Where it started

Nearly 17 years later how does this make you feel? My stomach still knots up. My skin turns clammy, mouth dry, hands turn into vices. My eyes well up and my chest burns. I still cannot watch videos of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers. Then again, I saw that scene replay on CNN and Fox News on that prophetic day so much that it’s burned into my memory. Every camera angle, over and over again. Each time hoping that the plane would turn away. Seeing the grotesque collision belching flames and broken glass shattering everything that I knew.

I was 17.

I grabbed the books I needed for my next two classes, closed up my locker, and walked on to math class. My normal routine since senior year started the previous week (the school year starts after Labor Day in NY). A friend stopped me and asked if I had heard the news. He said terrorists had crashed a plane into both of the Twin Towers in the City. I shrugged it off because making up a joke like that would’ve been normal for him. As I walked the few hundred feet to math I heard some teachers talking about the attacks, trying to keep their voices quiet. By the time I got to class I realized it was true. Still, I hadn’t seen it yet. TVs were only in a few of the classrooms, most were only set up to play VHS tapes anyway. The day went on with updates trickling in. It wasn’t until after 3:00 when I got home that I finally saw the full scale of the horror.

More than 2,700 dead when the Towers collapsed. Another 200 plus at the Pentagon and on Flight 93. The towers burned and then gave out under their own weight. People who were cut off on floors above the crashes jumped to their deaths. Hundreds remained trapped in elevators they rode at the time of the crashes until the buildings fell upon them. Cable news mercilessly replayed the crashes in the corner of your TV while their live coverage continued. We relived the trauma of planes gracefully gliding in the air and then slamming into buildings dozens of times that day. We saw the sickening implosion of the Twin Towers and people fleeing on the street, covered in dust, blood, and tears.

I had known that I was going to apply for an ROTC scholarship before starting senior year. If no scholarship was offered I would enlist in the Army. Camouflage was already in my future, now conflict was too. Senior year of high school became an exercise in passing time. I knew what was ahead of me and just wanted to get there.

A scholarship was won and the following August I began four years of education and training to become an officer. I became part of Year Group 2006, which would become the first year group of officers to have been cadets in a war time Army for all four years of college since the Vietnam War. The suddenness of our transition from peace time to war time was quite queer.

The group of seniors at Bonas who were about to commission in 2003 seemed larger than life in some ways. It was clear that many of them were exceptional and would become great leaders. One would go on to be awarded the Soldiers Medal for his actions during the Fort Hood shooting in 2014. That group set a high bar for my class. We were fortunate to have them as role models. This was something I took for granted, only later realizing how uncommon this was.

St. Bonaventure was a serene place to find yourself. It was safe and welcoming. I became more confident, less introverted, more outgoing. There was tremendous personal growth. The whole time the specter of 9/11 hung overhead. Constant reminders of what caused our current conflict drove me, fueled deep seeded anger. That anger and hatred of our enemy clouded my judgement around the build up to invading Iraq. I was a typical American in that regard. Still stinging from the terrorist attacks and wanting a grand battle, something that Afghanistan could never be, I went along with the excuses to invade and initiate a regime change.

I remember being issued a Kevlar helmet shortly before the invasion started. When news broke of the first bombs dropping on Baghdad I strapped the helmet on and started running around the dorm floor. As the bombs fell I saw my future and grew excited at the prospect of getting my chance to get there to do my part. Shock and awe gave me a hard on. I was fanatical. I suppose that’s what you’d expect from a sheltered 18 year old. Oddly, being a freshman at the time of the invasion provided enough time to sour on the decision and become cynical by 2006.

Seeing the war in Iraq become a muddy counter insurgency and the floundering of our hunt for bin Laden in Afghanistan made me wonder just what was waiting for me after commissioning. The incompetence and outright stupidity of so many of our military and political leaders left me feeling helpless. I could see the futility of war playing out, but at the same time I knew that it would become my job to execute those plans. I did my part as a good future leader and kept studying doctrine and field manuals, reading all the right books about grand strategy and foreign policy, working out twice a day (mostly). My duty was to prepare myself and then do my best in whatever assignment was handed to me. Being a cadet at that time was an odd mix of having the freedom to be critical and speak freely while knowing that I would become part of the machine executing and promoting a failed strategy. Kind of like wearing a helmet with ‘Born to Kill’ scrawled on one side and a peace symbol pinned on the other side.

