Under the standard 9/11 retrospective doctrine, I’m obligated to begin by telling you that on Sept. 11th, 2001, I was a newly minted freshman at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. I was in class as the morning’s horrors took place, blithely oblivious until I returned to my dorm, where a crowd of stunned undergraduates in their pajamas stood in the lobby watching the single TV. On it, the South Tower of the World Trade Center was collapsing, over and over. After about another half hour of gaping, we watched the North Tower collapse, live.
Being in a college dorm on Sept. 11th meant the attacks took place early enough, in the context of college kids, for many people to sleep through them. So for the rest of the morning, some of us relived the initial shock as each new classmate emerged from his room, blinked awake and asked why everyone was standing around in a daze. Then, each one would put his hands on his head and yell “WHAT?” In Lincoln Hall, this kept up until lunchtime.
Why does everyone want to tell about his or her Sept. 11th experience? Maybe it’s one of the few things everyone in this country has in common, so it’s a way of saying, “I get you.” And after ten years, the pain of our national war wound has never gone away, so maybe it helps to talk through how we got it, and just to confirm we’re not the only ones who still feel the ache.
Some other obligatory retrospective points: Did the terrorists win? Oh yes. It was a victory however you want to score it: Their roughly $500,000 sneak attack has wound up costing us nearly $4 trillion – or more – much of which we borrowed, leading us here to the doorstep of the poorhouse. This means Washington could dismantle the same military might and shorten the same global reach that the terrorists hated, even though, happily, most of them aren’t alive to see it. The terrorists hated our “decadent,” open, free society, and we’ve partly dismantled that, too. Our communications are monitored. We’re holding people in prison without trial, indefinitely. The United States of America has a standing kill list, which includes the names of its own citizens.
Is America safer? Definitely. And we probably don’t even know the half of it: We can only imagine what the bad guys killed by CIA drone strikes or Joint Special Operations Command might have pulled off if they’d lived. We have no way of knowing what the National Security Agency has helped prevent with its industrial-scale electronic snooping. And after the shock of the initial attack wore off, we’ve learned that many terrorists are less supervillains than farm-team scrubs, who can’t build bombs right and tend to fall into law enforcement traps like bugs into honey. Then again, we have had some close calls.
Are we better prepared now than we were ten years ago? No question. In the event of another attack, today’s military-terrorism-intelligence-industrial complex would be able to act quicker and more effectively than the slipshod Clinton-era mishmash it once was. (We hope.) The military in particular has emerged from the decade after Sept. 11 with the best-trained, most experienced force it’s ever had, the generals say, though they’re fearful it could evaporate with the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One thing that didn’t improve, though, was the arsenal that force uses. Despite a decade of astronomic budgets, the Navy and Air Force fleets are smaller and older and will likely keep shrinking and aging. The Army has a fleet of heavy vehicles it may never be able to use again. The cost just to run the whole shootin’ match has grown by nearly 40 percent, not including war costs, even with end strength about the same as it was around Sept. 11. “Transformation” wasn’t. The “systems of systems” that were supposed to revolutionize the battlefield didn’t. We’re still waiting for the F-22s and F-35s and littoral combat ships that were supposed to change the game. If this is the legacy of a decade of unlimited defense spending, what will budget cuts bring?
The decade since Sept. 11 has been immensely profitable for the defense industry. Here was the AP breakdown from last month:
In 2001, revenues for U.S.-based defense contractors totaled $217 billion, according to data compiled by the analytics firm Capital IQ. By 2010 revenues had grown to $386 billion. Profits grew more than twice as fast over the same time period, from $6.7 billion to $24.8 billion. Contractors based abroad, such as BAE Systems, also flourished. BAE was the sixth biggest defense contractor in 2010, with $7.2 billion in U.S. military contracts. Stock prices of defense companies in the S&P 500 index have risen 67 percent since September 11. The index as a whole climbed 8 percent in that period.Now, as you read here Friday, the heads of many of those same firms have a date with Secretary Panetta to press him to keep the spigot open.
But how can Washington know how much to close the tap, or where to direct what it still permits to trickle? One of Sept. 11th’s cruelest enduring legacies is that it undercut our ability to be confident about our own future. As you read here Thursday, you can’t get a telegram from George Kennan anymore laying out a cogent case for the direction in which to take national security strategy. In a world where there’s still a large threat from individuals and small groups who could be everywhere and can attack anywhere, are we condemned to keep the mostly reactive posture that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were supposed to help prevent? How can you draw up the “strategy” that everyone wants when a terrorist attack tomorrow might force you to just throw it out the window?
Many of this month’s Sept. 11th reminiscences, especially those in the foreign press, have lamented what they called a “lost opportunity” after the attacks, spelled out by Britain’s Tony Blair and others, to use the crisis to remake the world. “The kaleidoscope has been shaken,” Blair said, and the global goodwill toward the United States offered a chance to put the pieces in a better order as they settled. “We are all Americans,” as the French newspaper Le Monde proclaimed on its front page. Lovely thoughts, but they completely misread the way Americans actually felt, and feel. After Sept. 11, we wanted revenge – we wanted blood. We wanted someone to pay.
We got it, and they did, and the cost in lives and treasure be damned. But as you’ve heard Pentagon officials and others say many times, we did so often without making any choices. Now that’s no longer an option. We have no choice but to make choices. So in the second decade after Sept. 11, the most important question is, can we make the right ones?