9/11 was our Pearl Harbor, but for us the war never ends


My dad woke me up on September 11th, 2001. He was calling from the East Coast where it was just after 9am. It was 6am in Arizona.  I’d been up the night before watching television until late into the night and reading about stocks. I was interested in financial markets and stock brokerage. “Turn on the TV, you’ve got to see this.” At the time it wasn’t clear what was happening, how a plane had crashed by accident into the World Trade Center.

I wanted to go back to bed, so I laid on the couch and put on FoxNews. It was shortly after the second plane had hit the south tower. About an hour later the south tower collapsed. The media was perplexed about what was happening, in awe, surprise, shock, fear. I put in a video cassette, in those days we still had them, and recorded the coverage on the VCR. It was 2001, we still had tapes and CDs.

I don’t recall much of that day. I was in a fraternity at the time. We had a member who was Pakistani. He used to tell us tales of the Taliban and how proud he was that Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, was supporting them. The Northern Alliance, who US forces would soon be aiding in battle, were the bad guys, in his view.

9/11 was our Pearl Harbor. For a listless generation of students studying business with little in the way of passion or national interest, this was a turning point. We’d been born in the late 70s and early 80s. What memories we had of the Cold War perhaps was a snippet of Oliver North on radio. We were young during the First Gulf War and Saddam Hussein. When I was in grade school they joked about “maddass Saddam,” reversing the spelling of his name. But it was a war for oil, our parents said.  Then we had the invasion of Haiti, Bosnia, Blackhawk Down, Desert Fox, Kosovo. The little wars of the Clinton years. It was 9/11 that was defining.

But it was also anticlimactic.  There was no draft. People I knew went to war, but by drips. A few here, a few there. Ramadi. Fallujah. We watched Saddam’s defiance of George W. Bush with a Lebanese member of the frat. Wondered why Gulbeddin Hekmatyar was still alive but Abdul Haq and Ahmed Shah Masood were dead. Why Bin Laden escaped. Why did students at my University of Arizona protest the invasion of Afghanistan?  Why did they want Bin Laden on trial at an “international court” and insist this was a “law enforcement issue.”  Why did we have “walls of expression” festooned with so much hate speech and anti-semitism they had to be taken down. We all had to learn about Jihad (it’s all about peace) and hijab (it’s empowering for women) and Islam (it’s a religion of peace) and Islamophobia.  That was university.


The author in Sinjar in northern Iraq, Kurdistan, in front of a crossed-out ISIS flag after the city was liberated in 2015 (left); a man watching explosions at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 2914.

The boys who went off to war in the wake of Pearl Harbor seventy five years ago did so with a clear and defined enemy. They even had movies to explain Why we fight (1942). In 1940 there had been 458,000 men in the military. By the end of 1941 there were 1.8 million and by 1942 almost 4 million. At the end in 1945 more than 12 million would be under arms. In the first ten years after 9/11 around 2 million served in Iraq and Afghanistan, 6,000 were killed and 44,000 wounded (military and contractor deaths). Around 3 million enlisted between 2001 and 2011.  Since then more have been killed, including the first combat death in Syria and soldiers and contractors killed in Jordan and other places.

Around 2,475 were killed at Pearl Harbor, most of them military, in 9/11 it was 2,977 people, most civilians. Both changed America greatly and are seared into memory.  But one war never ends.  The war on terror, the war that 9/11 defines never ends. It’s been fifteen years and those places the war took America to are not improving. Afghanistan is not improving.  The Taliban is still there and increasing its presence. Iraq is defeating ISIS, but the problems it has are still ever-present. Anyone in the Middle East reading this will say that that’s a very Americanocentric view. Of course. Because 9/11 isn’t necessarily a defining moment for the Middle East. Perhaps the Iraq invasion of 2003 is defining, or the 1991 war, or ISIS or the Arab Spring or a plethora of other events such as the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Of course there are parallels between the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, which the world ignored at the time for the most part, and the destruction of the ancient cities and civilizations of Iraq and Syria by ISIS.

The endlessness of this war today is captured by the kinds of commentary on it. War is Boring, the Long War journal, or War on the Rocks are names of journals, blogs and analysis. Books: 1,000 Years for RevengeWhat Went WrongBlowbackRoad to 9/11.  What about the moviesGeneration KillHurtlockerBody of Lies, Stop-Loss, American Sniper, Lone Survivor, The Kingdom, Zero Dark Thirty, the Valley of Elah, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, 13 Hours, Eye in the Sky.  When you’re done you can watch Homeland. screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-4-43-57-pm

The reality of these films and the events the portray is that there is an ambiguous mission, partially immoral, and that while there are individual heroes, the overall ark is not heroic, it is mostly pointless, there are no winners. The enemies are, half the time, of our own creation, perhaps ourselves. We want to do good, but we do bad. If you want some clarity watch Band of Brothers or Hacksaw RidgeA Bridge to Far.  

What is our endless war? This is not the Greatest Generation. Only one percent of America has been to war. There were around 133 million Americans in 1941 so around 10% of them served in the conflict. Today there are 318 million Americans. It’s true that the moral clarity that was lost in Vietnam was regained in 1991. But the patriotism and homeland security and other issues unleashed in 2001 were not all healthy. Not healthy in terms of civil rights (Guantanamo is still open), and not always healthy in terms of the questions it revealed about society. America has an inability to digest exactly what it is fighting.  Is it fighting “extremism,” or “terror” or Islamism? President Obama boasted December 6th that there had been no attacks on the homeland by a foreign terrorist organization. That’s easy to say when the attacks in Ohio (2016), Orlando (2016), San Barnadino (2015), Chattanooga (2015), Boston Marathon (2013),  Fort Hood (2009) are seen as either workplace violence or self-radicalized individuals with “unclear” motives. The same US that doesn’t want to connect these dots didn’t want to connect dots in the 1990s from the World Trade Center to Africa, Yemen and 9/11.

It has left American politics deeply divided, with Obama a reaction to Bush and Trump a reaction to Obama.  JFK and Nixon served in the Second World War, they had a broad worldview that had much in common. Now the commanders from the recent wars, such as General James Mattis and Michael Flynn will be in the Trump administration. But the consensus on America’s role in the world, it’s optimism, is lost. Russia and Europe and the world have been deeply affected. Refugees in Europe are partly a result of these present conflicts. Changes in Turkey and Egypt and Iran are part of this story of 9/11.  So also is the spread of Al-Shabab and Boko Haram in Africa. The octopus of terror has swept the world as have the reactions to it.

There is no evidence the endless war will end in the foreseeable future. 9/11 was symbolic of that starting point, even though it was not the starting point. For those who lived through Pearl Harbor, they were lucky in a sense. They had a war, it ended, and they came home. For us today there is no coming home.




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