All the while the anger born of 9/11 remained, compounded by the anger over the administration’s failures. Keeping busy with school and looking forward to what parties were in store each week made the time pass. Allowing my chest to puff and head to swell off of the lines fed us about our greatness and bravery for volunteering during war time built up an unhealthy ego. Added to that was an unrealistic idea of what life in the Army would be like. Our ROTC instructors had a completely different experience of Army life, having 10 – 15 years of mostly peace time service they painted a picture based on that experience. By the time we all got out into the real Army it was a rude awakening to the realities of an Army that had been in a war footing for 5 years.

Disillusionment was a foregone conclusion. It’s hard to imagine any possible future for us that would end any other way. We were excited, patriotic, driven to serve a higher purpose, defend freedom. These things were not what we would end up doing. To make matters worse for me, the Army branched me in Air Defense Artillery. The Taliban and al-Queda didn’t exactly have air threats that needed to be defended against. The branch had been marginalized, it amounted to about 2% of the Army, and there was no real shooting mission for it in the Global War on Terrorism. CRAM did become operational towards the end of my tenure, but SHORAD – the more traditional soldiering part of ADA – was dying when I commissioned.

I had a difficult time accepting all this and kept looking for a way to get in the fight. I tried to transfer to Armor branch (tanks and cavalry) but ADA wouldn’t release me. I applied for Civil Affairs, only to get the rejection letter on my birthday. Finally I called my branch manager (they’re like career advisors) and said my separation packet would be coming to his desk if I couldn’t get an assignment to a Military Transition Team. Another odd twist of timing, the MTT assignments were winding down, with only two more cohorts planned. My branch manager had to make a deal with Field Artillery branch to swap out slots so that I could get the assignment, but he came through. Three years after commissioning, 8 years after 9/11, I finally had my piece of the fight.

The MTT assignment turned out to be a BTT – Border Transition Team. The Army had decided that few Iraqi Army units still needed embedded military advisors and had shifted focus to the Iraqi Border Police and the National Police to help build up those aspects of the Iraqi civil defenses. Our military advisor training started at Fort Riley, KS in mid-June and lasted about 90 days. In September we boarded planes in Topeka and headed to Kuwait. Stepping out of the plan the nasty air smacked me. Early morning local time, I was finally in the shit. It was September 11, 2009.

The 11 man team that I was on would be military advisors to a Border Police academy in Basra. The cadre of the academy all had more experience than any of us. Most had served the Iraqi military in some form for 20 or more years. I was paired up with a colonel who was in charge of the academy’s training plans and doctrine. Most days I just drank chai with him and talked about our families. We both knew that there was little I could offer. Fortunately my advisee did not begrudge me. I probably learned more from him than he would ever learn from me. It was another chance for me to grow through building an understanding of the Iraqi culture and history as related by this colonel. We would occasionally exchange gifts. He knew I liked the native dates and I knew, from the captain I replaced, that he enjoyed blue Gatorade. I also found the English/Arabic Koran I had kept from one of my classes at Bonaventure and gave it to the colonel. He was studying English and I knew he would appreciate the book more than I would. These days passed slowly.

Eventually one of the other BTTs from our cohort got reassigned and we picked up their responsibilities in Basra. We began advising a battalion of Border Police commandos. They were kind of like a SWAT team for the Border Police. Not long after this Iran seized a small oil field on the Iraq/Iran border. It fell within the area of responsibility for the commandos and they started rotating units out there in what was essentially a Mexican stand off with the Iranian Army. Finally a chance for us to get in on some sort of real action! We looked at several options for transport out to the oil field, with the only feasible option being helicopters. In the end there wasn’t leadership support for this, so we remained in Basra and continued with our limited engagement with our partner units.

Then the deployment ended. My T.E. Lawrence dreams faded. Any thoughts of doing something of meaning were over. Just one more exercise in futility. Youth wasted. Anger remained.

As I typed the first sentence of this post, it shocked me to realize that as many years have gone by since September 11, 2001 as had gone by in my life before 9/11. That 9/11 effectively marks the half way point in my life, and the beginning of my adult life, is distressing. Knowing that the post-9/11 world will forevermore be the majority of my own life is a hard thing to swallow. Every new day makes my pre-9/11 existence seem smaller and smaller. The innocence of youth all that more distant and unknown. Barely old enough to know the world before the world was torn down.

