I shook with the desire to see their eyes wide with fear, to salt their fields, slaughter their flocks, burn their bones. I needed to throw my weight behind ramming 500 pounds of screaming iron and tritonal into the dusty hole of every cave-crawling motherfucker who had anything to do with the burning rubble and smoking bodies at the Pentagon, World Trade Center and that field in Pennsylvania. I needed to be part of a terrible, sweeping vengeance. It was quite literally what I had been hired to do.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was the newly assigned 31st Fighter Wing intelligence superintendent at Aviano Air Base, Italy. Our household was in chaos. My mother-in-law had been diagnosed with ALS a year before and had suddenly begun going downhill. My wife and I had agreed she would take our daughters and fly home while I stayed, worked and looked for a house before our allotted time in temporary quarters ran out. It was not ideal. I wanted to support her as she tried to comprehend the horror of her mother’s condition, but I was impotent, helpless, unable to steer as my family was pulled along in the sad tide.
These thoughts crowded my mind that afternoon as I sorted through administrative minutiae at the orderly room. The first sergeant stuck his head out his office door and said, “Hey, did anybody hear about the airplane that crashed into one of the Trade Towers?”
“A light plane? Old guy have a heart attack and lose control?”
“I don’t know, I just overheard somebody mention it.”
Of course, it wasn’t some poor bastard in a Cessna.
As the next hour unfolded, I began to appreciate what those serving on Dec. 7, 1941, must have felt. An enemy penetrated the defenses we were sworn to maintain, and now we needed to defend against further attacks, bring justice and prove we were competent to wear the uniform. For me and all who served, this desire to take action was both visceral and vocational. The battle staff convened, the base gates were sealed and we worked through that night and into the morning. We honed our weapons and readied our righteous rage.
And then, nothing. In the command post, we sat long hours as CNN looped and our comrades in other parts of the world were called. One by one, as the days wore on, we watched from the shore as classified traffic flowed past, hinting at what lay ahead for others. My wife returned when commercial air traffic resumed and her mother seemed to have stabilized, then flew home again a week later when the prognosis proved far too optimistic. There was nothing anyone could do. Again, I stayed on duty, and on Oct. 7, 2001, the Taliban felt our nation’s wrath, but it did not come from the 31st. Proud of our brothers and sisters, we nonetheless felt the sting of our vicarious victories. We watched TV as others did the job.
Still, we believed the job would be done. On the radio, country singer Toby Keith warned our enemies, We’ll put a boot in your ass/It’s the American way. Osama bin Laden would die, the Taliban would be annihilated and ticker tape would rain down from Manhattan skyscrapers.
Keith was right in some respects: We tore up Afghanistan. A hubristic Taliban rose up to meet our fist and went down fast. Our rage twisted and grew and morphed and before we finished what looked like a broken foe, we turned and slammed across Iraq to dethrone a dictator. Even though he was disconnected from extremist Islam, it made us feel good when we pulled him from his hole.
Ten years later the Taliban have long since returned to their mujahideen roots, guerrilla insurgents sowing mayhem however they can. More than one retired Russian general must be clucking at us from his dacha. Although mortality counts vary with source and methodology, the score is clearly lopsided: We are killing vastly more of them than they are of us.
And yet it hardly feels like victory. My private personal and professional impotence on 9/11 and the days that followed reflects America’s 10 years of struggling to kill Bin Laden and decisively defeat our enemies. This last drawn-out decade had no clear phase lines on a map. No Berlin bunkers. No USS Missouris. Bin Laden was finally killed and perfunctorily dumped, and we cheered halfheartedly. His death was no V-E or V-J Day. A few beers at PTs, a toast to those who gave and took lives, a watered-down celebration worn thin by 10 years of blood and treasure and tactical victories leading to gains measured by accountants, not by Marines on a South Pacific hill or sailors kissing girls in Times Square. We are still bloody and entangled in wire strung by smug zealots.
And now, my veteran status and retired military identification notwithstanding, I still wait wearily in airport lines to fill gray plastic bins with my boots and belt and 3-ounce bottles in a 1-quart Ziploc. Our national wallet is hemorrhaging; according to the Congressional Research Service’s report to Congress on March 29, our nation will have bled $1.4 trillion across Iraq and Afghanistan by the end of fiscal year 2012. And far worse than my inconvenience or even the nation’s incomprehensible expenditure, many Americans just a year out of high school are still losing arms, legs, eyes, minds and lives.
President Obama promised withdrawal, and that withdrawal is progressing. We are told our missions were successful. But this is the new age of enervated victory. A victory now parsed and rationalized and quantified by men in cubicles, not by unconditional surrenders on battleship decks. My desire to salt, slaughter and burn has been abstracted. Impotence is a hard thing to face.