Patriot’s Day

11Sep13

I got out of the Army National Guard in August 2001. I had been on inactive status for a year, while I worked as a UN police officer in Kosovo. When my enlistment expired I considered just staying out. Yes, the Guard is allegedly only one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer. But it seems like it’s always getting in the way of work and family life.

On 9/10/01 I came home on leave from Kosovo. I heard the news as I drove my son to school. As soon as I got back home I rushed to the TV. My wife and I sat in shock, just like everyone else in the country, mesmerized by the horror of it all.

I knew, for certain, that America would hit back. I knew our lives had changed drastically. And I had a horrible revelation.

We’ve been attacked. We’re at war. And I just got out of the Army.

I felt sick over it. My friends were still in. I couldn’t stand the thought of them going to war without me.

Commentators on television were already saying the government had to “do something”. I agreed, but I’m not the kind of person to demand action from others. If “someone” needs to do something, that someone is “you”.

I called a recruiter and set up an appointment. Three weeks later, the day before I flew back to Kosovo, I swore back in to the National Guard. Six months later I was back at my unit. In 2005 I ran convoys on Iraqi highways, muscles clenched tight against IED attacks that were as inevitable as they were unpredictable. In 2009 I trudged through Afghan valleys, trying to track down the enemy who had helped al Qaeda attack us.

I was never hit. In Iraq other teams and convoys took horrible losses, but we were always lucky. In Afghanistan men died in ones and twos and threes around me. I came home without a scratch.

Twelve years after 9/11, almost four years after my service in two wars, I look back on the attacks and ask myself, What have we accomplished?

In Iraq I never heard a Soldier claim we were fighting those responsible for 9/11. If a Soldier ever said something like “I’m here to avenge the Twin Towers” he probably would have been laughed out of the room. I think we knew that, at best, some of our enemies sympathized with al Qaeda, or became AQ after we invaded. But we certainly weren’t going to kill anyone who planned the 9/11 attacks.

In Afghanistan I never heard any talk about 9/11 either. We were there to oppose the Taliban. Their past support for AQ didn’t feel like it had anything to do with the war anymore. America and NATO were trying to turn Afghanistan into a democracy, the Taliban didn’t want democracy, so we were fighting them. By the time I arrived, I don’t think any troops on the ground really believed Afghanistan would ever be a democratic anything. We were just there for the fight.

So was our collective wartime service worth it? Who knows? I don’t have any answers.

But I am proud of my service. I’m proud of the men and women I served with. I’m proud of the memories, even the bad ones. I treasure time spent in the presence of those who chose to risk their lives for a cause, even after hard reality stripped away the last vestige of idealism.

Whatever history says about our response to 9/11, I’m proud I was part of it. No, that response wasn’t perfect. But it was carried out by men and women who didn’t just sit on their couch and demand that others act in their defense.

To all those who actually took action after 9/11, whether it was through military service, supporting the troops, donating to help people overseas, or even protesting the war if you truly believed that was best for America, Happy Patriot’s Day.

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24 Responses to “Patriot’s Day”

  1. 1 Scott Timmons

    Chris,

    Thank you for your service and my thanks also to all the veterans reading this. You didn’t start the wars, but you responded when your country called and that is a very honorable thing. Take care,

    Scott

  2. 3 68W58

    In Iraq I always looked at it like this was where our leadership was trying to accomplish some broader strategic objective. Our enemies-call them collectively radical Islam-were bigger than Al Qaeda and Iraq was a battlefield that offered us a better chance for success than Afghanistan for a variety of reasons (generally I use METT-TC, with an emphasis on terrain and civilian considerations, to try and illustrate this).

    Look, I know that AQ and Saddam were at best allies against a common enemy and that they hated each other with us out of the equation. But that isn’t the point, warfighting is dirty business and you can’t always draw nice clean straight lines between action and effect or make the case for what ought to be done like a prosecutor in court.

    After 9/11 we had to devise a strategy to deal with non-state actors like AQ. Because the government in Afghanistan was clearly closely tied to AQ, they had to go, but then what? Non-state actors can only carry out their operations with, at the very least, benign indifference on the part of some state actor. So we had to demonstrate that it was perilous to be our enemy-and Saddam was clearly our biggest “state actor” enemy in the aftermath of 9/11-so he had to go as well.

    For a while the invasion brought results-Qaddafi gave up his WMDs and there were positive moves towards Democracy in Lebanon. After a while that stalled and our populace became frustrated with our mission (in truth I don’t think there was a clear strategy for what should be done after the invasion). Still, I think Iraq in the long run has a chance to be stable and prosperous-if we are very lucky they might even end up like Turkey-economic growth rates for the next few years have been projected to be in the double digits, and that would be a very positive outcome for the overall region.