I imagine these are the same feelings that veterans of World War I must have felt. Plucked from their sleepy lives, far removed from any notion of globalization, they were tossed into a cauldron of boiling blood and severed limbs. Before they could understand what was happening, it was over, and then they were supposed to get on with life. Over the years WWI and the interwar period began to make more sense to me than the post-WWII years. The demons haunting Hemingway seem more real than the V-E/V-J day euphoria. The desire to dive into Gatsbian gaiety because the only thing that makes sense is absurdity feels more visceral.

Howdy Doody, Leave It to Beaver, Andy Griffith – are you fucking kidding me!? More like Aunt Bee gives Barney Fife a Cleveland Steamer while Wally and Beaver double team Miss Canfield and Buffalo Bob turns Howdy Doody into a fleshlight that pukes white. That seems more recognizable having grown up in a post-9/11 world.

A memory often comes to mind these days. Sitting at the kitchen table with my Uncle Joe, (who manned the top turret of a B-17 in 1943 – ’44) when I was in my early teens, talking about Vietnam. I said to Uncle Joe that he was lucky to have been in WWII since it was a good war. Uncle Joe simply put his hand over mine and calmly said “Timmy, there are no good wars.”

Down the PTS rabbit hole

My last post was a great cathartic release. It also felt like I wandered off from the main point of this blog. That left me wondering where to go from there. I felt like there was money left on the table, like I had more still to say on our collective PTS. I also wanted to get back to telling my own story. Then an anvil fell on my head and I realized that this idea of how America changed after 9/11 is the starting point of my own story. If I was writing my own origin story then it would start with September 11, 2001. I’m sure many Vets from my generation would make similar claims, so please don’t think I’m making some pompous statement here. Plain and simple, my path in life took a road from which there was no coming back on that day.

We’re not quite ready to delve into that yet though. Today we’re looking deeper at America’s long term reaction to 9/11. Generalities were stated in my last post. Today we need to examine some of the specific self harm that we have neglected to acknowledge. Unless we begin to admit these actions are harmful we are on a course of self destruction that may arrive much sooner than many would think.

(Side note – at this point I still didn’t know what to write so I went to see Black Panther, which appropriately is also an origin story)

Let’s look at three specific trends that began after 9/11 – reckless spending, willing surrender of privacy, and a slow roll toward an autocratic oligarchy. All of these trends are interrelated and were enabled by our mental victimization. Our fear allowed us to excuse a run away defense budget while simultaneously silencing any questioning of budgetary norms being ignored. Our fear allowed our privacy rights to be trampled without any pushback. Our fear has allowed more power to be consolidated into the hands of fewer and fewer people in the past two decades.

I’m not writing to rail against a corrupt economy and body politic. That’s not an accurate summation of my opinions, and it’s certainly not in keeping with the spirit of this blog. I’m a guy who likes things straight down the middle, so we’ll look at some objective facts that relate to these three trends and talk about how they reflect our national path since 9/11.

First up, our insane spending on defense and national security and lack of careful scrutiny of said spending. For anyone who wants to do some detailed reading here’s a good jumping off point from CATO. The highlights – debt held by the public in 2002 was about 32% of GDP, in 2016 it had risen to 77% of GDP. While non-defense spending is part of this jump the bulk is certainly due to our sustained practice of paying for wars with credit and loans. For budget geeks like me, here are more data from the Council on Foreign Relations and an aggregate of US defense spending since 1900. The short of it is that our defense spending has rivaled WWII era spending, except that the Global War on Terror has lasted more than 4-times as long as WWII. With the recent budget deal passed we will continue this trend until 2020, essentially two full decades of defense spending on par with our efforts to fight a global war against multiple great power states that lasted 4 years.

Think about the effort needed to fight WWII. America had to essentially create a modern Army, Navy, and air forces (not yet a branch) in less than 2 years just to catch up to its enemies who all held technological advances by a full generation. The enemies being fought since 9/11 are the complete opposite in terms of technology. They have no navy or air forces – which means there is no great need to expend massive sums of money on our own. What is needed in a counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency fight is lots of people, effective intelligence operations, and a coordinated diplomatic effort.

This is where our civil/military divide came into play. Americans were terrified in the aftermath of 9/11 and in that panic gave the green light for any operation that was proposed. This unquestioning approval became a habit and developed into a perverted patriotism. To question military advice or spending requests was unpatriotic. The same hysteria that fueled Joe McCarthy was tapped by equally ambitious and predatory politicians.

This tactic was quickly applied to pass the PATRIOT ACT. While many of us may say that such thoughtless surrender of privacy has since abated, many of the restrictions removed by the PATRIOT ACT have been repeatedly reauthorized. Our trauma struck so deep that we have allowed our privacy rights to be infringed for the promise of security despite the fact that the former is not required for the later.

