There will be many observances and the images will be all over the television. Of the planes hitting the buildings. Of the buildings coming down. Of dazed and confused people in the streets.
This resurrection of the emotions is unavoidable and necessary. “Cathartic,” some might say.
But it might be wiser to treat the remembrance as something cautionary.
“The past,” as William Faulkner famously said, “isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
The events of September 11, 2001 are, unlike Pearl Harbor, not something we need television specials and memorial events to help us remember. It might as well have been yesterday.
Not long after the attacks, one of the men who planned them was captured. He was imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay where he was to be tried for his crimes. He is still there. Still awaiting trial.
The attack was the work of Al Qaeda, operating out of Afghanistan. There were American troops in that country just days after the attacks and they were there for almost twenty years, until the last of them left, a few days ago, in a chaotic retreat. Afghanistan is, again, a safe haven for Al Qaeda. If that man who planned the attacks, more than twenty years ago, were to be tried, found “not guilty,” (stranger things have happened), and then released, he could return to one of his old hideouts and pick up where he left off.
In theory, at any rate.
America lost its war in Afghanistan. And it has new enemies, in addition to Al Qaeda. Islam, which we were assured is a “religion of peace,” looks inevitable once again. Twenty years is just a small slice of time when the aim is Jihad and the triumph of Islam. And the Jihad will be expedited by $83 billion in military equipment, abandoned by the U.S. in its haste to leave Afghanistan. The Jihadists’ haul includes everything from small arms, to radios, to night vision technology, to helicopters. That $83 billion would buy several nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, though one wonders how useful they would be against our enemies in landlocked Afghanistan.
Our departure is being touted as some sort of triumph of planning and reverse logistics, though it seems like we left an awful lot behind. And if we couldn’t bring it out, then might we not have destroyed it so that it could not, in some future debacle, be turned against us by our enemies.
Those enemies did not really outfight the United States and its allies. They outlasted us. We did enough, for two decades, that we could tell ourselves that we were winning. Or that we were, at least, not losing.
Right up until the time we had lost were scurrying toward the exits leaving everything from rifles to C-130s, to Blackhawk helicopters behind. It was a rout.
So President Biden will not be making any public speeches today. And that is a good thing.
But it might be a good time to reflect and to ask, “What now?”
One suspects that our Jihadist enemies are also remembering 9/11. Making plans and wondering if the time my be ripe for a repeat. What lessons, one wonders, will our other enemies, China and Russia, read into our defeat in Afghanistan, in particular, and in the “war on terror,” in general?
The most glaring lesson would seem to be … if you get into a conflict with the United States, make it a long war. Do not attempt to defeat the U.S. Marines on the battlefield. It can’t be done. But the U.S. can be outlasted. Worn down by time and by the frictions of its own internal politics.
The U.S. went into Afghanistan in the days and weeks after 9/11 and stayed almost 20 years. Like most government programs, the war grew like it was a living organism. Or, perhaps, a tumor. Grew like all big, aimless government programs because it was easy for Congress to vote the money and for Washington to supply people who fight wars for bureaucratic turf and to get their hands on $83 billion in military hardware. The first American military force in Afghanistan after 9/11 was a detachment of Special Forces soldiers. When they radioed in requests for resupply, the list of needs included saddles and oats. They rode into battle on horseback.
But in time, it became Washington’s war. And like the “War on Poverty” and the “War on Drugs” and those other metaphorical wars, it bogged down under billions in spending with no end, or objective, in sight. We found ourselves talking about how thanks to the U.S., women in Afghanistan would be able to vote.
So we lost and tomorrow, we need to remember that.
Geoffrey Norman is a former editor of Esquire magazine and is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Weekly Standard and National Review. He has authored more than 15 books and remains active in shaping public policy discussions. He lives in Vermont.