9/11 And America’s Forever War

Seventeen years ago, America was thrust into a war that seemingly has no end.

Joe Quinn, a U.S. Army veteran who lost his brother in the attack on the World Trade Center seventeen years ago today, writes in The New York Times about what he believes the real lesson of 9/11 to be:

I learned that Osama bin Laden’s strategic logic was to embroil the United States in a never-ending conflict to ultimately bankrupt the country. “All that we have to do is send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written ‘Al Qaeda,'” he said in 2004, “in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note ….” Why are we continuing to do what Bin Laden wanted all along?

But that, ultimately, was not the thing I realized.

I learned that every part of me wanted to just stay quiet with my feelings about the war because I was afraid of what people might say. It’s easier to bask in the warm embrace of “Thank you for your service” without questioning what that service was for. One way or another, we were all affected by Sept. 11, which has caused us to view the war through a distorted lens. This is why most of us won’t comment or share or at least have a dialogue about the war.

But the main reason I wanted to stay quiet is because it has embarrassingly taken me 17 years to realize something, and what I realized was this: Seventeen years ago, staring at that picture of Mohammad Atta, I wanted revenge against the people who killed my brother. But what I finally realized was that the people who killed my brother died the same day he did.

I refuse to take Atta’s orders, or Bin Laden’s. I will not “stay quiet.” End the war.

The seventeen years that have passed since the September 11th attacks and the nearly same amount of time that has passed since the beginning of the seemingly never-ending war in Afghanistan have seemingly proven bin Laden’s words in 2004 to be true. Over the course of that time, a War on Terror that was initially focused on al Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan has expanded into a mission that seemingly has no end. In Afghanistan itself, we aren’t just dealing with the remanents of al Qaeda, which don’t even appear to be in Afghanistan at this point, but have effectively become the protector of the central government in Kabul and its proxy in a civil war with the Taliban that, originally at least, was not supposed to be our concern. Beyond that, the so-called “War on Terror” has, over time, expanded across the globe to the point where we are involved in conflicts in nations as far west as the African nation of Niger, as far south as Yemen, which is quickly turning into the next breeding ground for terrorists thanks to the war being inflicted by our supposed ally Saudi Arabia, and of course in the form of continued involvement in a civil war in Syria that has also drawn Iran, Russia, and Turkey into the fight. In between all of this, of course, we also fought a costly war in Iraq that destabilized the government in that country, strengthened the position of Iran in the region, and at least indirectly set in motion the events that led to the rise of ISIS and the Syrian civil war. Taking all of that into account, if one accepts the idea that bin Laden’s real goal on September 11th was to drag the United States and the rest of the western world into a quagmire in the Middle East, then he succeeded quite masterfully.

Now, as we find out that there are American forces engaged across the globe in conflicts that haven’t been fully explained to the American people, we find once again that Congress has been left out of the loop. The fact that these commitments are relatively secret and limited means that they are flying under the radar, and it’s only because of tragic deaths such as those of Sgt. La David Johnson and his fellow soldiers in Niger, and the controversy that arose in the wake of their deaths, that the American public even knows that these missions are taking place. There’s been little explanation of what the goals of these missions are, how many troops are committed and where they are committed, and what the measures of success or failure might be with regard to these missions. In the process, we are likely creating new enemies that we will be forced to deal with at some future date. The fact that the American people and their representatives are largely unaware of all of this is not only tragic, it’s downright criminal. It’s time for the Administration to start answering questions, and for Congress to start doing the job the Constitution gave it to do.

So as we sit here on the 17th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, a number that reminds us that none of the students currently in public school in the United States have a living memory of what happened on September 11, 2001, what do we have? For the most part, al Qaeda lies in ruins, replaced by the apparently more deadly offshoot known as ISIS and the growing problem of self-radicalized terrorists that are far harder to detect beforehand. Afghanistan is, well, Afghanistan. It’s been a mess in that country since at least 1979 when the Soviet invaded in what was ultimately a failed effort to prop up the puppet state it had installed there, and it will be a mess long after we leave, whenever that might happen. In the meantime, we’ve gotten ourselves involved in a seemingly endless, borderless “War On Terror” that has stretched Constitutional norms, consolidated yet more power in the hands of the Executive Branch, and damaged civil liberties of ordinary Americans in ways big and small.

