The only twin towers fatality I knew personally, I didn’t like. His name was Ronnie, the son of a shipping magnate from South America I first met as a freshman at boarding school. At this school, where annual tuition exceeds most private colleges, the wealthiest sons of the world gather—whether from Hong Kong or Saudi Arabia or America.
They form there, as teenagers, the social skills and relationships that will assist them in their life’s work, growing their global sphere of influence and power. As a scholarship student who grew up repairing my shoes with Shoe Goo, my presence among them was incongruous. Halfway through my junior year I was expelled for poor grades. Instead of being transferred to a lesser school, as was customary among my peers (whose parents had dorms and aquatic centers named after them), I was returned home. A year later, in 1990, I enlisted in the U.S. Army as a common private.
Three years after 9/11, when I received a call deploying me to Iraq as an infantry officer, I was ambivalent about our purpose there ...
You would think that Ronnie’s death would have made me more disposed to him or to his family, but that wasn’t the case. Ronnie was a nasty person, comparable in many ways to the sons of Saddam but better looking. He ruthlessly used his money and his looks no differently than a mercenary uses a gun. Even at the age of 14, he knew how to draw laughs from his homespun Yankee peers by pantomiming his reaction to an unwanted pregnancy:
“Oh, baby, come here. It’s all right. Everything’s going to be all right.” And then, when the girl was enfolded in his arms, crying with relief, he would draw back his arm and deliver a vicious punch to her stomach, aborting the baby that threatened his empire. Sometimes he would hold a phonebook up to her stomach, he joked, so as to not leave a mark. While the other students laughed, I felt sick. How could such a cretin be gifted with so much power, so much wealth? Years later, as I saw my country act in an equally despicable way, I would wonder the same thing.
“Man, you was over there in Iraq fighting for something we don’t even have.”
That Ronnie should have died in the collapsing towers on 9/11 was something I never would have hoped for, not even for him. But I never felt his particular death needed avenging. Three years after 9/11, when I received a call deploying me to Iraq as an infantry officer, I was ambivalent about our purpose there, but I wasn’t ambivalent about Ronnie. Let them send his brother, Eduardo. Let him avenge his brother’s death, I thought. But I went. I served the cause of vengeance in place of Eduardo, who likely had flat feet or a heart condition.
After 9/11, the world changed—a mantra our policymakers repeated ad nauseam. We can no longer afford to play by the rules, Bush told us. The playing field and the rules have changed. We have no choice but to wiretap. No choice but to torture. No choice but to invade. And through it all, while killing children with attack helicopters, we remain convinced we’re the victims.
Since 9/11, the Army has quietly scuttled the term “interrogator” and replaced it with “human intelligence gatherer.”
When I think of 9/11, all the tribute photos with the firefighters bowing their heads, flags draped over every piece of rubble in sight, I can’t help thinking of that smug South American. I think about the difference between his life and the lives of our average citizens.
Recently, I had a conversation with a young man on the bus. I had just been telling him that the military receives free medical care, and how upsetting it was that ordinary citizens are left out in the cold. And he said to me, “Man, you was over there in Iraq fighting for something we don’t even have.”
And he was right. I was in Iraq fighting to protect our American way of life, a way of life that purports to value human decency, human dignity, intellectual freedom—but not enough to care for us when we are sick and hurt. We have the right to free speech, the right to disagree openly with the president, the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness. But if we get sick, or get hit by a car walking down the street, we’re on our own.
To this day, workers from the ground zero site who labored in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks have to fight to obtain treatment for maladies they developed. Cancer is not covered. Legislation that allowed them some coverage did so upon the condition that they be able to establish they were not themselves terrorists.
We have used 9/11 not to wake up to our shared humanity but to justify a continual militarization of our nation. We’ve been painfully deluded by our politicians into thinking that war is in our best interest.
And we continue to train young men and women, just as I was trained, to accomplish these goals. Only we call them by different names. Before becoming an infantry officer, I was an interrogator, trained to speak Mandarin. Since 9/11, the Army has quietly scuttled the term “interrogator” and replaced it with “human intelligence gatherer” (just as Donald Rumsfeld replaced the word “torture” with “waterboarding”). And the Army is not the only one up to these name games. Political pundits now refer to the ultra-rich as “job creators” in an effort to defend their status in the tax hierarchy.
Advanced weaponry equates to “progress.” And we have progressed. We remain the only nation that has dropped an atomic bomb—not one, but two—on other people. And that was just 66 years ago. From 1798 to 1993, we managed to rack up 234 instances in which we used our armed forces abroad for other than normal peacetime purposes, according to the U.S. Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division.
How many Americans are aware we massed military forces in Sumatra in 1832, Argentina in 1833 and Peru in 1835? How about Smyrna in 1849 and Nicaragua in 1867? Korea in 1871? How about the deployment of nearly 70,000 U.S. soldiers to quash a Filipino independence movement from 1899 to 1901?
Mark Twain, a fierce opponent of U.S. action in the Philippines, said it should “be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”
Rather than heeding this advice, we chose to invade Iraq, though none of the hijackers were from that country. Neither were they from Afghanistan. Since 9/11—when nearly 3,000 U.S. civilians died—the death toll has risen to 6,000 U.S. service members, 17,000 Afghans and more than 1 million Iraqis.
With our advanced weapon systems—night vision, Predator drones, thermal-imaging devices, attack helicopters, Spectre gunships, not to mention our National Treasury—there is nothing fair about this fight. As we confront the ragged opposition in our Kevlar body suits, after the gunships and artillery have unloaded, it’s no better than Ronnie punching a girl in the stomach. There is no honor in such gross inequality. The price we are paying is that of our own souls and the souls of our warriors.
It is time for the eagle to return home and tend to her wounded.