The Twin Towers descended to earth in a cascade of dust, metal and mangled bodies hours before I knew we had been attacked. I was a junior in high school on September 11, and on that morning I played hooky and slept well into the morning. When I came to and booted up the computer, I saw a flood of posts that clogged a message board I frequented, detailing the attacks in hurried detail. The towers crumbled, the Pentagon fumed like a cracked furnace. A plane smashed into a Pennsylvania field like a winged meteor. I had decided to join the Army sometime in my early childhood; the attacks simply steeled my resolve further. My fantasies of choking the life from Osama bin Laden spilled over into Algebra class the next day. At sixteen, I had my first hunger pangs for bloodthirsty revenge. I would’ve happily traded the prom for the Hindu Kush. It was clear that my future was pointed toward combat far more than a maddening existence in the Dallas suburbs anyway.
My future had a different plan than I had envisioned. Instead of the mountains of Afghanistan, my war story unfolded in Iraq. By the time I was ready to deploy in the summer of 2006, Afghanistan wasn’t even below-the-fold. It was a thread of a story half-remembered that continued for a tiny subset of the population and buried in the back of the newspaper. The only indication of a sustained fight was the Defense Department notifications page, a gruesome machine that spit out names of the dead, their hometown and a hazy description of a likely violent death. In preparation for Iraq, I joined my civilian countrymen in a collective amnesia about Afghanistan, or why we were there in the first place. September 11 began as an attack on our country, and in essence, our way of life. But for an all-volunteer war machine thirsty for recruits in a two front war, the burden of the fight rested on the shoulders of the few. The wars would flicker as backdrops in Hollywood films, or as flyovers at the Super Bowl. Flags would wave and people would cheer as caskets unloaded like clockwork at Dover Air Force Base.
So when news of bin Laden’s death rocketed across Twitter and Facebook last week, my first reaction was elation. How could it not be? He had become a villain, a symbol of unholy war against the West. He was a Hitler for the information age. His sudden death at the hands of Navy SEALs in Pakistan, for a brief moment, reminded the country about our military’s exhaustive mission to destroy al-Qaeda. When I heard reports of a gathering at the White House, I made sure Kate and Josh were there. I wanted to celebrate the historic catharsis with fellow war Veterans. It was our moment.
For once I did not hide my deployment history from strangers. I told the cab driver to gun it to Pennsylvania Avenue, my excitement magnified by the President’s live speech on the radio. “I joined the Army to help get that bastard. This is a great day,” I said over the first reports of the raid. I fidgeted in the seat and watched my Twitter feed explode over the news.
The crowd outside the White House was big, loud and growing. Chants of “USA!” broke out, and an off-key serenade of The Star Spangled Banner washed over the cheery mob. Kate soon arrived with another Vet and we watched and laughed as people climbed light posts and trees as the rooftop snipers held their positions. The few kept watch over the oblivious many.
At some point, the crowd gave way to feral roars that splintered the euphoric mood. A group of Georgetown students chanted their trademark “Sax-a Hoy-as!” as if they were in the stands of a basketball game. Banners from George Washington University waved next to the Stars & Stripes. The night was a triumph in a pair of wars defined by a glaring lack of victories, but it was overtaken by a sense of entitlement to wars waged by their neighbors and high school classmates. Wars fought obliquely with other people’s sons and daughters were suddenly part of a national conscious again.
It was nearly dawn when I stumbled back home. The paper delivery folks were out to bring tightly wrapped secret the early sleepers didn’t know yet: We got him. I kept thinking about the crowd and the reason they celebrated. Optimism sometimes creeps in and makes me think this is not just a watershed moment in history, but the point where the country realizes we have been at constant war for nearly a decade. Where “we” doesn’t mean simply “them” until a victory comes along, but part of a collective effort to share in the good and the bad, shoulder to shoulder in closed ranks. But then I think, these are the same students I will see when I go back to school this fall. They will be my classmates, but not exactly my peers. Will they ask if I ever killed anyone, or watched a buddy die, or if I struggle with post-traumatic stress? Will ‘we’ still mean what it did last week?