Friday, September 11, 2009

Where Do We Go From Here (a 9/11 reflection)

When I talk to people casually I use words like “college” and “my job,” but on this anniversary of 9/11, I think about the reality of attending a service academy and deploying. I know I am not the first, nor have I sacrificed the most, but we have all answered the call.

Nine years ago, I decided to attend the Naval Academy. Visions of world travel and exciting port visits danced through my head. Eight years ago, I stood at the end of a hallway with a dull bayonet and wondered if I really could kill someone with my bare hands. I had just turned 18 three weeks prior and had been focused on getting good grades and learning to shine shoes. I thought about leaving. This was not what I signed up for.

I made up my mind on September 12, 2001. This doesn’t have anything to do with Glenn Beck and his stupid 9/12 project because, frankly, he’ll never understand how I felt that day. No, on that day, instead of cowering, instead of shutting down and hunkering in, we returned to class. We redoubled our efforts because now we had a purpose. I could feel the energy in the air. I’d never seen so many people at the gym. The whole world was watching and urging us to be faster and stronger. I felt connected.

So I stayed. And the days turned to weeks turned to months. No one can maintain that level of intensity forever. It’s draining. And it’s overwhelming. People tuned out. And Afghanistan turned into Iraq.

There was surprisingly little discussion about this. The desire for revenge was strong. Afghanistan was complicated and the politics seemed slow and boring. As a lifelong liberal, I was horrified, but even worse, I was disconnected. I didn’t feel this bloodlust. It seemed that we were abandoning a legitimate effort in Afghanistan to do (what, exactly, I could never tell) in Iraq.

And the talk turned to death. The guy who sat next to me in French class? IED. The kid down the hall who was always yelling? Sniper. And that officer who was always there to help people who struggled with PT? Double amputee. The administration decided they needed more Marines and more Navy SEALs, and people volunteered instantly.

The years have gone by, and more Americans have died in Iraq than in the attacks eight years ago. There are more questions than answers. But, more important than the location of Osama bin Laden or the strength and breadth of Al Qaeda is this: Where do we go from here? We’ve travelled so far yet made so little progress. We’ve long since been lead off the path, and I believe we’re further from success today than we were on September 12, 2001. Of course, that would be if there was a definition of success.

In my current position, I prepare information for the President to write the personal condolence letters of all Sailors and Marines killed in combat. Every day my inbox has gruesome information about people, some who were just 10 years old when this all began, and I wonder how much longer this will go on.

There is a fact that I fear politicians fail to fully grasp and appreciate. There are people, natural born and immigrants, who are willing to lay down their lives not for Democrats or Republicans, but for the idea that is America. They do this because they believe in the ideals of this country not because they care about politics, but because they are asked. It is that simple. And it is this image of America that has been twisted, warped and manipulated by politicians, and it is why we must demand more respect from politicians.

The people fighting, some dying, most going back for more, they aren’t just numbers, troop increases or drawdowns. They more than people with families and lives and histories. They’re volunteers. These wars wouldn’t be possible without them, but shouldn’t be fought simply because we have them.

On this day, we must decide where we will be in another eight years. The goodwill of Americans toward this nation can never be exhausted, but we’re not here for the political whims of deranged politicians. If America stands for things that are right and good, then it must be right and good. If mistakes were made in the past, they must be addressed, corrected, and protected against in the future.

I see signs all around today that proclaim “We Will Never Forget,” but I fear we already have. Not the dead or missing, they will never be forgotten. We have already forgotten the message: We are not perfect, but we can be better. If we charge boldly into the future without reflecting on the past, we are doomed to failure. So I ask, where do we go from here?

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