Pro­fessor Peter Jen­nings with two of his fellow ser­vicemen. Courtesy | Peter Jennings

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.