The Bad Wars and Modern Memory
The commemoration of any great tragedy is a thorny proposition. Pay it too little attention, and you are open to charges of ignoring the pain of the victims and the grief of the survivors; pay it too much attention, and you become vulnerable to accusations of exploitation and devaluation. This problem is even further exacerbated when the tragedy had a political element to begin with, one that has only become more distinct as the years have gone by.
It should go without saying, but still it will be said: the heart-rending losses America suffered on September 11, 2001 should never be forgotten, and the individual stories of heroism and grace, as well as those of horror and loss, should always be preserved as an important part of our national culture. It was a crime perpetrated by heartless men drained of human empathy by their dogmatic beliefs. And even if it was not the unprecedented atrocity it is sometimes made out to be, it was a cruel and unnecessary act that, however briefly, awakened Americans to the fear and suffering so common in other countries, and aroused in those countries a sympathy born of basic human decency.
But it turned so quickly from a tragedy to a farce, there was never any real chance that we, as a nation, would ever even locate a lesson within the dust and rubble of the Twin Towers, let alone learn that lesson. It was decided almost immediately that only the cost of the attacks would be discussed, never their meaning. So, when we talk — as we will ad nauseam today — about the ‘legacy’ of September 11, we will only discuss surface banalities, numbers and names, actions and reactions. We have learned the lessons of that day the way a schoolboy learns the alphabet, by rote, not the way he learns to coax out the meaning of a novel in his English class. Remembrance wins out over analysis, repetition replaces introspection, and endless exposure takes the place of understanding.
It is no longer even possible to ask the question, already absurd the first time it was posed ten years ago, if the terrorists have ‘won’. Al-Qaeda was already largely a paper tiger on 9/11; now, it is scraps and ashes, a terror of the imagination more than one of the real world. It shot its load in one spectacular, pornographic act of violence, and since then it has decayed like rotten fruit, watching its seeds grow into greater foes than it ever was. Its leader was nearly forgotten even before he was killed, and its endless series of ‘second in commands’ have suffered the same fate. The threat it posed was never an ‘existential’ one. And yet we responded to it with a series of catastrophic decisions that disrupted and degraded American life more seriously than the genuine menace of fascism in the Second World War ever did. We allowed ourselves to be so cowed by an attack on our soil that we gave carte blanche to our political leadership to use it as an excuse for every ill-considered, short-sighted and self-serving policy they had to hand. The terrorists did not win; the terrorists could never win. But America lost.
The book by the brilliant Paul Fussell that gives this post its name informs us that all wars are ironic, because the cost of fighting them, and the human, material, economic and cultural losses experienced during them, always outweigh the reason they were fought in the first place. That is especially true of the conflicts that have been lumped under the aegis of the ‘war on terror’. U.S. forces continue to die in Afghanistan, even though the Taliban no longer controls the country, and Osama bin-Laden fled over eight years ago.
The war in Iraq remains one of the most disgraceful events in American history, a nakedly unprovoked invasion under the flimsiest of circumstance; the overthrow of Saddam Hussein may have had its value, but it cannot begin to compensate for the massive death toll of the Iraqi people, the disruption and destruction of their way of life, an unprecedented amount of fraud and profiteering, and the loss of thousands of American soldiers to a war the country was lied into. (There is perhaps nothing more emblematic of our inexplicable unwillingness to come to terms with the meaning of 9/11 than the fact that coinciding with our commemoration of its tenth anniversary is the release of a memoir by former Vice-President Dick Cheney, in which he evinces not even the tiniest of regrets for having been the primary force behind the Iraq invasion. There is no serious question anymore — if there ever was one — that the Iraq War was a sham since before it was launched, but no prison cell waits for Cheney, who recounts his role in it with the jollity of a man who is being paid $2 million to do so.)
America’s foreign policy — what Middle East expert Fred Halliday calls “random bits of aggressive and bellicose fantasy” — has changed not a jot or tittle in the wake of 9/11. We still prefer to conduct our diplomacy by drone, gunboats having fallen out of style, and everything from our dealings with Israel to our relationship with Arab leaders is marked by a stunning incoherence. We back an ideologically muddled gang of rebels to overthrow the isolated lunatic Muammar al-Qaddafi, while kowtowing to the plutocratic zealots of Saudi Arabia and ignoring the massacre of civilians in Syria and Yemen. We wait until violence becomes inevitable to address problems (an approach echoed in our domestic policy); we favor one dictator while scorning another; and we treat the Israel-Palestine conflict not as an ethical, or even a political, problem, but rather as a persistent annoyance we must grudgingly deal with so we don’t look bad.
Perhaps the crowning irony of September 11 is how it marked the pinnacle of American unity, a time when we came together as a nation in a way we had not since the Second World War — only to instantly fall back into the most partisan sniping and virulent division since the Civil War. Ten years ago, we made saints of the police and firemen who fought and died to save their fellow citizens trapped in the dying towers; today, we squabble over paying for their health care and question their right to have unions. Ten years ago, we looked to the government to protect us against a horror we could barely comprehend; today, we talk about the government as if it is a cancer to be cut from the nation’s skin. Ten years ago, we spent trillions of dollars without question to pursue the perpetrators of the terror attacks; today, we bristle at the idea of raising taxes even one percent on the richest people in human history to help alleviate an economic crisis that threatens American infinitely more than al-Qaeda ever did. Even our reaction to terror has been poisoned: we spend less time worrying about the loss of life than we do assigning ideological blame to the perpetrators and those we perceive to be their fellow travelers.
What has happened to our unity, our resolve, our determination? Why won’t we learn? Why can’t we even ask? It was decided early on not to revisit the godawful mess that was the 2000 presidential election; what was done was done and could not be undone, and in light of the terror attacks, went the argument, it would be counter-productive to revisit the question of whether or not that decision might have made a difference in the events of that terrible morning. While it may be true that, a year later, there was nothing we could do to repair the damage to American democracy done by the usual suspects in the 2000 election, the fact that we were asked to accept with magnanimity the theft of a presidential election in deference to the ‘new realities’ of a terror-haunted world simply set the tone for the deliberate cultivation of ignorance and inaction that was to follow.
So perhaps we should not be looking so fixedly at the past. Perhaps, instead of the endless rehashing of the events of 9/11, presented by the media in that ‘our pain is special’ way that breeds so much resentment in that sizable chunk of the world that is not America, we should be looking at where we are today. How is it that we moved heaven and earth to invade the countries we felt were responsible for the terror attacks of 9/11, but today, with the perpetrators all dead and their organization all but destroyed, we find ourselves unable to leave? How is it that we spared no expense or effort to punish the people who harmed us, but cannot find a penny to aid those who were harmed? Can it be we are so confused that we reserve all our strength for revenge? What is the point of creating a massive engine for defending our citizenship from external threats when it leaves us without the resources or will to protect them from internal ones like privation and need? On a day we are steeped in remembrance, we must be aware that our national memory is sadly broken if all it can recall is the injuries done to it, and not the greatness of which it is capable. The things we lost on September 11, 2001 were things that we made. If we refuse to act as if we can remake them, then they are really lost forever, and so are we.