It’s September 12. What now?

September 12, 2021 3:33 am

Twenty years after Sept. 11, 2001, the sphinxes atop the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City may offer new meaning for a generation of Americans. Named “Memory” and “Future,” the pair are part of a memorial meant to honor the dead from World War I. When this photo was taken in 2018, the conflict in Afghanistan — America’s longest war — would drag on another two years. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

It’s been 20 years and a day since 9/11 changed us.

The last troops have only days ago been airlifted from Afghan soil, ending America’s longest war, a conflict that was waged not against an enemy but a tactic. The Global War on Terror, of which Afghanistan and Iraq were the major theaters of operation, came to define not just our foreign policy, but the national mindset, for a generation. It became much easier to say what we were fighting against — a tactic, an emotion, a credible threat, a suicide bomber wearing a “25-pound explosive vest” — than to identify what we were trying to accomplish.

In searching for the meaning of the two decades bookended by the destruction of the towers and the fall of Afghanistan, my mind stumbles. The cost is too great. I have only a feeling in mind, and an image from a Memorial Day before the pandemic when visiting the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City.

The memorial — now properly called the National World War I Memorial and Museum — sits atop Vinegar Hill and overlooks Union Station. Built between 1921 and 1926 (and designated in 2014 as the national site), the memorial was meant to honor Kansas City’s war dead. More than five million soldiers died in World War I, including 117,000 Americans. Of those, 441 were from Kansas City.

The memorial’s most recognizable structure is the 217-foot tall Liberty Tower. But to me, the most powerful feature is the pair of stone Assyrian sphinxes flanking the massive column.

One sphinx is named “Memory.”

The other is “Future.”

Memory faces east, toward the blood-stained fields of France.  Future faces west, toward the unknown. Both forever shield their eyes with their wings.

To stand atop the memorial on a sunwashed May afternoon, in the shadow of the tower and dwarfed by the sphinxes, is to glimpse the inestimable. The power of light and stone elicits awe, in its primal sense. Eternity presses down. The true cost of war is beyond comprehension, reckoned on a scale beyond human understanding, and the consequences are unknowable.

It takes decades to write honestly about any war, and we are still too unbearably close to the grief caused by that final suicide blast that killed the 13 American service members helping the evacuation at the Kabul airport to see beyond our tears and our rage. What we have learned in our two decades of war will be sorted out by historians for lifetimes to come, but what is clear now was clear from the start, going back to the repeated British and Soviet invasions of years past, that Afghanistan is a rock upon which to wreck an empire.

For those who remember 9/11, Saturday was an anniversary whose weight was nearly unbearable. Nearly all of us can remember where we were that Tuesday morning when we heard the news, how we sought out the nearest television, and watched in horror the endlessly repeating video of the second jet as it struck the South Tower. There were other, more horrific scenes to follow, which I will spare reminding you.

In the past week we’ve been reminded, and properly so, of the courage and self-sacrifice of that day. There were people in the towers who allowed others, especially the injured, to go ahead of them in the stairwells and never themselves made it out. There were the first responders who put themselves in harm’s way, time and again, to help others, and who themselves became victims. And there were the passengers and crew that rushed the cabin and crashed Flight 93 into a field in Pennsylvania field, instead of the intended target, the U.S. Capitol.

Writing that last line, I am surprised by sudden tears.

The courage of ordinary people to do extraordinary things, even when faced with impossible odds, is genuinely moving. In the days that followed 9/11, the nation came together. American flags sprouted everywhere, from cloth flags on front porches to those full-page newspaper flags taped to windows. We were kinder to each other, gentler with our children, more mindful that life and time are precious. Older folks were prepared for the kinds of sacrifices that we had made in decades past, from rationing to the reinstatement of the draft.

Instead, we were told to go shopping.

For all the talk about nation building and keeping Americans safe at home, the truth was obvious. We were deeply into a quagmire of our own, bipartisan making. We stayed and stayed in Afghanistan, claiming victory again and again, and spending trillions of dollars. When we finally pulled out last month, the Afghan government collapsed, falling again to the Taliban. Our exit was bloody, messy and long overdue.