The fear that silenced any questioning of defense spending has also squashed any debate on privacy rights in the post-9/11 world. An engaged and well informed citizenry is essential for democracy to work. Our civil/military divide allowed the military to stay comfortable inside its bubble and it allowed civilians to wash their hands of civic duty. Both groups happily went along thinking that they were better off not interacting or understanding each other. While this divide widened, democracy’s enemies grew wide eyed and seized the opportunity. For the musically inclined I offer this explanation.

That gets us to point number three, the slow roll towards an autocratic oligarchy. Again, I’m not here rallying against the rich. That’s not my bag and I don’t think that the country is secretly controlled by the Koch brothers. However, we are absolutely in a period of great concentration of wealth, both by individuals and companies. Following the Great Recession individuals whose wealth was composed of investments made much larger gains than wage earners. Companies seeking growth turned to expansive acquisitions as the best use of capital. Nothing about that is nefarious per se, it’s completely logical. That does not change the fact that wealth and power have become concentrated to a point not seen since the Gilded Age.

While that in itself does not condemn the citizens of the United States to a dystopian future controlled by a few powerful individuals, it does set the stage. Great concentration of wealth has long been known to be a threat to democracy and was even on the minds of the Founding Fathers. Timothy Snyder’s recent book On Tyranny does a fantastic job of  highlighting how such concentrations of wealth and power enabled tyrants to come to power time and time again in the 20th Century. What I believe we are in danger of today is an apathetic citizenry that is so disengaged, so used to consigning away their rights that such autocratic powers could materialize before most realize what is happening.

Bringing this all back to the aftermath of 9/11 the roots of these trends lie in how we as a nation reacted to being attacked. A citizenry that had grown used to not thinking about the military that they funded continued to stay disengaged. Our civil/military divide enabled an even greater hands off approach to national security matters. To be told to return to our normal routines, to go out shopping and that to buy new homes was a display of our resilience and patriotism, this was music to the ears of a citizenry that was scared and clueless to national security policy. To face little civilian criticism was music to the ears of military leaders who were lieutenants during the closing days of Vietnam.

Contrast that with the reaction to Pearl Harbor and citizen action during WWII. Citizens were encouraged to buy war bonds, grow Victory Gardens, to ration things like sugar and give up silk stockings. Everyone shared in the sacrifice. The entire nation was truly mobilized, took ownership, and had a part to play. A cynic could say that the citizenry was also blasted with propaganda, but that’s a fairly weak rebuttal. America came together in a shared mission during WWII. During GWOT the military went overseas and the rest of America went back to the mall.

The key to reversing these trends is to reengage as a nation. For our citizens to become well informed and to think critically. Changing our attitudes towards raising questions from being troublesome, to viewing this as the greatest form of patriotism. To ask questions means you are involved and that you care about what we are doing as a nation. It means that you are taking ownership of what politicians and the military do on  your behalf. Be skeptic, not cynical. Trust but verify means you need to start with trusting others.

We all share in the moral injury of our nation’s actions. It does not matter if you were engaged or not, if you agreed with the actions or not, if you cheered on the wars or protested them. We are all complicit in the moral injury of America’s decisions. Pushing our heads deeper into the sand does nothing but make the injury fatal. We are at a turning point in American history. A generation has passed since the attacks of 9/11. We can correct our course, or we can go off the water fall. If we do not take ownership of the self inflicted harm that resulted from our unacknowledged trauma it will be our collective undoing.

Until we meet again.

 

Our shared trauma

It’s time to talk about Post Traumatic Stress. Not mine, I’m fortunate to not suffer from PTS, nor any other individual’s. We need to talk about our collective PTS as a nation.

This is the elephant in the room. We all know it exists, but rarely is it discussed. We see the symptoms every day. Our political gridlock, the anger on social media, the seeming impossibility of constructive debate, our self imposed segregation as a coping mechanism.

Satisfaction is more often derived from tearing someone down than from lifting them up. We scream at each other on planes. We rail against anyone perceived as ‘other’ on social media. We feel justified in passing judgement on total strangers. We distrust everything, unless it conforms to or reinforces our biases.

This all seems to be coming to a boiling point. Civil discourse left long ago. Logos is gone, pathos is running the show.

It’s understandable that emotions run high these days. But our emotions have taken over to a point of destruction.  We are too easily manipulated by third parties who have recognized this. Our emotional fragility has become weaponized while we were patting ourselves on the back for having such strength.