    I was never in Afghanistan, so I can’t offer an opinion on the place based on anything other than and examination of anything other than what I’ve read and discussions I have had with those that have been there. From what I can tell the place needs decades of hard work and patience before it can be improved-and that is not politically possible for us right now. Because you have been there, you may be able to offer a more informed opinion and if you think I am full of crap, I won’t take any offense. I think it will be a disaster of enormous consequences if the Taliban take over the country when we leave, but I don’t think we have the national will to stop that from happening.

    • Doc,

      I agree, in Iraq and Afghanistan we fought people like the ones who attacked us. But as you pointed out, I don’t think we had a good plan for what was supposed to happen after the Iraq invasion. In Afghanistan I don’t think OUR national will is the issue. It’s the Afghan national will that determines what happens there. We’ve shown them what we have to offer. They don’t seem interested. Maybe it’s time to just let the Afghans be Afghans.

      • 5 Mike

        Sometimes I think the best thing we can do in Afghanistan is offer a plane ticket, a green card, and some English lessons for anyone who wants to work and live under western values (as in equality, Bill of Rights freedoms, etc ). Everyone else can deal with their own mess.

  3. 7 Mikey

    Although we’ve never met and very likely never will, I’m better for having known you at least by your blog (and writing). Our country is better for having patriots like you in it.

  4. 9 SPEMack

    Chris,

    I was 13 when 9/11 happened. I remember Pop picked me up from school, and by the time we got home, Mom had put the flag at half staff, and my sister was still crying. Pop left at the end of the week and we didn’t see him again until the next July. Mom seemed resign to it, having seen him leave before, my sister was sad, and I was proud. And I distinctly remember hoping that there would be enough left over for me to have a chance to serve.

    I’m proud to wear the uniform, to take arms to defend an ideal, and have had the chance to serve along side some of the finest Warriors this nation has produced. I don’t know what victory will eventually look like, but I take pride in knowing that somewhere I made a difference.

    Good piece, per usual

    • Mack,

      I also feel like I made a difference. It’s a sustaining feeling, a sense that whatever shortcomings the war had overall, my little part of it was important. Even if someday we have to watch footage of the last American helicopter lifting off the roof of the embassy in Kabul before the Taliban overrun it, I’ll still be proud of what I and the Soldiers and Marines around me did. And I’m proud you were one of them.

  5. Total number of successful foreign attacks on the US since 9/11…zero.

    And we made a couple of nifty piles of skulls of a lot of wannabees who would have been in the recruiting drive for 9/11 v2.0.

    Force-feeding a democracy in any third world Trashcanistan among mudhut peasntry tied to a Dark Ages philosophy is about as useful as squeezing eggs to make chickens hatch faster, or pulling on carrots to make them grow, but the dearth of further attacks here, and the extreme unlikelihood that anyone will mistake even-temperedness for cowardice for a generation makes the exercise worthwhile in my mind.

    • I hope our wars overseas contributed to the lack of successful attacks here. Not sure on that. It certainly hasn’t stopped people from wanting to attack us. We’ve killed a lot of radicals, no doubt. But there are always more. You can’t beat birth rates.

      I’m reminded of a headline from The Onion: “80% of al Qaeda Number Twos now dead.”

      Does killing a lot of them change anything? Maybe.

      I still think the wars were worthwhile. But I don’t know that my service had any real connection to 9/11. Maybe I’m just being too cynical.

  6. 13 JimP

    “…… I’m not the kind of person to demand action from others. If “someone” needs to do something, that someone is “you”.”

    Having the courage to act on one’s convictions is a wonderful virtue …… and sadly, rare of late…..

    Thanks for your Service.

  7. 15 Daniel de Lichana

    Chris,
    Thanks for those important writings who moves me a lot.
    My daughter and her husband who live in New-York tried to explain to my grand daughter -she is a little bit more than 3.5 years old- according to the Duty of Memory, the 9/11.
    For most, she understood and learned who were “the bad guys”.
    I hope that, later, she will read you both as an author and as a man who toke an important place -as all the US soldiers- to keep peace as much as possible and attacks as far as possible away of her home land !
    God bless you Chris !

    • Thanks Daniel. All of us, French and American, need to teach our kids about what happened that day, and what continues to happen now (for example, the Nairobi Mall attack).

  8. 17 Nick42

    Chris,

    Thanks for your service. I’m concerned that our military actions are not being undertaken as part of a larger framework designed to achieve specific goals. I’m reminded of part of President Lincoln’s most famous speech:

    It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us […] that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain […] and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

    I don’t claim to have the wisdom to be the final arbiter of American foreign policy. But I do wish we would stand up and clearly articulate our policy. If we decide, though our elected leaders, that we’re going to take direct action against the use of WMD or we’re going to engage in nation building in failed states where our enemies take refuge, let’s do it openly and with the full force of the United States.

