Sept. 11, 2001, was a catastrophic day in the life of our nation — our generation’s Fort Sumter or Pearl Harbor. We were suddenly and deliberately attacked by radical Islamic terrorists. Images from that infamous day stung our national consciousness: The fireballs as one plane, and then a second, crashed into the Twin Towers; the panic and chaos on the streets as people fled in terror; the grim-faced fire fighters going up those tower stairs; desperate people jumping to their deaths to avoid burning alive in those infernos. In the immediate aftermath, Americans were properly filled with a righteous anger and united in resolve to answer the attack — aggressively, forcefully, violently. National honor demanded it; justice demanded it; the cause of humane civilization demanded it — that the perpetrators of such bestiality be destroyed.
We set our face like flint for Afghanistan to kill Osama bin Laden and destroy al-Qaida and their Taliban sponsors. It was a “necessary” and a “good” war and we were “all in.” The young men and women of our armed forces led the way — the proud and lethal instruments of our united national resolve, worthy prototypes of the “Minute Men” of the Revolution, the “Veteran Volunteers” of the Civil War, the “Doughboys” and “GIs” of the world wars.
Fast forward 20 years to Sept. 1, 2021, the immediate aftermath of what the Wall Street Journal called the “most sweeping foreign-policy failure in American history” — the disgraceful “bug out” from Afghanistan. From afar, through our screens, we watched — shocked, horrified, heartbroken, infuriated. New images stung our national consciousness: the Taliban triumphantly parading U.S. military equipment through the streets of Kabul; the chaos and panic on the tarmac of Kabul airport; desperate people clinging to the fuselage of a departing U.S. military cargo plane — one man falling to his death; an American soldier rescuing, over the wall through barbed wire, an Afghan infant; and those 13 young American patriots — the once proud and lethal instruments of our national resolve, now the tragic last casualties in a lost and forsaken cause.
9/1 is the bookend to a 20-year national odyssey that began on 9/11. The significance — symbolic and substantive — of an army of Islamic zealots humiliating the world’s sole superpower and chief defender of liberty, not once but twice, and in between, frustrating its democratic policy objectives, is not hard to imagine. It has already begun to cast a long, dark shadow on America that is likely to persist indefinitely. On this 20th anniversary of 9/11, this is an especially bitter pill to swallow. It should prompt among thoughtful and patriotic Americans heartfelt soul-searching.
To this end, I offer this hard lesson. Though the causes of our failure in Afghanistan are legion, this is certain: We did not fail because we were defeated, we failed because we gave up and gave in. The enemy bested us in only one way: resolve — deep, patient, enduring constancy of purpose born of fanatical zeal for its cause. Only once in my lifetime — since 1966 — has America shown similar resolve: during the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But that resolve — a fickle and priceless thing in a democratic society — was soon squandered by our senior political and military leaders. Rather than a national house united in the good fight against radical Islamic terrorism, we devolved into a house bitterly divided. Today, we are more divided than at any time since the Civil War. A house divided cannot stand; a people divided cannot muster resolve. The 9/1 tragedy is the natural consequence of our failure of resolve and in this failure, we glimpse the portentous and cancerous seeds of our decline. A hard lesson indeed.
Peter Jennings is an Associate Professor of Management and the Brouwer D. and Jane E. McIntyre Chair in Business Administration.