Remind me again what “winning” is supposed to look like?

Previous posts on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks:

2017 —Remembering 9/11 Without Obsessing Over it
2016 — The Lost National ‘Unity’ Of September 11th
2012 — 9/11’s Legacy Of Fear
2011 —  A Decade Of Lost FreedomNo Football On 9/11?December 7, 1951 v. September 11, 2011Paul Krugman: 9/11 Has Become ‘An Occasion For Shame’
2010 — Instapundit’s Initial Take On 9/11

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Intelligence, Iraq War, Middle East, Military Affairs, National Security, Terrorism, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Slugger says:

    Let’s put this episode behind us. There have been no organized attacks on US soil since then. There have been a few, isolated crazy-guy type of attacks, but we have more than enough homegrown crazies. The lack of follow-up attacks might be due to:
    #1 Our security forces are fantastic
    #2 The bad guys are astoundingly inept
    #3 The whole thing is overblown by our vulnerability to irrationality

    My choice is number three. Let’s stop picking at it unless you have a direct personal involvement.

  2. Gustopher says:

    On the other hand, we have also seen what it looks like when we pull out of a region that still has a radical religious insurgency, while the government is weak — we get something like ISIS.

    So, maybe this state of low level war for decades really is what winning looks like. At least until we have a plan that is something other than just pack up and go home.

  3. Tony W says:

    I maintain that if the word “on” is in the name of the war, it’s not a war – it’s just political theatre.

  4. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Afghanistan is, well, Afghanistan. It’s been a mess in that country since at least 1979 …

    Well before that. How about the First Anglo-Afghan WarFirst Anglo-Afghan War

    For an entertaining film, watch Sean Connery and Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King

    There is no such thing as winning in Afghanistan.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:
    Ditto on The Man Who Would Be King. Also a book that is simultaneously hysterically funny, wonderfully researched and serious all at once: Flashman, by George MacDonald Fraser.

  6. becca says:

    @Tony W: I agree, but breathtaking
    dishonest political theatre, put forth by Cheney and friends. Cue Iraq invasion along with Afghanistan and tax cuts, and the the crippling of America.

    There is nothing, and I mean absolutely No Thing! that GOP donors won’t do to destroy Medicare and Social Security for the masses.

  7. Modulo Myself says:

    Joan Didion in January 2003:

    There was much about this return to New York that I had not expected. I had expected to find the annihilating economy of the event—the way in which it had concentrated the complicated arrangements and misarrangements of the last century into a single irreducible image—being explored, made legible. On the contrary, I found that what had happened was being processed, obscured, systematically leached of history and so of meaning, finally rendered less readable than it had seemed on the morning it happened. As if overnight, the irreconcilable event had been made manageable, reduced to the sentimental, to protective talismans, totems, garlands of garlic, repeated pieties that would come to seem in some ways as destructive as the event itself. We now had “the loved ones,” we had “the families,” we had “the heroes.”

    I found in New York that “the death of irony” had already been declared, repeatedly, and curiously, since irony had been declared dead at the precise moment—given that the gravity of September 11 derived specifically from its designed implosion of historical ironies—when we might have seemed most in need of it. “One good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of the age of irony,” Roger Rosenblatt wrote within days of the event in Time, a thought, or not a thought, destined to be frequently echoed but never explicated. Similarly, I found that “the death of postmodernism” had also been declared. (“It seemed bizarre that events so serious would be linked causally with a rarified form of academic talk,” Stanley Fish wrote after receiving a call from a reporter asking if September 11 meant the end of postmodernist relativism. “But in the days that followed, a growing number of commentators played serious variations on the same theme: that the ideas foisted upon us by postmodern intellectuals have weakened the country’s resolve.”) “Postmodernism” was henceforth to be replaced by “moral clarity,” and those who persisted in the decadent insistence that the one did not necessarily cancel out the other would be subjected to what William J. Bennett would call—in Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism—“a vast relearning,” “the reinstatement of a thorough and honest study of our history, undistorted by the lens of political correctness and pseudosophisticated relativism.”

