Seven Years

This week millions of children took their inaugural steps into first grade classrooms across the country – millions of children born after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. It’s hard to believe it’s been so long since we were all so stunned, when “we were all New Yorkers,” and when partisan politics was so inappropriate. Seven years since, even if we had our doubts, we all wanted President Bush to rise to the occasion and guide us to tomorrow.

There are a lot ways to measure an era, to measure time. You can look at what’s been built, at what has been accomplished. We can look at who has risen, or who has fallen. You can look at what you’ve learned.

But to get a grip on the tumultuous years since 9/11, it’s instructive to take a look back at what no longer scrolls across the bottom of CNN or FOX News, at the stories that flashed before us in a fireball before being pushed to the background by the next round of sensational exposures. The stories that faded are most telling.

In the beginning there was a goal, a man we would “root out of his hole” at all costs. A man who would come to witness the full force of American military might and be brought to justice. It now appears that man, Osama Bin Laden, will outlast the man who swore to capture him, George W. Bush, aided in no small part by the Pakistani government we allied ourselves with.

There was a time when each fallen soldier mattered to us. Each face made the front page and each sad story of loss was told on the evening news. We didn’t expect to lose too many, so we would honor each and every one. Now the deaths have surpassed 4,500 in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we hear barely a word about them.

Then there was the story of the troops who returned home less than whole. We sent them to a desert with no plan past the first 100 days, then we skimped on armor for the vehicles exploding beneath their seats. Once their bodies were rattled and torn, we brought them home to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, a neglected military hospital where facilities were deteriorating and soldiers and their families were left to battle through a bureaucratic mess to get the care they deserved. As we shipped them from suburban homes to sweltering desert, from base to battle, and from battle to a neglected hospital, we shouted “Support Our Troops!” all the way and slapped magnetic yellow ribbons made in China on our SUVs.

Remember when we were told there would be minimal Iraqi civilian casualties? Our weapons, it was said, were so accurate and technologically advanced that we would hit only the bad guys, never the women and children, and the war would be swift and unchallenged. Today the Iraqi civilian body count sits at an accepted minimum of 86,768, and many estimates put the number far higher. That is only the dead, not the injured or maimed. Nobody is counting the number of fatherless or motherless children, and nobody can track the impact of the psychological scars in the decades to come. How many angry young men and women will be borne of today’s pain? When will it make its way back around to us?

There are many other stories we’ve forgotten – Guantanamo Bay, where detainees sit without trial or representation for years on end; the fact that we have more troops in Afghanistan today than ever; the Mission Accomplished speech; Valerie Plame; the fabricated stories of Pat Tillman’s death and Jessica Lynch’s rescue; the missing WMDs; Abu Graib; our terribly wrong intelligence; and of course, all that was Donald Rumsfeld.

Then there’s the story that received scarce mention, but sums up everything that went wrong in Iraq. It’s the story told by Joshua Rushing, the former Marine Captain who served as spokesperson for the U.S. military in Iraq for Al Jazeera, the FOX News of the Arab world, during the invasion in 2003. One would think our military would have put some thought into who would fill that position, who would be justifying our actions and communicating with the mouthpiece for 40 million Arabs. Perhaps someone who spoke the language, or had studied Islam, or spent some time in the region?

Did Rushing’s resume fit this description? No. Shortly after he arrived at United States Central Command for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he was deemed to be one of the marines most knowledgeable about Iraq. Where did he gain this wisdom? He read Iraq For Dummies on the flight over.

On 9/11 we can thump our chests, wave the flag and sing songs. We can be proud. But if we continue to turn a blind eye to all we are not proud of, we’ll be doing a disservice to those we lost seven years ago, and even more-so to those who have fought the battle for us every day since.