    • Nick,

      I agree, if we’re going to do something, do it. If it ain’t worth it, stay the hell out of it. But stop stepping halfway into something, then pulling out after wasting lives and money.

  9. Was it worth it, did we accomplish anything? This puissant question has been asked after every war since men began having wars. Since WW2 there has not been an irrefutable answer. All we can say is, we tried, in most cases, to loyally implement the orders handed down by the chain of command. At least for awhile after 911, the civilian population held their military in higher regard than they did following Vietnam where our current Secretary of State so faithlessly served. After which he joined the Jane Fonda minions to denounce us as baby-killers and mother-rapers.
    On a macro level nearly everything we have attempted since WW2, with the exception of Grenada and Panama, has been a colossal failure IMHO.
    I would say our recent military adventures have had the opposite result of what we wanted. Our presence in the mid-east was tolerated fairly well by most prior to 911. Now it is getting pretty strained. Just like always, we have managed to turn friends and allies into worthy enemies. Russians were once our allies, Ho Chi Minh too. Who can forget Saddam Hussein and Manuel Noriega with their hands in the American taxpayers till. Osama Bin Laden got his share of our largesse as well. We even helped install the Ayatollah Komeini by telling him to un-ass his country , stop fighting and let the Imams have it. One thing we excel at these days is creating great enemies by schizo foreign policy.
    You, on a micro level like most of us, tried the best you could with what you had, to faithfully implement your orders and Im sure many times went beyond the call of duty . No shame in that and thats all that matters.

    • Doc,

      I always try to separate what we objectively accomplished from what we proved on a personal level. I’ve decided that whatever the wars’ faults, I can still be proud of my service in them. Sometimes it’s hard to hold on to that when I think about certain casualties, but I believe the political reality really doesn’t matter; we lost men who believed in themselves and their mission. If that belief was wasted, it wasn’t wasted by the soldiers themselves.

      Thanks for your service, Doc.

  10. 21 Vendetta

    I don’t blame the men and women in uniform for the disasters wrought by the men and women wearing suits back home. You didn’t hear anyone talking about the Sunnis and the Shia in Iraq before we invaded, everything was put in terms of Saddam and victims. It wouldn’t have taken much of a mental leap for the neocons to have realized that the decades of bad blood between the sects in Iraq would have a very violent fallout once Saddam’s authority was no longer there to repress it. They didn’t consider it though, and the plan they came up with was to put our own soldiers in the middle of a multifaceted civil war where every side had grievances against us.

    It also wouldn’t have taken them much brainpower to realize that the result of implementing democracy in Iraq would be a Shi’a dominated government sympathetic to Iran and a Sunni minority depnendent on violence to exercise any real influence on the country. That’s what all of the sacrifices Americans made and all the suffering our war inflicted got us. We turned Iraq into an Iranian ally. It is a sort of justice for the Shia, after all the suffering they endured under Saddam, but I don’t think we went there to help further the Shiite cause. Not when we’re still committed to viewing Iran as our #1 enemy in the region.

    As for Afghanistan, throwing out the Taliban was a goal actually made sense. Russia hated them, Iran hated them, India hated them, secular Arab countries like Egypt and Syria hated them. We scored all sorts of goodwill from these countries by driving out he Taliban, almost all of which we then pissed away by invading Iraq.

    Going after the Taliban was a good move and could have left us far better off. Except that our politicians deluded themselves into thinking we could turn Afghanistan into a stable, Western-style democracy in the space of a decade or so. We wouldn’t see that if we kept our army deployed there for a generation.

    All those citations of how we did it in Germany and Japan overlooked the fact that we successfully imposed new governments on them after the Russians had killed millions upon millions of Germans and our Air Force had burned every city in Germany to the ground, and after we had done both of the same to Japan ourselves. We got to have our way with them after World War II because there was no more fight left in either of them.

    Our method of warfare in Afghanistan, which tries to minimize civilian casualties and collateral damage, will never take the fight out of the Taliban. The war will never stop. If we are interested in ending the war, we have three options. The first is genocide, the traditional pre-World War II method of ending counter-insurgency wars. We can go after the Pashtuns and slaughter them by the millions in both Afghanistan and Pakistan until there is no more fight left in them. This is not a solution any person with a conscience can support in the 21st century.

    The second option is to buy their allegiance. Negotiate with the Taliban, let them take back authority, if not over the nation, then at least over the Pashtun territories. Or maybe we dont help them back into power, we just step out and let there be a free-for-all, and then just buy the friendship of whichever group ends up on top. By friendship, I mean only a “you leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone” type of deal. This will require us to compromise our morals. This will require us to look the other way when they do things we view in America as “wrong” or “evil” to other Afghans. Sort of like how we look the other way with China or other governments we consider evil but recognize it’s not worth it to challenge.

