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It Looks Like We Forgot

Twenty years into the global war on terror, we're not very far from where we started.

I know it’s almost October, but I’m not done with 9/11. I know we had the 20th anniversary, promised for a day to never forget whatever, and then an old-looking Bruce Springsteen rose to sing about everyone dying around him. (Read the room, Bruce.) But missing from the day was a hard look at what happened over the last 20 years.

Before we move on, can we address that? Because after the symbolic Big Two-Zero anniversary, and with Afghanistan sputtering out of our consciousness, this might be the last 9/11 article.

Part of the reason for the lack of introspection over 9/11 is the corporate media went back for “takes” two decades later to the same people who screwed everything up. It’s kind of like inviting students to grade themselves. It was familiar, like the parade of generals following the Vietnam war who blamed the politicians and vice-versa. I wanted a browser widget that blocked 9/11 commentary from any of the people who were wrong about WMD, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, or Yemen. The last thing anyone needed was to hear David Petraeus’s or Condi Rice’s take on anything.

Yet, as if to create the anti-widget of my dreams, the Washington Post instead reviewed the sprawling literature to emerge from 9/11 over the past two decades—what they generously called “works of investigation, memoir, and narrative by journalists and former officials.” The books included on the list were written by people taking post-mortem credit for issuing warnings they themselves never acted on, agencies blaming other agencies as if all that happened was the FBI lost a pickup softball game to the CIA, and, of course, journalists who helped sell the whole WMD line profiting off their mini-embeds to write a new “classic” war book about What It’s Really Like Out There, Man.

WaPo left my Iraq book off the list, an accidental omission I’m sure. I joke, but I don’t. I wrote ten years ago, as it was happening, how nation building was going to fail in Iraq. It would have made a good bathroom read for anyone headed into the same situation in Afghanistan. So, while WaPo‘s list does a good job with the “celebrity” books of the era, it ignores the people who saw through the lies at nearly every step. I guess many of them did not write books, or at least not Washington Post kind of books.

So of course the list includes Petraeus’ Counterinsurgency Field Manual—the Bible behind the Surge, which outlined how nation building was going to work (update: he was wrong)—but nothing from the weapons inspectors who told the world quite clearly Saddam had no WMD and the whole premise of the Iraq war was a lie. Nothing explaining how the Afghan war was reinvented to cover up not finding bin Laden. Nothing about drone killing American citizens, bombing wedding parties, torture, collateral damage, or any of the things that actually caused us to lose the multiple wars of terror.

I’ve read almost all the books on WaPo‘s list. They would make for a decent but obviously incomplete undergrad survey class syllabus, something like “Opportunities and Losses: America in the Middle East post-9/11,” lots of facts amassed without the necessary critical thinking applied. So here’s what’s missing, the conclusions we do not want to see in black and white 20 years later.

Think of what follows as a B+ final exam submission for that imaginary survey class:

Post-9/11, nobody trusts the government about anything. Partisans support their guy but with a wry “Hey, they all lie.” Any rebuilding of trust post-Watergate died with the weapons of mass destruction and is unlikely to be restored in our age of social media manipulation.

Why the distrust? It’s because they didn’t make mistakes. They lied. Four presidents lied about how 9/11 happened, they lied about WMD, they lied about intentions, they lied about goals, they lied about Pakistan’s role, they lied about the strength of the puppet governments in Baghdad and Kabul, they lied about the vitality of ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban, they lied about our progress, they lied about it all. They lied to make Pat Tillman’s death seem like Captain Miller’s. And no one was ever punished. Most of the liars were promoted. Quite a few are still working in government, for Joe Biden.

On a simple material level, all the wars—Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen—were a waste of lives and money and let loose the havoc of the refugee crisis. And yet we demand the point of 9/11 be our national victimization alone. We even appropriated the term Ground Zero, which once referred universally to Hiroshima.

American foreign policy credibility and our post-WWII imperialist strategy have finally been shown to be a farce. A lesson that should have been clear post-Vietnam needed to be relearned. That means we the public are stupid and gullible. We the nation are still a big, mean dog, but our ability to influence events around the world is limited to barking and biting and only works when barking and biting is the solution. When anything beyond threats is needed, say when dealing with peers, near-peers, or non-allied countries with shared interests, we have few if any tools. That’s why we have no idea whatsoever how to work with Iran or China, and why our strategy with North Korea is hope fat boy slim dies before he (likely accidentally) blows up half of Asia.

They don’t hate our freedoms. They don’t want to be like us. We based global policy and American lives on finding a handful of Afghan women who wanted to wear mini skirts when the bulk of them simply wanted to be left alone. The lesson was always obvious; earlier, they didn’t want to be British, either.

Americans pretend our little journey to the dark side of torture was over years ago—our bad!—but lots of people do remember and the suppurating hole of Gitmo is still open to remind more. We will never unstain our reputation globally. Like that one-time little business trip affair, it just becomes a thing polite people don’t talk about.

We emerged from 9/11 a “paranoid, xenophobic and martial society.” We’ve let the easy certainty of “you’re either with us or against us” morph into students being taught not to think but “being trained to mimic the moral certainty of ideologues.”

America became a massive surveillance state. The government (and large corporations) monitor our communications and interactions. You cannot opt out. We willingly purchase electronics that aid the government in monitoring us. Here’s one in pink! Like a parody of Orwell, we even came to believe it all made us safer.

We willingly gave up our privacy out of fear. That fear now exists in the body politic to be summoned like a djinn and manipulated by whomever wishes it for whatever purpose, say to imagine Trump is a Russian spy, or your neighbors as Nazis because they oppose what you support, or Covid survival demands further loss of freedom.

The media, which served in times past as a counterpoint, instead fully adopted the huckster role of promoting Bush’s wars and WMD, Trump the spy, etc. They allowed Obama to wave away questions about torture, drone assassinations, and new wars because he was their chosen one. No one sees the media as anything but partisans now, albeit our partisans and their partisans depending on which channel is on. The result is we are ever more uninformed and simultaneously more opinionated.

It’s easy to predict 9/11 commemorations will become lower and lower key in the years to come, much like America lost interest in the space program in the later years and rocket launches were no longer even televised. But each year the anniversary rolls around and we’re admonished to never forget, it is ever more imperative to remember how much we already seem to have very purposefully forgotten.

Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.