Just like an individual suffering from PTS we, as a united nation, must face some hard truths and move forward with reason guiding our thoughts and actions. So where do we start?

September 11, 2001

We don’t acknowledge it, but the attacks on 9/11 inflicted a mass casualty event upon the nation. Thousands died, many more would continue to die in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we all suffered a mental trauma that late summer day that set us on a path of self destruction. A trail of events that spans nearly two full decades now. Never ending wars compounded by a once in a century global economic shock, and disruptive technology that we struggle to adapt to.

America, we’ve stacked bodies higher than the Twin Towers, but the terrorists who sought our downfall are still winning. They’re winning because they knew that the only ones who could rip America apart are ourselves. This fact has been noted by America’s adversaries since WWII. For some reason we don’t grasp this. Always outward looking for the next great power threat, we have been killing America from the inside at a stunning rate.

This only stops and changes if we start to be honest about how 9/11 traumatized the nation. Our population felt a vulnerability not seen since 1814 when the British burned Washington, D.C. Whereas Pearl Harbor galvanized us in a common mission, a clear purpose with a plainly stated end point, 9/11 spurred us onto a jumble of mixed missions that few understood and with no definitive end.

America, we lashed out in October, 2001. We kicked ass. It felt great. Our swagger returned and we knew that we were great again. That didn’t last though, did it? Just as a person suffering from PTS we found quick salve to self medicate. Where a person might reach for booze, Percocet, or a warm gun to get that fix, we as a nation reaffirmed our validity with machine guns, artillery, and sweet precision guided munitions. We tapped that vein with a quick shot of American martial might and validated ourselves.

And just like the individual reaching for a quick, self medicated fix, we collectively came down from our martial high. We looked around wondering why the good times stopped. In our collective paranoia we started looking inward to find the ‘other’. The rotten cancer infecting us from within had to be the reason we fell back down. We drew dividing lines in our society. We labeled those we did not like as unpatriotic or as fascists. Everyone was with us or against us. We found serenity in our black and white world.

But this wasn’t what we needed. We needed to accept that we were all in pain. That all any of us wanted was to live without fear again, to know we would not be hurt and victimized again. In our fear and anger we struck out at the people we once, and maybe still did, love. We did it time and again, going deeper down the rabbit hole of self destructive soothing.

America, we must stop the denial and collective self harm. We need to stop hating ourselves for all our misdeeds and remember how great we have always been. We are still that beautiful city on high. If we allow ourselves to forgive we can mend our way.

Say it with me. September 11, 2001 hurt us like never before, but it will not define us. The attacks of 9/11 are something that happened to us, they are a part of who we are, but we are much more than the scared victims of that day. We will move forward to write our own story on our own terms.

We are a nation with a mission and a responsibility. We are an example of civility, we are a country that values freedom and mutual respect above all else. We are a beacon of hope, shining all around the world.

That is who we really are, even if we don’t always act like it.

So how do we get back to being the country we know we are? It starts with little things. Small corrections to our perceptions, our thoughts, and our actions.

Look at the person you don’t know with affection, not suspicion. See people not as ‘the other’ but as another American. Act with civility that would make our Founders proud. Start by talking to someone who you’d normally ignore. Talk to people with different views than you. Speak to each other calmly, with respect. Seek out these interactions not as a way to change the other person’s mind so that they can be like you, but to find some common ground. Challenge yourself to respect, possibly even like, a person with whom you disagree.

We must rebuild our sense of community without putting conditions on each other. Leave the safety net of self isolation and re-learn to live with each other, accepting our differences. Depart from the mindset of confrontation and march forward with compassion.

Break down your fear and anger and you begin to mend your trauma.

We are only great when we see the greatness of each other. As a nation we share the moral injury of Afghanistan, Iraq, racial strife, our economic inequality, and our ignorance to the shared pain we all suffer. Put away the anger and exercise empathy. When you feel the knee jerk reaction of wondering just what someone else is, stop yourself.

As you read this you may be looking for subtle hints in my word choice, pointing to some hidden clue as to what I am. He’s a liberal/conservative! Must be a stinking Democrat/Republican. This perverse need to identify and classify everything and everyone has become ingrained. Searching to define everyone is so natural to us that we don’t even realize we are doing it. Is he with me or against me? Will this person hurt me?

Here’s the unmasking. I am an American. I am a human being, the same as you.

America, admit it with me. We have a problem but we are strong enough to overcome. We just need some compassion, and we’ll get by with a little help from our friends.