I am writing this on Sunday, the fifteenth anniversary of the September attack on the World Trade Center. I have chosen not to watch television or noodle on the Internet, because I’m on vacation in Inverness, and I always use vacations to get away from the yammering that is usually my constant companion. But I did listen to the radio on my way down to get coffee, so I heard one of what I imagine were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of reverent tributes to the people in the towers. Sigh.
I don’t mean to suggest that the events were not tragic. Of course they were. They were also shocking, and they made the entire country feel less safe. Usually we are secure behind our oceans; if we want a war — and we often seem to — we go find it on another continent.
But the truth is, 9/11 was not that big a deal in California. Some of us had relatives caught in the horror of that day, but most of us didn’t. We Left Coast people are used to the idea that American history happens someplace else. It happens in Boston or New York or Philadelphia, Fort Sumter or Fort Ticonderoga or the battlefields of Gettysburg. The media are based in New York, as are the banks.
We are far from the action; we have our own action, but that’s different. So after a few years, the memory of that day begins to fade. We were not there to hear the noises, see the smoke, smell the unspeakable odors. The crumpling of the towers became like the fall of Saigon or the attack on Pearl Harbor, historical tragedies that were part of our common narrative.
But September 11 seems to have grown in the national memory rather than fading away. And I have come to see the memorials on that day in a more sinister light. It’s part of an epidemic of forced patriotism and the militarization of the police departments and the perfunctory thanking of every member of the military for their service — even as we cut basic social services that helped their families stay healthy and get them an education.
It seems like we want a war.
It seems like the whole world wants war.
I have been reading To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild, an account of World War I concentrating on the stories of the men and women who welcomed the war and the men and women who opposed it. There were a lot fewer people in the latter camp. Patriotic fervor was high, and many people thought that war would have a “sanitizing” effect on their country, a welcome blast that would (of course) end inevitably in victory.
The coming of the war was not a surprise. The assassination of an archduke provided a useful excuse for a rickety Austro-Hungarian empire to invade Serbia, and for the Kaiser of Germany to help his great friend Emperor Franz Joseph, and also to invade Russia and Belgium. Then France joined in to protect virtuous Belgium, and Britain came aboard, and Italy, and the Ottoman Empire joined the Germans, and oh what fun they all had.
They invented modern warfare. Modern warfare meant that civilians were now fair game. How many dead? Depends on how you count. Some nations disappeared, and with them the records of the dead. The great flu epidemic of 1918 was a direct result of the war; shall we count the 50 to 100 million who died from it? The Russian Revolution came about because of the war; shall we count the 50 million killed by Stalin?
The United States is already at war. One day last week, we made bombing runs in six separate nations. We have the most powerful army in the world; our military budget is $610 billion. That’s more than the next nine nations combined. Does it seem like we’re preparing for war kinda maybe?
The carefully fueled outrage that followed 9/11 led directly to the war in Iraq as well as the war in Afghanistan, alleged home of arch-villain Osama bin Laden, who was eventually found and killed in another country entirely. The President has awkwardly but constantly bragged of this feat, although it did nothing in particular to advance the cause of freedom. Revenge, it turns out, is not all that sweet.
We lost over 3000 people in Iraq; we lost 3000 people when the World Trade Center collapsed. Does that seem useful? A total of 35,000 died in Iraq, a jingoistic invasion to search for imaginary weapons of mass destruction. Utterly pointless.
Innocents die. That is the nature of modern warfare. In the towers or in the villages; innocents die. And yet mankind seems addicted to conflict. Too much peace makes the armies restless; too much peace makes the politicians restless.
And, not to be too cynical about it, war is a money-making proposition. The fixers, the smugglers, the arms-makers, the civilian consultants all make hay while the sun dims. To the victors go the spoils, of course, but some of the vanquished make out pretty well too. The drumbeat of profit is a more lasting motivation than the bugle call of patriotism.
Here’s my personal opinion: We are one well-timed assassination away from chaos. Suppose an Islamic extremist kills Putin; suppose a North Korean operative kills the American president, or one of the presidential candidates. Or suppose an emboldened China decides that Hong Kong needs a lesson in discipline. Or the Kurds and the Turks, or the Saudis and the Iranians — everyone gets drawn in, and…it can happen here. It has happened here; four hundred thousand Americans died in World War I, even though they had to cross an ocean to get there.
So you will forgive me if I do not wax patriotic about the Twin Towers. Forgive me if I look away when football field-sized flags are unfurled. Forgive me if I support our troops by fervently hoping that they do not die. I am sorry that the institutions supporting peace are so weak and the institutions supporting war are so strong. I am sorry for it all.
It’s a foggy afternoon here. Tomales Bay is calm. The oak tree has blue-gray leaves that match the sky. I’ve been tending a fire in the fireplace all afternoon. I am enjoying the blessings of peace. But somehow, improbably, the human animal desires more. It desires blood.
Photography by Tracy Johnston
Long distance help by Michelle Mizera