“Have You Forgotten?” A Reflection on 9/11 From the Fourth Grade to Today
Updated: Nov 14, 2021
“When those towers fell”
On September 11, 2001, at 7:46 a.m. local time, my dad had just dropped me off at school. I, of course, being in the fourth grade, knew nothing about it, but he heard it on the talk radio he always has playing. He drove straight to my grandparents’ house about twenty minutes away and watched it all unfold on television. While I was at school, he watched the Twin Towers fall, the Pentagon get hit, and heard of the fate of United 93. My dad announced to my granddad that he was going to go fill up his truck (a truck which I had picked out the year before) with gas, because he saw panic on the horizon. That afternoon, U.S. air traffic came to a standstill and lines at gas stations extended out onto the roads and highways.
I do not remember much about 9/11, a day which, like was the case for so many others, changed the trajectory of my life. I remember drawing a picture in class of the twin towers on fire, knowing only what I had seen on the television and not having a full grasp on how the world had changed. I remember watching the U.S. flag run across the country on Highway 80; it ran right by my neighborhood, and people showed up to cheer on the runners. The next year, I remember writing to PFC Daniel Zavala, a soldier in the same unit as one of our teacher’s sons, while he was in Afghanistan. And then I remember the ceremony at the school the next year when that soldier came home.
Twenty years later, I have deployed twice, once in support of Iraq’s Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) and once for the worldwide Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), the U.S. effort to defeat terrorism across the world. I have been a police officer, but in the new environment we were more ready to react to a terrorist attack that I ever imagined local police would be. And I’ve been to graduate school taking classes in terrorism where most of my classmates were two years old when the towers fell. These past twenty years did not go how eight-year-old me envisioned, with me following in my dad’s footsteps as a local police officer.
Now as I am pushing thirty, the U.S. is withdrawing from Afghanistan, leaving the country, U.S. foreign policy, and the Global War on Terror to an uncertain future. When Kabul fell, I listened to several songs which came out in the months and years after 9/11 to try to make sense of it all in my now older, more mature mind. Darryl Worley’s 2003 song “Have You Forgotten?” especially has caused me to reflect on the situation. Worley gets a lot right and a little wrong for the time it was written, but twenty years on, I find his words hit home a bit more importantly than when it first debuted. I shape the following reflection around his lyrics.
“They say we don’t realize the mess we’re getting in”
I disagree. The U.S. absolutely knew the mess it was getting in at the time. The mission was to dismantle al-Qa’ida (AQ) and deny them a safe haven in Afghanistan.¹ It was that simple. Toppling that Taliban government, which had only ruled for less than a decade and refused to hand Usama bin Laden (UBL) and AQ over to the U.S., became an essential part of that mission. The U.S. could not dismantle al-Qa’ida Core with the Taliban still in power.
What we did not know is what the mission would turn into. Even before “mission accomplished” was announced in 2003, the war aims shifted to rebuilding Afghanistan, its institutions, and its government.² While no real counterterrorism professional will discount the importance of stability and security in preventing the rise of terrorist groups, the shift in war aims kept the U.S. in Afghanistan long after the original mission was complete. Like so many outsiders before it, the U.S. got stuck in the quagmire that is known as the Graveyard of Empires.³
What we also did not know is that Operation Enduring Freedom would expand to include 61 countries and 4 seas across the world. As the Global War on Terror expanded, so did OEF to include operations in the Philippines, the Sahara, the Horn of Africa, and the Caribbean and Central America. When President Bush declared that the U.S. would pursue terrorists anywhere they may be and that other nations were either with us or with the terrorists, everyone took this as a patriotic declaration.⁴ Almost no one imagined that that declaration would become the leading line in U.S. foreign policy for two decades. Now, the U.S. is involved in terrorism issues which have little to do with the al-Qa’ida went to war with: Hizbollah in Lebanon, the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Sha’bi in Iraq, Hamas in Palestine, Islamic State in its “provinces” across the world, and even homegrown violent extremists (HVE) who see the utility in terrorism as a tactic. In the short-term view, we knew what we were getting into. In the long-term, we had no clue.
“They took all the footage off my TV”
In the days after the U.S. withdrawal from Bagram, I kept up with minute-by-minute Taliban military operations not from behind a classified computer screen but from breaking news alerts from the New York Times, CNN, Fox News, and the BBC. It hit me that I had not heard much about the war in Afghanistan for as long as I can remember. When I was younger after 9/11, print and television media covered Afghanistan in almost gruesome detail. I remember reading, in fifth grade, a story of an insider threat rolling a grenade into a tent full of U.S. soldiers. As the war drew on, however, interest waned. Greg Gutfeld of Fox News has been quite reflective in August 2021 about the role the media did not play in the U.S. war in Afghanistan over the past 10-15 years.⁵ Other issues, such as presidents’ personal scandals, the “wokeness” and “anti-wokeness” movements on college campuses, and allegations of systemic police brutality, have overtaken public discourse. Over twenty years, the media simply lost interest in Afghanistan.
