after seven years, remains a gaping hole in the ground. This is a disgrace, and displays bureaucratic ineptitude at its worst.
  • Afghanistan remains very much in play between us and a resurgent Taliban. The English-speaking NATO allies - America, Canada, England - have spilled a great deal of blood and fought many battles against this brutal enemy. The rest of NATO has been falling over itself to do as little as possible; even those countries that deployed troops there have placed them under so many restrictions that they're virtually useless. This is ominous news, for both the future of the alliance itself and those individual countries who can't even rouse themselves to fight a war all agree is just.

Ups:

  • Iraq, which al Qaeda came to consider its "central front" in the war against the West, has turned into its graveyard and our victory. AQI has been ejected from province after province, its fighters have been killed or captured by the hundreds, and the number of our troops killed in action are at their lowest levels ever. Anbar province, once all but 'lost' to the insurgents, has been returned to Iraqi control. American troops have learned valuable lessons in counterinsurgency and demonstrated that America is not the "weak horse" Osama would have the Muslim world believe it to be. They have shown the Iraqi people that there truly is "no better friend, no worse enemy" than the American serviceman. They've done their job with professionalism, compassion, and extraordinary courage and fortitude under the most trying conditions imaginable. Thanks to them and the many Iraqis who've stood up to demand a peaceful future for their country, in Iraq we have one more ally and one less state sponsor of terrorism.
  • We can have renewed faith in the power of the individual. 9/11 itself gave us a glimpse of the private citizen's might. People on the first three aircraft hijacked followed old government regulations and realized too late that no government mandate could stop what was unfolding. On Flight 93, citizens acted on their own initiative to foil the hijackers, and may have saved hundreds or thousands of additional lives with their actions. This year, the Pentagon officially unveiled its 9/11 memorial, funded completely by private donations. This stands in stark contrast to the debacle that is the construction effort at Ground Zero. America has traditionally placed great stock in the worth of the individual; 9/11, and the years that followed, have shown that this faith is not misplaced (indeed, if we've learned anything over the last seven years, it's that self-reliance is a better bet for survival than waiting for the government to do something).
  • 9/11 has not been repeated. In the days and weeks that followed, while the World Trade Center still smouldered, many Americans were convinced that we'd be hit again. As it stands, we have not seen a second major terrorist attack on our soil. Despite our lackadaisical approach to border security, other counterterrorism efforts have foiled multiple attack attempts and disrupted al Qaeda's global network. For this, the Bush administration has received little credit, but it is certainly due.
  • I touched on it above, but this bears repeating. The last seven years have been a testament to the fighting abilities of the American soldier. They have fought in virtually every 'clime and place' - from freezing mountain tops to scorching deserts - with compassion for the innocent and far more regard for the guilty than the guilty have shown them. Never has a fighting force taken such care to avoid needless bloodshed while so thoroughly destroying an enemy. And this has all been accomplished under the eye of a hostile media (and, occasionally, congressmen). The public got an earful about Abu Ghraib, the work of a few undertrained and poorly led troops; rarely did we hear about the majority of soldiers who tried to protect neighborhoods, befriend and improve the lives of the populace, and who, even while doing their utmost to destroy the enemy, treated that enemy with remarkable compassion when they fell into our grasp. What other army has ever shot an enemy to disable him, and then given that enemy the same medical treatment it shows its own troops? Much was made about the alleged 'massacre' in Haditha, because it did a wonderful job of fulfilling all the worst prejudices of Vietnam-era reporters and politicians; there's been much less fuss about the steady stream of acquittals in that case, with only one Marine, out of the original dozen, still charged with anything. And, even with occasionally self-defeating rules of engagement, they've still managed to topple two brutal regimes and fight two different insurgencies with the fewest friendly casualties of any comparable American conflict. Good leadership and training have taken most of our boys and girls into harm's way and brought them home again.

Looking through this list, I honestly wonder if the ups make up for the downs. Perhaps, at best, they break even. There's still a lot of work to be done, both home and abroad, to swing the scales decisively in our favor. But if there's one cause for hope, it's this: the American people have shown extraordinary resilience through this trying time. They have sacrificed when called to, and would do so much more if only they were asked. It's this individual resilience, from the men and women of Flight 93 making the best of a no-win situation, to the soldier who shows restraint even when his enemy does not, to Border Patrol and intelligence officials who do the best they can with their resources when the media and even, sometimes, their own political masters work against them, to the citizen who uncomplainingly jumps through the latest security hoop at the airport, that will give us victory in the long run. And this well of resilience runs deep.

And, as I have the last couple of years, below were my first thoughts on 9/11. They still say it best.

It's been four years since I woke up one Tuesday morning, looking forward to a relaxing start to an easy day with only one class late in the afternoon, to find my roommates glued to the television, newscasters almost unable to comprehend what they were reporting on, and, apparently, the whole world on fire. By the time I finally tuned in, both towers of the World Trade Center were burning and the Pentagon had a hole in it; reports were just beginning to come in about a plane crash of some kind in Pennsylvania; and rumors were flying wild, including one of a bomb set off on the Washington Mall. We sat there, watching reruns of the planes striking each building, watching smoke pour out of the gaping wounds in the Twin Towers, watching people hanging their heads out the windows for air and, in some cases, flinging themselves down into the streets below, choosing death by falling rather than death by incineration.

