Nine Eleven was not Pearl Harbor; we made some missteps; Bush may have had one thing right, though

September 11, 2011

Pearl Harbor, 9/11 was not. But it was a tragedy, and I have come to think, maybe just today on its tenth anniversary, that President George W. Bush was at least partially right in his reactions to the event — maybe. But first:

Well 9/11 or 9-11-11 is all but a done deal now and thank goodness, as I write this, nothing yet. (Well actually there was an attack by the Taliban in the ongoing Afghan War over the last 24 hours, with many Americans — at least 77 — injured, but nothing in the homeland, as it has been called, particularly since 9/11 ).

I also want to interject here before I go further that regardless of what I think of the War on Terror I felt sad and outraged when I heard an interview on NPR in which a National Guardsman who served in Afghanistan said he got into a fight in a bar here at home when someone said to him: “your war doesn’t count”. This soldier, according to the interview, had been involved in going out and searching for IEDs and had suffered the shock of blasts from them more than once.

Its kind of chicken…t that we have this all-volunteer military and we can stand by and let them be sent hither and yon and into harm’s way but not even consider the policies that send them there because it does not affect our own life. Besides, the soldier does what he or she is supposed to do and if he or she was not available, each one of us might be subject to the call. And the soldier is separate from the government policy that puts him or her in harm’s way.

(There is the Nuremberg, I was only following orders thing, but I think the guilt rests with the higher ups, generally.)

But back to what I wanted to say on this tenth anniversary before it is over:

There has been a lot of comparison of 9/11 to Pearl Harbor. In fact those neocons who wanted us to go to war in the Middle East (again since Desert Storm) even had the audacity to wish on paper for another Pearl Harbor in their Project for a New American Century treatise.

But while it is spooky and almost a little too convenient that indeed we had a Pearl Harbor-like attack (it did come from the air), there are not really a lot of similarities, except about the same number of lost lives.

Pearl Harbor was an act of war by an identifiable nation — Japan. I don’t know if the Japanese admiral really said it, but in a movie account he is heard saying: “I am afraid we have awakened a sleeping giant”. Indeed the Japanese did. There was a strong isolationist feeling in America, right up until the Japs attacked. At that point the isolationist movement  died.

We had a fairly unified reaction to 9/11 but as the response dragged on and got muddled I think the public turned indifferent for the most part.

On 9/11 we were attacked by a stateless group of folks. It was staged, though, from Afghanistan where the group who would claim responsibility and calls itself Al Qaeda was being harbored along with its then leader Osama Bin Laden by the Taliban who controlled that nation. We demanded they turn over Bin Laden and they refused and we attacked. But as everyone knows, almost inexplicably our former president, George W. Bush, seemed to become half-hearted at that and turned his sights on Iraq, successfully conflating events there with 9/11 (it is well known he wanted an excuse to attack Iraq even before 9/11). While certainly the then leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, was probably sympathetic with the aims of Al Qaeda, as far as them being against America, there is no evidence he had anything whatsoever to do with 9/11. Nonetheless we wound up attacking Iraq and making much more of a show of it there than Afghanistan until years later. We are still engaged in hostilities in both nations. And of course President Obama successfully ordered and got the killing of Bin Laden by our special military units, most notably the Navy SEALS.

But while the attack on Pearl Harbor was an act of clear aggression by an identifiable nation, and while Pearl Harbor pushed America into World War II against the Axis powers of Japan and Germany (and for a time Italy), and while congress officially declared war on the Axis powers, and while that war was budgeted and consumer goods became scarce and food was rationed in the war effort — none of those things took place for 9/11. And oh, yes, we, the U.S. and its allies, clearly won WWII. We went for complete victory to include unconditional surrender of the enemy.

Today we have no complete victory and no unconditional surrender and at times we don’t even know who the enemy is. Indeed the presidential authorizations to fight this war or wars seems to be against terrorism in general, as if you could declare war on a tactic or against evil itself.

Our constitution does not really tell us what to do in this instance. I don’t think the framers dreamed that one day we would have a president who would up and decide to wipe out all evil in the world by declaring war on it. And our wars in these modern times, especially since World War II, are just not fought in the same way.

In the end, we actually prospered from WWII and became the world’s leading economic and military power.

Today we are essentially going bankrupt due in large part to the War on Terror.

And we are no safer today, a trillion or more dollars and thousands of casualties later, after a decade, or at least it is hard to think we could be.

One of the more agonizing things about both Pearl Harbor and 9/11 is that in both cases we had warning. Pearl Harbor had actually been predicted back in the 1920s, even though it did not occur until 1941. A 9/11-type attack had also been predicted years ahead of time, despite the erroneous observation by Condoleezza Rice that no one ever thought such a thing might happen. We also had the very culprits who got on the airplanes and carried out the 9/11 attacks on a terrorist watch list, but it all got lost in the bureaucracy and interagency rivalry.

Some have even suggested that there was an inside conspiracy in both cases by people who wanted us to go to war. While I doubt that, I do think that the events handed them their cases on a silver platter and maybe some did look the other way at warnings hoping something might happen.

Twenty-twenty hindsight is easy, I admit. But we do need to reflect on what happened and how we handled it and see if we cannot come up with something better.

While I have always been critical of Bush for his actions, particularly his striking at Iraq, instead of concentrating on Afghanistan or even on just going after the actual perpetrators — the ones besides the ones that died in the attack of course — and their leader Bin Laden (it took another president to get that job done), I think he, Bush, had the right idea after all, maybe, in putting those who would attack America on notice that they could run, but they could not hide — we will get them.

We indeed did get Bin Laden (even if it took a decade), and we have killed scores of Al Qaeda leaders. I mean it has got to make some of these bad guys nervous that an unseen drone flying overhead could send a missile up their rear end at any moment.

I think we may have overdone things militarily, especially since we don’t seem to have the desire or stomach to actually defeat nations, occupy them for a time, and then make sure they fly right. We did so with Germany and Japan, but that was then and this is now.

I’m thinking drones, cloak and dagger, and keeping our mouths shut, and letting our actions speak louder than words, just might be the way to go.

But there still may come a time when it will be necessary to use our military in a more conventional sense. We have to have public support to make that effective. And we should not do so without it.

And although for much of today I was involved with my truck driving work, I did manage to catch some of the comments from folks who suffered on 9/11, who lost loved ones.

I felt terribly sad for them.


ADD 1:

I just now recall that I heard a story the other day I think on NPR that the ten-year anniversary of Pearl Harbor was not marked in any special way for the most part because we were all into having our former foe Japan be on our side and be an important base for our operations against North Korea at the time, the Korean War being in progress.



Looking back in a more personal way in my own life, I recall that fateful day. My now late wife was in the hospital suffering from a mysterious illness. It was touch and go and I had been up late with her. At the time we were living with my mother. I was on leave (using vacation time) from my work. That morning I was sleeping in, having been up late at the hospital. My mom woke me up and told me a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York. News junkie that I am, normally I would have jumped up. But I was tired. But after I finally did get up, I saw the video of a jet crashing into one of the towers.  And I recall once the second plane hit, we instantly knew this was not a freak accident.

As it turned out, my wife would recover for the most part, but unfortunately she only had about nine years. She died just over a year ago.

Wished I could have made more of those nine years with her.

We should all make the best of things each day. Things like 9/11 happen, and even smaller every day tragedies occur too. None of us knows how long we have and how long we will share things with our loved ones.