By Hugh Davis
A world war, a "police action," the 1958 Marine "peace keeping" landing in Lebanon, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Granada, Libya, the 1983 Marine mission to Lebanon, the "Tanker War" in the Persian Gulf, Desert Storm, Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans and now this—all my life, it seems, this nation has been involved in wars and rumors of wars.
My first remembrance of America at war is of December 7,1941. Although
I was not quite five, I clearly remember some of the events of that day.
My family had gone for a Sunday picnic excursion to one of the new TVA
dams being built in East Tennessee. As we stood on the overlook above the
construction site, someone ran up with the news that "the Japs are bombing
Pearl Harbor." Even though I was only a young child, I had absorbed the
concept that Hitler was a bad man, but I hadn't a clue who the Japs were,
or for that matter, where or what Pearl Harbor was. My parents were greatly
embarrassed when my reaction to the news of the bombing was, "Is that good
During the rest of our 20th century wars and quasi-wars, except for families whose loved ones were in harm's way, civilian life has continued on a business as usual basis. President Johnson even boasted that we could have both "guns and butter" as we stumbled into war in Vietnam.
But I believe that at 8:45 a.m. on September 11, 2001, our lives changed just as drastically as they did that December day in 1941. Surely the sight of the first tower burning and the second airliner deliberately crashing into the other skyscraper will stay etched in our memories as long as we live. The other horrors of that day—bodies falling from the buildings, the collapse of one of the towers and then the other, the further shock and realization of the enormity of the outrage as we saw the Pentagon in flames—will haunt us forever.
For another perspective on how the news of the attack affected Americans living in other parts of the world, I'd like to share some excerpts from e-mails my daughter, who lives in Indonesia, sent from Singapore where she was recovering from minor surgery:
"I tried to call you when I heard about New York City, but all lines into the US were busy. I don't think I've ever bawled so hard. It was late at night and a nurse came in and told me to turn on CNN. All the Singaporean nurses were very sweet. Some even shed tears of their own at seeing the video coverage. But I could hardly stop crying all night. When I saw the report that the second building had collapsed, I was alone in my room, and all I could do was cry, 'No! No! No! Oh my God! Oh My God.' That's about how I l feel now, eighteen hours later. I can still cry easily.
"As you know, I did a few stints as a temporary worker on the 65th floor of one of those buildings. Even now my heart is pounding and I have butterflies in my stomach. I feel so devastated. New York City is the closest place to 'home' I know."
"It is difficult to be away right now. It's like you don't get to attend the funeral of a loved one. You don't get to cling to those who really understand. It's funny that having worked in those buildings doesn't cause me to dwell on, 'It could have been me,' but rather—you have to have been in those buildings to really understand the masses of humanity they held. (I'm having trouble using the past tense here.) Only by having been physically in and around them can you have the intuitive understanding of the scale of human loss—the sense of the faces rather than the numbers.
"So it is outrage I feel about the Pentagon, but heartbreak for New York City."
The intensity of our emotions as we enter this new war is beyond anything we have experienced since those early days of December, 1941. The attacks have many similarities: They came without warning; they caused massive destruction and loss of life; they were far more devastating than anything we could have anticipated. Yet there are vast differences in the "feel" of this war. After Pearl Harbor, we knew who our enemies were and where they lived. We knew they were powerful and that we were in for a long and difficult struggle. Even though we suffered a string of devastating defeats in the early months, we were determined to pay any price, and we were confident that in the end we would prevail.
Now we are facing an enemy hiding in the shadows. Finding and eradicating such a stealthy foe will be frustrating. There will be failures. Much of what has to be done must occur under cover. Although we must try our best to separate our enemies from the crowds of innocent civilians they use for concealment, we will cause "collateral casualties" and will be quickly blamed for it. There will be no instant gratification. Chuck Norris will not save the world from the unthinkable in the last 15 minutes of the movie. The unthinkable has already happened and may happen again.
Tom Brokaw has called the men and women who persevered to bring victory in World War II the "Greatest Generation." Hopefully, the values and rock hard character that brought that generation through its severest trials still exist deep within the American people. They had better.
© 2001, Hugh Davis, All Rights Reserved.
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