Historians will spend decades debating how America flopped in Afghanistan. But now, following America’s chaotic retreat, with the acrid smell from the suicide bombings haunting Kabul’s airport, historians have a different task. As custodians of public memory, historians should testify to the fear menacing the world on Sept. 12, 2001 — the day after al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on America — and the genuine threats that the United States and other democracies faced. Comparing how sure most were that “life would never be the same” with the very normal lives most people have led since then, we should descend from our academic perches to tell all our soldiers and their loved ones: “Thank you for your service. Your many sacrifices were not in vain.”
“It was darkness, it was hell,” says Paul Tagliabue, the former NFL commissioner, who called 9/11 “The day everything changed.” Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor warned law students: “We’re likely to experience more restrictions on our personal freedom than has ever been the case in our country.”
Americans felt vulnerable, out of control. That winter, Dr. Elizabeth Alderman and Dr. Stanford B. Friedman chronicled children’s many “regressive symptoms,” from “sleep disturbances” to “bedwetting.” Americans seek “a semblance of ‘normal,’” they observed, “yet life will never be the same.” Contemporary Pediatrics titled their editorial “Seeking ‘New Normality’ after 9/11.”
Acting reasonably, President George W. Bush mobilized for war. According to Devlin Barrett’s October Surprise, Bush’s first question to his new FBI Director Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE was: “What are you doing to prevent the next attack?”
At 1 p.m. on Oct. 7, 2001, President Bush addressed the nation. He explained that approximately a half-hour earlier, the United States and its allies began attacking al Qaeda training camps and the Taliban’s military installations in Afghanistan “to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.” Bush anticipated “sustained, comprehensive and relentless operations to drive them out and bring them to justice.”
Obviously, America was not destroyed. Even more so, the “New Normality” soon looked like that which Americans simply had called “normal.” True, constant anti-terrorist measures waste much time and money. And there have been scattered, mostly small-scale, terrorist attacks. But few Americans experienced the disruptions they expected — except for America’s 2 million to 3 million soldiers since 9/11 and their families.
The hardest thing about assessing Bush’s presidency is factoring in the bells that didn't ring. Nevertheless, America restored its strategic depth. We will never know how many mass murders the counterattack prevented. But we do know that, after bin Laden brought his war to the U.S. homeland, America’s soldiers took the war to the terrorists’ turf, far away from Americans’ homes.
That, alas, was these soldiers’ mission. At the unfathomably high cost of bringing the war home to them and their families, the noble few brought 20 years and counting of relative peace to the lucky masses.
Given this context, so much of today’s sweeping defeatism is inaccurate and insensitive. Think of what America’s veterans — already facing a 50 percent higher risk of suicide than most — feel when Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDemocrats look for plan B on filibuster The Memo: Cuts to big bill vex Democrats Democrats struggle to sell Biden plan amid feuding MORE (D-Conn.) and so many others proclaim: “Twenty years of training. More than $2 trillion worth of expenditure. For almost nothing.”
Restoring “normal” life to 330 million Americans is not “almost nothing.” Avoiding the monstrous 9/11 repeats everyone expected is not “almost nothing.” And hunting down the killers in their homes, disrupting their operations for two decades and putting them on the defensive, is not “almost nothing.”
The recriminations derby and self-doubt frenzy are only beginning. Identifying America’s few, essential accomplishments will not shortchange the necessary reckoning to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
Still, Americans should mark our soldiers’ homecoming by dedicating this Oct. 7 to a National Day of Thanksgiving and mourning. Before that date, every American should “adopt” a veteran, active soldier or military family to honor personally on that day, so they know they are never alone. Then, at 1 p.m. Eastern, sirens should sound throughout the nation. We all should take a moment of silence memorializing the fallen. We should follow with a moment of prayer for all the war’s casualties and their families — worldwide, including over 800,000 dead in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
Finally, every American should step outside and cheer wildly, yelling out that simple cliché that goes straight from the souls of we-the-comfortable-people to them, our inconvenienced heroes: “Thank you for your service.”
Gil Troy is an American historian who has written nine books on the presidency, including, “The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.” His latest book is “Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People,” co-authored with Natan Sharansky. Follow him on Twitter @GilTroy.