One hundred years ago on Nov. 11, the cadets of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (AMC) declared a “strike” and took to the paths and roads of Bryan in celebration because, just one year before — at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month — the Armistice Treaty was signed, thus bringing an end to the bloodiest war in human history at the time, World War I. Cadets marched in jubilation to commemorate the aptly named Armistice Day — many of them probably slated for service in Europe had it not been for the fortunate intervention of providence.
Do you think the cadets knew?
Do you think they could even imagine that, in a few years, a greater horror awaited them and those that came after them?
Recently, as Sept. 11 was once again upon us and I started contemplating that tragedy, its immediate aftermath and the turmoil that ensued, I thought about the so-called Wars on Terror. I thought about the “Great War,” and I thought about those cadets. Of course, the two historical epochs and the immediate circumstances that wrought them are quite different, but they are also similar in disturbing ways.
Both began with tragedies: the assassination of an Austro-Hungarian prince on one hand and the hijacking and willful crashing of civilian airliners on another. In both cases, the initial reactions were some morbid combination of fear, horror and apprehension. In 1914 — just as it happened in 2001 — eventually, steadily, slowly, that introspective collective sorrow gave way to an uncaring paranoia and a quest for passionate retribution. What followed was, as historian Adam Hochschild describes, an “epic chain of blunders, accusations, and ultimatums,” dragging in numerous other countries who had no interests in the initiating controversy, solely due to an unwise system of alliances. An equally apropos observation could be made about the actions of the United States in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The events of WWI and the decisions that the various states made at the conflict’s end led to a seemingly endless set of unintended consequences. In the U.S., for instance, it resulted in the establishment of mandatory conscription and the blatant intrusion of free speech rights in the form of the Sedition Act. This period also contributed substantially to the rise of totalitarian regimes in Europe — from the overthrow of the Russian monarchy by the communist Bolsheviks, to the cultivation of the first seeds of the German blight that would ultimately be let loose on the world in the form of National Socialism. The choices of WWI were only successful in guaranteeing the eventuality of World War II — the deadliest conflict in human history — succeeded by the potentially apocalyptic Cold War immediately thereafter.
This brings us to 9/11 and the 2,977 men, women and children who were murdered on that day. The memory of these people has been repeatedly invoked in the years after. Now, 18 years later — and with the first generation of post-9/11 adults coming of age — it is time to question whether the actions that the U.S. took did more of a disservice to that memory than they did to honor it.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “There never was a good war or a bad peace.” This, coming from a man who had a position of leadership within the armed revolt of the American colonies, carries significant weight. More than a pithy reflection on the hefty costs of even justified war, I think what Franklin was asking people to do is to always question whether a particular violent entanglement is actually advisable. I would further add that the people should be doubly skeptical whenever the deaths of innocent individuals are manipulated in order to advocate any expansive government action.
Recall the case of the Archduke in 1914 and how his death was utilized, in part, as a casus belli for action against Serbia.
Likewise, the 2,977 victims of Sept. 11, 2001 were used in the U.S. to justify mass illegal surveillance, indefinite detention without trial, torture, intelligence manipulation, unending global wars, abduction of foreign nationals, unchecked executive power to declare war and extrajudicial killings.
Did spying on American citizens really safeguard American liberties? Did torturing individuals of questionable guilt really protect people’s lives? More importantly, would the 2,977 dead really want their deaths to be used to undermine the very freedoms that they were presumably killed for?
The heartbreaking 9/11 deaths were most prominently used as a patriotic cajole to rally for war. Internationally, the American response, by proxy of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars — and much like WWI before it — had its own unintended consequences. The Afghanistan War has only expanded the influence of communist China in the region. The Iraq War led directly to the emergence of the ultraviolet al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) which, as history would show, would go on to metastasize into the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — terrorizing the people living in the fragile states of Iraq and Syria, as well as traumatizing continental Europe in some of the most horrid terrorist attacks outside of the Middle East since Sept. 11. The U.S. was compelled to redeploy military forces to Iraq in 2014, after withdrawing from the country only three years earlier, and — adding to an ever-expanding list of countries — newly to Syria. The subsequent attacks in Europe resulted in a further knock-on effect that contributed to the resurgence of an abhorrent nativist populism within Europe.
Perhaps equally tragic, in the end, the various courses of action that the 2,977 lost lives were used to justify utterly shattered the moral credibility of the U.S. government both at home and abroad.
The Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, and all other post 9/11 wars — just like WWI — were foolish, catastrophic and unnecessary engagements, made only worse by the exploitation of the 9/11 deaths. These have been wars of neoconservative ambition that America’s allies were not wise enough to stay out of.
Regardless of what the Austro-Hungarians thought at the beginning of WWI or the respite that the AMC cadets felt after the dust of the war had settled, the failure of countries to engage critically with the necessity of their actions ultimately damned the world to a second cataclysmic hell and more after. Since 9/11, America has been blindly stumbling from one blunder to the next, despite what you may have read on an ill-advised “Mission Accomplished” banner. The people of the U.S. did not get less death, less war, less suffering — merely more of the same.
On this anniversary, as you remember all the innocent lives that were taken so callously and cruelly, you should also mourn the American values that were sacrificed on the altar of opportunistic vengeance, and you should resolve to honor the memory of the 2,977 victims by committing the U.S. to rediscover its moral core.