    I found in New York, in other words, that the entire event had been seized—even as the less nimble among us were still trying to assimilate it—to stake new ground in old domestic wars. There was the frequent deployment of the phrase “the Blame America Firsters,” or “the Blame America First crowd,” the wearying enthusiasm for excoriating anyone who suggested that it could be useful to bring at least a minimal degree of historical reference to bear on the event. There was the adroit introduction of convenient straw men. There was Christopher Hitchens, engaging in a dialogue with Noam Chomsky, giving himself the opportunity to generalize whatever got said into “the liberal-left tendency to ‘rationalize’ the aggression of September 11.” There was Donald Kagan at Yale, dismissing his colleague Paul Kennedy as “a classic case of blaming the victim,” because the latter had asked his students to try to imagine what resentments they might harbor if America were small and the world dominated by a unified Arab-Muslim state. There was Andrew Sullivan, warning on his Web site that while the American heartland was ready for war, the “decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts” could well mount “what amounts to a fifth column.”

    There was the open season on Susan Sontag—on a single page of a single issue of The Weekly Standard that October she was accused of “unusual stupidity,” of “moral vacuity,” and of “sheer tastelessness”—all for three paragraphs in which she said, in closing, that “a few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen”; in other words that events have histories, political life has consequences, and the people who led this country and the people who wrote and spoke about the way this country was led were guilty of trying to infantilize its citizens if they continued to pretend otherwise.

    Inquiry into the nature of the enemy we faced, in other words, was to be interpreted as sympathy for that enemy. The final allowable word on those who attacked us was to be that they were “evildoers,” or “wrongdoers,” peculiar constructions which served to suggest that those who used them were transmitting messages from some ultimate authority. This was a year in which it would come to seem as if we had been plunged at one fell stroke into a pre-modern world. The possibilities of the Enlightenment vanished. We had suddenly been asked to accept—and were in fact accepting—a kind of reasoning so extremely fragile that it might have been based on the promised return of the cargo gods.

  8. grumpy realist says:

    The politicians are far too terrified that if they pull out of Afghanistan another terror attack will happen on U.S. soil and they will be accused of “not protecting the U.S.” by all the neo-cons.

    The fact that the increase in the deficit due to our stupid perpetual military activity is going to at some point do a number on the US economy is of course totally ignored.

  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Modulo Myself:
    Wow, thanks for that quote. Didion can write, can’t she?

    Inquiry into the nature of the enemy we faced, in other words, was to be interpreted as sympathy for that enemy. The final allowable word on those who attacked us was to be that they were “evildoers,” or “wrongdoers,” peculiar constructions which served to suggest that those who used them were transmitting messages from some ultimate authority.

    We always dehumanize the people we need to kill. I always find it distasteful and cowardly. If you’re going to war understand what you’re doing. You will make widows and orphans. You’ll shatter the lives of innocent people. And you’ll kill people who have done absolutely nothing wrong. That’s what war is, and if you aren’t prepared to acknowledge you’re going to leave children maimed and fatherless or motherless, then don’t go to war. It’s gutless to pretend you’re doing no wrong. War is always wrong which is why we should really need to do it before we start.

  10. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    As Mark Twain put it:

    “Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it —
    For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimmage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!
    We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

    (After a pause.) “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”

  11. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Ditto on the Flashman novels.

  12. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I believe it was in a Flashman book that Fraser wrote a scene in which the hero finally managed to get into bed with two women he lusted after and recalled “I was beside myself, which made four of us altogether.”

  13. sam says:

    I think the Flashman book most apposite is Flashman at the Charge, where the essentially clueless general staff is pondering their course of action in the Crimea, and looking at a map of Russia, one says, “Big, ain’t it?”