– Max McCoy

The political will that accumulated in the wake of 9/11 was squandered by waging conflicts with no clear objectives and which sometimes had little to do with al-Qaida, the Islamic extremists responsible for the attacks. In 2003, we invaded Iraq (again) on the pretext that it had weapons of mass destruction (it didn’t) and with some general feeling that it was connected to al-Qaida (it wasn’t). In Afghanistan, we toppled the Taliban to deny al-Qaida a base of operations, then ended up staying.

For all the talk about nation building and keeping Americans safe at home, the truth was obvious. We were deeply into a quagmire of our own, bipartisan making. We stayed and stayed in Afghanistan, claiming victory again and again, and spending trillions of dollars. When we finally pulled out last month, the Afghan government collapsed, falling again to the Taliban. Our exit was bloody, messy and long overdue.

What went wrong?

The American people didn’t have enough skin in the game. Most of us went shopping, and kept shopping, while a dedicated corps of volunteer service members, aided by private contractors, fought and sometimes died. With no draft, there wasn’t the urgency to get out that pushed an end to Vietnam. After 2007, anti-war protests became increasingly rare. The conflict wasn’t aided by war bonds or scrap metal drives, as in previous conflicts, but was fueled by borrowed money, and things went on for so long that we became desensitized to the suffering of others.

I have students who don’t remember 9/11 because they were either too young or weren’t born yet. They’ve never seen the New Yorker cover by Art Spiegelman that shows just the shadows of the towers. They’ve never heard of WikiLeaks or seen the video of the 2007 U.S. helicopter attack that killed a dozen Iraqi civilians, including two working for Reuters. They don’t know about the dehumanizing photos and the torture at Abu Ghraib.

While every casualty is a tragedy, American losses in Afghanistan and Iraq were low compared with other conflicts. World War II tops the list, with 405,000 combat dead; in Vietnam, there were about 60,000 combat deaths. For Iraq and Afghanistan combined, there were 7,074 killed in action, according to the Department of Defense.

The civilian losses are staggering.

More than 335,000 civilians died in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Millions were displaced by America’s post 9/11 wars, according to the institute.

Having finally left Afghanistan, what now?

Unable to come together as a nation, we find ourselves riven by political turmoil and insurrection. We have failed to control an 18-month pandemic, even though we have the necessary vaccines at hand. Misinformation, mistrust and malice are currency in today’s social media market. We have retreated into pockets of self-interest, defined ourselves by identity politics, and abandoned the common good. A year after the summer of George Floyd, we have yet to achieve a coherent national strategy on race equality. The partisan attack on women’s health is, more and more, resembling in kind, if not yet in degree, the behavior of the Taliban. Finally, we find ourselves in a world that has increasingly turned toward authoritarian rule, including some Americans who embrace violent insurrection as a means of political change.

Nobody has all the answers.

But let’s start by defining what we stand for, instead of against.

If we are truly for democracy, then we should engage in nation-building here at home. It’s going to require a little sacrifice from all of us. We’ll have to spend public money to promote civics education and fund ways to protect the rights of all Americans to vote. Some of us will have to volunteer to be poll workers.

If we are truly for equality, then we will have to work to achieve it. Disengage from social media and start engaging in your community. Join groups that aim to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and give voice to the disaffected and dispossessed. Put some elbow grease to your beliefs. Work in a soup kitchen, help out at a senior center, buy school supplies for local kids.

If we are truly for peace, then we have to prove it. Never again allow politicians of either party to keep us locked in conflicts with no clear objectives. Don’t let them get away with declaring victory in the midst of uncertainty. Don’t let them wave the flag to keep you from thinking about the consequences of military actions. Never forget that what the U.S. military does, it does in your name. Are you a Christian? Then go, right now, and find a copy of Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer” and read it. Not a Christian? Read it anyway.

Let’s be kind to each other, be gentle with children, and remain ever mindful that life and time are precious. Seek wisdom where we can find it, act from knowledge, and resist being poisoned by fear or anger. Take our wings from our eyes. We can’t make better what we can’t see or refuse to look at.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than twenty books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.