I read this in today's New York Times. As Caden and I prepare for our trip to New York this weekend (to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11), it makes me wonder what Sept. 11 means for us today.
The Only America They’ve Ever KnownBy ROY SCRANTON
When I joined the Army almost 10 years ago, I was already an old man — by the measure of my fellow recruits anyway, most of them only 18 or 19. I was all of 25, but it was enough to make a difference. Even though I got used to how my sergeants and lieutenants were often younger than me, I never got used to how young some of my fellow privates and Pfc.’s seemed. They were hardly more than boys, some of them, with bright ruddy cheeks, and bright eyes that grew hard during our year in Iraq.
Now we’re 10 years older. I’m working on a doctorate, helping a professor put together a course on the literature of war. Some of the students in the course — the same age as my fellow soldiers were back then — have been watching the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since they were 8. The single most important political event in their lives was the attack on the World Trade Center. The only America they know is a nation at war.
This is the legacy we’ve given them: not a national tragedy that saw Americans rise to their best, but a bitter wound that sent us reeling into wasteful, crooked, decade-long wars. I can’t separate out the decade of fighting from my own life, from getting older, serving my time in the Army, moving to New York, going back to school — and growing more and more disgusted with extremist show-politics, and more and more hopeless at our disaffected, alienated, intolerant citizenry, numbing itself with Tea Party grotesqueries on one side and “The Daily Show” on the other.
Once there was a vision of something else. I grew up poor, in a military family, waiting for nuclear war to break out with the Soviet Union. Yet despite that gloom, and the scandals of Iran-Contra, and the age-old corruption of our government, there was something that stirred in me when I stood before the flag, said the pledge of allegiance and came down on those closing lines about our nation being indivisible, “with liberty and justice for all.” Even as a child I knew this wasn’t a fact, but a promise. It was a promise to be better, to do better. It was a promise to ourselves — and to the future.
Over the years, whether I was marching in protest or going to war, it was because I believed that we make our world together, and that each and every one of us are obliged to chip in: to dissent, when dissent is needed, to fight, to enact the promise of collective democratic self-determination outlined in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
The flag to me was a symbol of that unrealized potential. It meant something bigger than me, bigger than you, something more important than making money or a career, something we could build together — something that we could only build together, depending and relying on one another — that might make the world a better place.
Today, this is what I see: a nation wracked by recession and 10 years of war-debt, bled dry by profiteers, where the rich enrich themselves at the expense of the poor and the demagogues and con artists we’ve elected squander our commonwealth, our treasury and our lifeblood. And as Sept. 11 approaches, I wonder what we will be commemorating on that grim day.
Now I think of these kids, who watched people cheering in the streets after an elite assassination team killed Osama bin Laden, and wonder what that flag means to them.
We faced a choice 10 years ago: to follow the example of the people at ground zero, the firefighters, the police, the regular men and women who risked their lives to help total strangers; or to do what we were told: to keep shopping, keep spending, keep oiling the big wheels of capital. The bad news is, most of us picked shopping. The good news is, we face the same choice again right now. We face it every day.
Our example is our legacy. Ten years from today, let us not look back in shame.
Roy Scranton’s five-part memoir for Home Fires, “War and the City,” appeared in 2010.
Roy Scranton served in the United States Army from 2002 to 2006, and deployed to Iraq with the 1st Armored Division from 2003 to 2004. His work has appeared in New Letters, Theory & Event, LIT, and elsewhere. He is working on a doctorate in English at Princeton University.