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April 23, 2003
By Michael Shannon
Even with the passage of time there are any number of components
of the events of September 11, 2001 that remain as vivid and
unique as the day they took place. The audacity of the attack
itself. The venality which spawned it. The scale of its impact.
The horrific toll of innocent lives taken. But for the purpose
of this discussion there is one facet of that day that is
singular in its lasting effect. That was the day that war
came to modern day America.
Since the closing days of the American Civil War, war, to
the vast majority of Americans, is something that happens
to other people in other places. We, as a nation, may have
played a central role in the waging of many wars, including
the most horrific ever fought, but in each of these instances
and regardless of the level of involvement it is always with
a great deal of distance between the abstract and the reality.
It is only those who fight and die, and their immediate circle
of intimates, who truly experience what war in its satanic
entirety means. For the rest of America life flows on with
barely a ripple.
September 11th changed all that. The scenes of carnage,
devastation and heartache were not emanating from some place
with an unpronounceable name, these were American icons billowing
smoke. These were people just like you and I crushed under
tons of steel and concrete, or gasping for just one more breath
as they sought to evade the relentlessly pursuing cloud of
deadly dust and ash. That wretched day taught Americans more
about the true meaning of war than a lifetime of studying
it from afar ever could.
In the weeks immediately following, America looked more
like a land under siege then at any time since Pearl Harbor.
But as the weeks passed the more apparent signs of a society
at war slowly faded from view. Soon it seemed as though American
life had returned to its former self - albeit slightly less
This return to normalcy was plainly evident as we began
to strike back at those who bore us ill will. The disconnect
between life in America and the war waged in her name was
never more obvious than in the recent campaigns in Afghanistan,
and even more so in Iraq. A visitor with no existing knowledge
of what was transpiring 6,000 miles away would never know
that America was once again at war. That is as long as they
stayed away from a television or a computer. If they were
to confine their visit to a walk down the streets of almost
any town or city in America, the only visible signs of something
amiss would be the signs reading "Support Our Troops" or an
occasional yellow ribbon tied around a tree or post.
Now that the all-volunteer status of the American Armed
Forces has been in existence for well over a full generation,
the military has become for all extends and purposes fully
segregated from the vast majority of American society. (As
was quietly noted by some, not a single member of Congress
had a son or daughter participating in a combat role in the
campaign in Iraq.) This degree of separation makes it very
difficult indeed to fully internalize what is being asked
of the men and women who comprise our armies and navy. The
burden which they and their loved ones endure is not one which
can be shared vicariously. While you and I may sympathize,
or even empathize with their suffering, it is impossible to
do so fully and completely. You either have first-hand knowledge
of the sense of impending dread - or worse, the deadening
loss - or you do not.
With the onset of war in Iraq dinner table conversations
may well have been dominated with serious discussions of the
whereabouts and extent of Saddam's arsenal of weapons of mass
destruction, or on the progress and strategic soundness of
our troops' mad dash towards Baghdad, but the moment the waiter
approached to ask if you had made a selection from the wine
list, the topic was quickly dropped. This is not a condemnation
of the American public, it is merely a manifestation of how
things really are.
In spite of being told on a daily and even hourly basis
of the dire need for America to wage this war, there was never
a single call from people in power to you and I to make a
sacrifice in any way towards the war effort. We were free
to safely and comfortably root for the good guys while watching
it all unfold live and in living color on the network of our
choice, and at the time and place of our choosing.
That is, once again, not meant as a condemnation of you
or I, nor is it a knock on the almighty unblinking eye. Television,
for all its faults, is as close as our far flung and fast
paced society has come to producing a central unifying agent,
and has been since its inception. And as a sterling example
of the machinations of the free enterprise system, it merely
provides what the majority of us seem to desire. Which means
that now that most of the shooting has stopped, we can all
go back to being entranced by the epidemic du année
and this season's most titillating murder du jour.
Contact Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org