In 2002, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal averaged 226 and 73 Afghanistan-related search results per month, respectively, and 57 and 11 Afghanistan-related stories, respectively.⁶ In 2018, these averages were 62 and 26 searches and 18 and 6 stories, both respectively. In the week after the fall of Kabul, it seems as though every time I check my phone I have a new story, opinion column, or breaking news alert about Afghanistan. Talk, radio, and television news shows have been a non-stop stream of Afghanistan coverage. More of my friends who were never in the military (or other intelligence or security service) or had any interest in the Global War on Terror or Afghanistan have reached out about how angry they were at the situation; those same friends could not take the conversation deeper than surface level as they had only recently been inundated with media coverage after the Taliban takeover. The non-print media coverage on all sides has been a non-stop attack on the Biden administration’s decision and strategy regarding the withdrawal.
As I watch, listen, and discuss this with my coworkers and Army buddies, one of the things we wonder is how the U.S. public response would change if there had been consistent coverage. There are memes going around social media making fun of the “keyboard warriors” who are suddenly Afghanistan, military, and counterterrorism strategy experts. The shock when people learn the Taliban was never designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the Department of State should not be a surprise in the discussion, and the media should have discovered this long ago. When discussing Afghanistan, there is little emphasis on Islamic State - Khorasan Province (ISKP), al-Qa’ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), and the Haqqani Network, despite the fact that these groups will be a significant influence on Afghanistan after the U.S. leaves. There is plenty of discussion about Russia, China, and Iran responses to the withdrawal, but how Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan factor in receive little attention despite their importance in containing the Taliban’s drug and arms trade. None of these do anything to help the public understand the long-term impacts of the decision to remain or withdraw, continue the Global War on Terror or not, to do business with the Taliban or not. The media disconnectedness from Afghanistan resulted in a disconnected public; an incensed media has resulted in an incensed public. Surely had we had an informed, educated media we may well have had an informed, educated public.
“You can bet that they remember just what they’re fighting for”
The troops have often been a scapegoat for pro- or anti-war policies over the past many years. The troops on the ground, however, had their own reasons for fighting. In the year after 9/11, 154,418 U.S. citizens enlisted in the military.⁷ As the national security bureaucracy ballooned, the newly established Department of Homeland Security, where I now work, has more than doubled in size since its establishment.⁸ The Central Intelligence Agency received over 150,000 applications following 9/11. Undeniably, there are a great many patriots out there working to keep our nation safe. But why do they do what they do? Those reasons have changed over the course of the war.
In the post-9/11 world, a sense of patriotism and, being honest, righteous anger drove many to sign up to serve their nation. Al-Qa’ida shattered our belief that our nation is secure from terrorism; terrorism no longer happened “over there” but could in fact happen here, there, and everywhere. Fighting terrorism was no longer for the mythical “them” of career counterterrorism professionals to do; it now became the responsibility of every walk of life. In his book Class 11, T.J. Waters describes his class at the Central Intelligence Agency, which included investment bankers, professional athletes, and single moms.⁹ Waters declared “it’s our turn now” to describe their feelings towards those who would do us harm.¹⁰
But now what? I was a freshman at Texas A&M University when UBL was finally killed in Pakistan. That was quite a surreal experience. But now why would I do what I do? I struggled to find my “why” even as new terrorists wreaked havoc across the globe. There was a mantra amongst my peers of “we were just kids then…now we’re all grown up” painted against a background of the 9/11 attacks. But now that the terrorists who attacked us were gone, each of us had to discover our own, new why. Being honest, I would not have an answer to this question until many years later: to keep the person I care about most safe from terrorism and so that my little brother would never have to see or experience the terrible things that working in the terrorism world brings.
For others, it would be a family legacy. There is a “warrior caste” that exists in America, where generations of military families are the main ones carrying on the fight.¹¹ In 2018, Task and Purpose reported on several stories of fathers and sons serving in Afghanistan together, and it later became not uncommon for senior non-commissioned officers to be the first salute to their children commissioning as military officers.¹² Fighting for freedom and security just as their fathers and grandfathers did before them is an increasingly common motivation.
And then there are the not-stellar reasons. If we are being honest when reflecting back on twenty years of the Global War on Terror, not everyone joined for noble reasons. I served with one officer who told me, while overseas, that he was mainly there for the money. For an officer who the Army had run into the ground, I can understand the sentiment. On that same deployment, I remember hearing contractors complaining that certain force protection measures were interfering with their contracts and that they had better be paid extra for the change. The sense of patriotism, for some (I will say many), just is not there.
But what about the slowing deployment tempo of overseas combat deployments? Some (like me) fought to get into deploying units. When I went to Iraq, though, the sense of patriotism was not the primary factor in our senior leaders’ mind. Our commander decided to leave half of the field grade officers at home, take half forward, and then rotate them halfway through so they could all “get the professional development opportunity” of a combat deployment. I was shocked (and still am) that first on the mind was not who was best for which mission or position, but career progression. As I watched unit, base, and defense force commanders changed out because their time in position was up and it was someone else’s turn, I remember wondering why certain individuals were even there if they were not focused on what was best for the mission first, foremost, and above all else.