    Our third option is to just fuck off and forget about Afghanistan, put the whole thing behind us, write it off as another stupid failure like Vietnam, and quit throwing money and lives away in that country.

    Not a great set of options, is it? But until we choose one of them, this war will go on forever. Perhaps our politicians should have considered this dilemma before they committed our military to stick around for a counter-insurgency war after we’d driven the Taliban out of Kabul.

    All of that, though, is on the people we elected to office, not the ones who volunteered in our service. I don’t pity the men and women in uniform who’ve been tasked with fighting ill-conceived and disastrous wars; you’ve all earned your pride for your service and your sacrifices and it would be a sin for me or or anyone else who is opposed to the wars to deny that to you.

    Thank you, Chris.

    • Vendetta,

      That was one of the most profound and thought-provoking comments I’ve ever read. I agree almost entirely, although there are a couple of very minor points I’d differ with you on. One of the hard lessons I think (hope?) we’ve learned as a nation is that some cultures require a brutal strongman; yes dictators are bad, but societies are war with themselves are worse. Saddam and Marshal Tito were tyrants, but they maintained stability. If we’re going to bring tyrants down, we should think about what comes afterward.

      And thank you very much for your last point. Not many people separate the troops from the war, and it’s good to hear from someone who opposes the wars but doesn’t blame us. And more importantly, doesn’t pity us.

      • 23 Nick42

        Chris,

        I’d be interested to find out your thoughts on the strategy espoused in the book “The Pentagon’s New Map”. It’s a self described grand strategic vision for America leading the rest of the developed world in integrating problem states into the functioning core of globalized countries that are linked by economic, militarily, cultural flows. I’m not convinced that America should be the world’s policeman, but this is the only coherent strategy for doing so that I’ve heard of.

        Wiki’s got the basic ideas and there’s also a longer video of brief the book was based upon:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pentagon%27s_New_Map

        • 24 Vendetta

          Sounds like the worst nightmares of dependency theorists being written into an explicit doctrine. What it looks like is a plan created by a man who has obdurately refused to learn anything from any experiences we’ve had in the last thirty or forty years.

          His bullet point list already starts breaking down on point #2. He goes off characterizing the whole third world where our sweatshop employees, cash crop serfs, and oil imports come from as being absent from international trade? There are very few countries that don’t have some form of economic interdependence going on. North Korea, maybe, but they’re under massive international sanctions anyway.

          His ‘Core’ list is a list of our buddies and our handful of rivals too big to really boss around. By the supposed criteria, Iran could very well qualify as a member of the Core. It’s a major oil exporter, has been heavily industrializing and investing in scientific developments, had a GDP nearing $1 trillion a year before our sanctions hit them, and the leadership, say what you will about it, is fairly stable. Are they in his Core? Nope, because there’s no objective criteria for it. It’s an arbitrary line drawn between those we like and those we don’t.

          #3 is where it starts turning into a complete joke. This guy can not have paid any attention to anything that’s happened in the Middle East is the last few decades. If he had been, he might have noticed noticed that jihadi violence is more or less the immune system response of the cultures there to any attempts to integrate them into the “Core”.

          Not just by us, although we have provoked more than our share of it. The Soviet Union tried lifting Afghanistan out of ‘the Gap’ in the 80s by imposing a socialist state. Disaster for them. Israel tried integrating Lebanon into the Core by intervening to help keep the Maronites in charge. What they got was Hezbollah. The Assads ran a secular state in Syria that protected religious minorities and condemned extremism, that reallt was trying to integrate itself with the Core (just the half of it we don’t like, the Russia and Iran half). Assad is under assault by jihadis from every corner of the Muslim world.

          We know where most of the support for international terrorism and jihad comes from: Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the two big Islamic states that the United States integrated into our Core more than any others. Why do the Sauds and the ISI export it abroad so much? Because it would be blowing back on themselves if they didn’t.

          Being integrated into the Core is no guarantee to reduce violence. It is almost certain to guarantee violence and instability when it’s being imposed against the will of the people in that nation. Turkey is an example of a Muslim nation that has integrated well into the international system, but that happened because its people were willing to go through the cultural upheaval that came from it, largely because Ataturk was enough of a hero to them that they’d follow his lead anywhere. Even then, you can still see the strain that comes from it, and the slow backlash now that Ataturk’s no longer around to see them through it, what with Erdogan being elected in landslide votes.

          The rest more or less deconstructs itself, I’ll be wasting time by responding to it at length. The groan-inducingly named Leviathan and SysAdmin model is the same one that failed in Vietnam and has done us no better in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet apparently there are still planners out there who can’t grasp that “one group of guys will throw rocks at the hornet’s nest while the other group stands next to it with flyswatters” is a bad strategy, and are somehow still taken seriously.


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