The end of war

How can one day mark both the beginning of a war and the end of war? And yet, that’s exactly what — among many other things both horrible and beautiful — September 11, 2001 did for the United States.

It was a day of great heroism and stories of our countrymen’s actions  inspired the world, but it was also a day that launched us into a decade of fighting, though in those first chaotic, bewildering moments we had no way of knowing that. We were too trusting then, too innocent. We didn’t see the hate coming, didn’t understand why people in a country most of us had scarcely heard of could view the murder of our innocents as a strategic success.  For most of us it took several weeks to adjust to the reality that ours was a nation hated and that people we knew nothing of thought we were better dead than alive.

It is strange to think about those pre-September 11 days now. Those were the Halcyon days to be sure, days when the economy soared and millions of dollars could be made overnight on the still-heady Internet, days when we could leisurely stroll through our airports and greet our loved ones as they exited their flights, days when we couldn’t conceive of an iconic city skyline changing forever, and in just a matter of minutes.

But as the dust literally and tragically settled, a picture began to emerge and we began to accept the horrible realization that was confirmed when that second plane hit: This was no accident. We were under attack and, whether we wanted it or not, we were at war.

It’s a familiar story now, familiar because we’ve lived in this reality for a decade. We’ve watched as troops have come and gone, and come and gone again and again. We’ve seen too many flag-draped coffins, missing limbs and shattered families, so many that we’ve become numb. Just as household clutter ceases to be seen by the residents after a while, just as we grow so accustomed to both ugly and beautiful things that they become invisible, we do not see our current reality for what it actually is: We are not a nation at war anymore because war, that familiar concept of beginnings and endings, treaties and parades, has ceased to exist. This is not a war, this is an existence.

We will not go back to those Halcyon days. We will not know long stretches of peace. Our children will not recall a time when troops didn’t come and go, and come and go again. Our borders and our military bases will not be open and freely passable again and our airport security will never again be lax. Our soldiers will never again serve in a peacetime Army. Our defenses will never again be down. This war will ebb and flow and there will be troop buildups and troop withdrawals, times of intense fighting and times of boredom and quiet, as we respond to the waxing and waning of our enemies’ attacks and threats. But we will never again be a country that isn’t fighting somewhere.

Maybe this sounds like doom and gloom, but it’s not. It’s reality. We didn’t ask for this never ending fight and we certainly never wanted it. We’d all prefer the Halcyon Days, but they’re gone forever — murdered and reduced to ashes along with the bodies of the nearly 3,000 Americans who lost their lives a decade ago.  Now we are faced with a choice: Do we accept and respond to our new truth,  or do we continue to force the old model, replete with the illusion of timelines and deadlines, to fit?

We woke up to a new world on September 12, 2001. Now what will we do with it?