“All the loved ones that we lost and those left to carry on”
Something most do not realize is the number of casualties from al-Qa’ida-related terrorism since 9/11. The Associated Press on August 16, 2021, published an article detailing some of the numbers from Afghanistan:
2,448 U.S. service member casualties;
3,846 U.S. contractor casualties;
1,144 allied service member casualties;
47, 245 Afghan civilian casualties;
444 aid worker casualties;
72 journalist casualties;
51, 191 Taliban and opposition casualties.¹³
Looking at the larger Global War on Terrorism, here are some additional numbers from between 2001 and 2018:
2,908 U.S. casualties on 9/11;
21,871 total wounded on 9/11;
40 U.S. casualties from al-Qa’ida linked groups worldwide;
53 U.S. wounded from al-Qa’ida linked groups worldwide;
23,563 total casualties from al-Qa’ida-linked groups worldwide;
30, 197 total wounded from al-Qa’ida-linked groups worldwide;
4,939 total al-Qa’ida linked attacks worldwide.¹⁴
On the one hand, the U.S. numbers post-9/11 are laudable. As an American, you have an average of 1 in 6.56 million chance of dying from a terrorist attack in any given year. Compare this to the average 7 million smoking deaths and 4.7 million obesity-related deaths in our country each year and it is clear that terrorism is nowhere near the highest threat to human life in the country.¹⁵ Surely, the Global War on Terror has made the world a safer place for Americans. Mission Accomplished.
On the other, there are still fifty thousand deaths from al-Qa’ida linked terrorism alone since 9/11, mostly in the Middle East and Africa. First responders are still dying from disease incurred from the 9/11 attack.¹⁵ Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), Boko Haram, and Islamic State - West Africa Province are killing military forces and civilians regularly in the Sahel, especially in recent months.¹⁶ These deaths, unfortunately, do not resonate with many. In most of these cases, terrorism is still something that happens “over there.” In the one American case mentioned, when John Stewart testified before Congress to get medical support for 9/11 first responders, only nine of fourteen subcommittee members were present.¹⁷
Victims of terrorism have families, loved ones, friends, and coworkers. While I am the first to take the numbers-based risk management approach to protecting against terrorism, it saddens me that we have allowed “war fatigue” to numb us to the human cost of terrorism. We celebrate the raids and drone strikes on UBL, al-Zarqawi, al-Baghdadi, and al-Awlaki because they are terrorists, but we don’t stop to mourn the many thousands of families ripped apart by them, their followers, and their beliefs over the years.
“Have you forgotten?”
So comes Darryl Worley’s question for us as a country: Have we forgotten? My short answer: yes.
We forgot why we went to Afghanistan in the first place, both during the buildup and during the draw down. Nation building was certainly not what we signed up for after 9/11, but neither was ceding a safe haven back to al-Qa’ida. That is something many assess will happen once the U.S. is fully out of Afghanistan and the Taliban are back in power.¹⁹ Some argue a small force keeping the fighting in Afghanistan at a stalemate would have ensured that safe haven never returned. It is impossible to know for sure, but when al-Qa’ida launches an attack directed, funded, or planned from Afghanistan, we will surely remember why we went there in the first place.
We got Usama bin Laden, the man who declared the U.S. a paper tiger, ran the organization which brought down the towers, bombed the USS Cole, attacked U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and inspired the Boston Bombings. We have kept al-Qa’ida Core on the ropes since 2001 and the pressure on the various al-Qa’ida franchises has been kept up, preventing another major attack on the U.S. The search for Ayman al-Zawahiri, UBL’s successor, remains active. While I am not one to pat us on the back for a job well done, we forget that we have made our homeland more secure from terrorism than it was before.
Shortly after I commissioned, the U.S. Army changed its promotion structure to make civilian education (i.e., associates and graduate degrees, professional certifications) worth more than combat deployments for enlisted soldiers. The change came as the Army was having trouble promoting newer soldiers as overseas combat deployments wound down. Suddenly, though, experienced soldiers with multiple combat deployments found their lost time, missed family milestones, and unforgettable experiences worth less than a grade in a college class when it came to their promotion potential, and a large complaint was the college kids were being fast-tracked past the combat veterans. Whether or not that bore out with the statistics, I don’t know, but it was the perception at the time, and those who it affected have not forgotten it. When it happened, and even now looking back on it, it felt as though the Army said, “thanks for your sacrifice, but now we’re moving on.”
When I say “yes, we have forgotten,” I don’t say it in anger, malice, or with disgust or disdain. I say it as a reflection back on twenty years of the Global War on Terror, only seven of which I have served in. I don’t say it as a defense of “forever wars” or unlimited spending in the name of counterterrorism. I say it now as someone more mature than the fifth grader who loved Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue.” The world has become increasingly complicated, terrorism more diffuse, scattered, and, in some ways, more deadly, and the political landscape has become unrecognizable compared to twenty years ago. What I see looking around now is a nation which has forgotten that 9/11 was not just “some people did something” but a once-in-a-generation nation-changing event which cost us thousands of lives, trillions of dollars, and challenged the very way of life the U.S. holds dear.²⁰ While I say that we have forgotten, we can turn about. We can return back to what people like my Army buddies, my current coworkers, and I have said over the past twenty years: “Never forget.”