I remember the first person I called that morning was my Marine selection officer: I wanted to know if there was anything I had to do, if we might get called up to do something or other (a silly question, of course, since I had all of 12 weeks of extremely basic training and I'd be lucky if all I did was shoot one of my fingers off without hurting anyone else). The second person was my mother. I wanted to know what she made of all of this, whether they were even reporting it in Canada, if perhaps Canadian news had some outside tidbits of information we lacked. She was the original American in my life; I thought maybe she'd have some insight from all her years here about who, what, why this was happening. But few people knew anything that morning, other than the fact that we were under attack. So all we could do was watch.

The first Tower fell. Clouds of smoke, dust, and ash billowed through the streets of downtown New York as people tried to outrun it. At the Pentagon, flames roiled up out of the gash that had been cut to the very center of the building. Rumors of a fourth plane wreck were confirmed, and we got our first look at the gaping scar of earth where Flight 93 had come to grief. The second Tower fell. Manhattan was now obscured by sheets of haze and smoke as the debris spread and fires burned. I don't remember what we said to each other, if anything. It was all so unexpected, so unbelievable. It was supposed to be a Tuesday like any other. What was it now?

My one class for the day was cancelled, but I still had to go to cross-country practice. I was a co-captain of nine or ten guys who also thought that today was going to be just like any other day. I tried to think of something to say to them; I think what I came up with was something about our country getting hit hard, but that we still had to press forward and not let this interrupt our lives. Whatever I said, it wasn't memorable. Someone else on the team said something far better in far fewer words as we practiced. We were running laps around the track, and our workout was almost done when Chris Ambrose, crossing the start line, yelled out, "Let's do it for New York and DC!" The guys jumped across the line, and I thought I would break down completely right there.

The rest of the week was turned upside down. Classes were cancelled the next day, as I recall, and we had a memorial service instead. I remember Father Jonathan trying to hold back tears as he told us that he'd learned of an alumnus who'd died in the World Trade Center. I heard from my parents that the father of several kids who attended my old high school had also died there. That morning of rapid destruction was starting to ripple across the country and across borders.

At some point that week we learned that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda were taking credit for the attacks. I think my first reaction was, "What the heck is al Qaeda?" I'd heard of bin Laden a few times, in connection with the USS Cole bombing and the attacks on American embassies in Africa; but he certainly wasn't a topic of daily conversation in the news. Now, his face was everywhere, and eventually a video tape emerged of him gloating as he learned how successful his plans had been.

By then I really didn't care who was behind it. All I knew was that these attacks had given my rather general decision to join the Marine Corps a focus that it previously lacked. Before 9/11, I'd wanted to join up out of a fascination with the American military tradition, a general desire to serve my country, and go with the Marines because they had a bad-ass reputation and the coolest uniforms. Now there was a specific purpose: I would make it my personal responsibility to make sure that no one I loved would ever have to see what we saw that morning ever again, or be threatened by the kind of men who perpetrated it.

9/11 gave focus to something else too. It made me realize that my fun little fling with this big ole sea-to-shining-sea country had, over the last couple of years, developed into a full-fledged love affair. I could no longer joke around that I had one foot North of the 49th parallel and one foot South: when the Towers fell, I knew that both feet would be forever here. Because what I saw that morning hurt me more than anything I could remember in the twenty-odd years of my life. This wonderful country where I'd found an incredible school, even more incredible friends (and ultimately, in the months to come, the love of my life), a way of life that was energetic, freewheeling, and boisterous, neighbors and acquaintances who challenged me and made me think about who I was and what I believed - this place that had given me so much was now reeling under a blow from petty, angry little men who couldn't even begin to understand what they were attacking. I hadn't felt so stung by any single event before or since. Hurricane Katrina has come pretty close, but Katrina was a natural event, one beyond our power to control. It was a force without guidance or malice. 9/11 was committed malice aforethought. It was the purposeful decision by a group of men to kill as many of their fellow human beings as possible.

The rage and pain that this barbaric act generated were indescribable, and though the years have dulled these feelings, they've never subsided. They come flooding back to me now as I write this, and I'm actually a little surprised that they're still this strong. That's a good thing, though: it means that I still haven't forgotten what it felt like that Tuesday morning, on what was supposed to be an easy, relaxing day. I hope I never forget, and that the rest of America never does either.

2 comments:

Winefred said...

Seven year has indeed gone fast, although it's only been five years since you were last in an institution of higher education, where they teach you to write things like "Seven years HAVE gone so fast." It's a week later now, so I can smile about that (and all the dough we invested in your education....). Didn't even notice it before. ;)

Cincinnatus said...

Actually, the title of the post is taken verbatim from a Green Day song called "Wake Me Up When September Ends", which has had a somber appropriateness in my last few Septembers (9/11 anniversaries, my last month before deployment, etc). Don't worry, my grammar and syntax are as sharp as ever, honed on the lathe that is Bree's linguistic eagle eye.