Sunday, September 11, 2016

Life During Wartime

15 years on and many Americans still can't get past 911.  Thomas Hoepker waited five years before publishing this photo he took that day in Brooklyn, and it still wasn't long enough.  Hoepker suffered a torrent of abuse, even from those in the photo, who said they were in a profound state of shock, not making light of the situation as the photo appears to imply.  Photos can lie.

Part of the reason the image of the burning towers still burns bright in our minds is that we really haven't come to terms with it.  We look at it as some great harm inflicted on us from out of the blue, much like Pearl Harbor 60 years before.  We believe ourselves relatively safe from the conflicts that tear apart the world.  After all, this country went through both world wars essentially unscathed, and we never could quite bring ourselves to believe the Soviet Union would actually launch a nuclear warhead at us.  Like those young persons in the photos, world conflicts take place on some distant shore, although we watch them from the comfort of our living room.

More attention than usual is being paid this year to the events that followed the multiple terrorist acts.  It was refreshing to see Fareed Zakaria have guests assessing the Bush Doctrine, which was similar in many aspects to Truman's doctrine that ushered in the Cold War following WWII.  President Bush wasted no time battening down the hatches.  He pushed a Patriot Act and Homeland Security bill through Congress that met with little resistance.  He got a green light from the UN to invade Afghanistan and bring the sponsors of this heinous act to heel.  It was only when he overstretched his moral authority and called for an invasion of Iraq that the good will virtually every country had shown us began to evaporate.  The UN refused to sanction the Iraq War leaving Bush and a handful of allies to go it alone. 

He received overwhelming approval for his actions at home.  Even the Iraq War met with initial public approval, although some would be loathe to admit it now.  What seemed like a relatively quick victory turned into a long, dragged out reconstruction effort to put in place an Iraqi government more sympathetic to our interests in the region.   The same president who had vowed "no more nation building" was doing exactly that, and many troops were coming back in body bags.

Cindy Sheehan started staging her vigil for her fallen son at Crawford Ranch, where Bush seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time.   She was pretty much seen as a flake, but crosses started pitching up all across the country commemorating the dead, who were shipped home in secret.  The Bush administration tried desperately to minimize the media exposure of the war dead, but by August, 2005, when Sheehan started her vigil over 1800 US soldiers had died in Iraq, and more in Aghanistan.

This number paled in comparison to the Iraqi and Afghani dead, whose numbers were also largely concealed.  The US was now caught in the middle of two civil wars, so it was hard to determine who killed who.  Those who suffered the most were civilians trapped in the crossfire. There was some attempt to cover this aspect of the wars, but like the ongoing Israeli-Palestine conflict, we became inured to all the dead.  Just for the record, to date nearly 200,000 Iraqi civilians and 30,000 Afghani civilians have lost their lives in the ongoing conflicts.  Add to that the spillover into Syria, which has resulted in the largest humanitarian crisis since the Vietnam War.

Despite our efforts to bring new leaderships to these countries, they are as unstable as ever.  The United States tries to coordinate efforts in Syria with Russia and Turkey, but the three countries often find themselves at cross purposes.  Obama has also maintained a presence in Afghanistan, hoping to keep the Taliban at bay, rather than carry out a full withdrawal as he did in Iraq, which many politicians and pundits blame for the rise of ISIS.

These militant groups are hydra-headed.  It seems at least two heads grow back for everyone you cut off, which has made this war on terror appear futile.  Yet, the Obama administration battles on, and Trump vows total annihilation.  We did have another option all those years ago and that was to treat 911 as a police action, not a military one, and go after those specifically responsible for the attack, not militant Islamic extremism as a whole.  But, once you start something you like to finish it.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were on hand for the memorial service in New York.  It seemed like the day would pass without incident until Hillary stumbled on the way back to her mini-van.  Her personal physician said it was the result of dehydration and the effect of the antibiotics she was using to combat pneumonia, but no matter the media seized on it as another sign she is harboring some mysterious illness.  For his part, Trump played the role of a vigorous 70-year old, probably pumped up with Viagra.  Any attempt to put 911 in perspective was lost, save for dear Fareed who pressed on with his program as scheduled.

It shows we have pretty much learned nothing from 911.  It remains an event to be exploited, which was why Cindy Sheehan gave up her vigil in 2007 and has now cast her scorn on Democrats and Republicans alike.  In her mind, we have become a "fascist corporate wasteland."  Harsh words from the anti-war activist.

I can understand her frustration, but the problem is that most Americans never really understood what was going on to begin with.  The toppling of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein assuaged our initial anger to some degree but the ongoing conflicts only served to make us feel even more insecure as we found there really isn't anything you can do to stop this kind of extremism.  We've since seen any number of bombings and shooting sprees in the name of the Islamic State, and all our actions in the Middle East and Central Asia appear to be doing is adding fuel to the fire.  This has made us more resentful than ever, with Trump actively exploiting it on the campaign trail.

You can almost imagine those persons in the photo talking about what has just happened on the other side of the East River, trying to keep it in perspective but maintaining a calm face.  After all, they have to feel pretty lucky they had been spared, being so close to the epicenter.   The lyrics of Talking Heads' Life During Wartime come to mind.

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