“The best way to eulogize the 6,000”

All of us will spend Monday remembering where we were when the World Trade Towers sunk into the earth like sandcastles undermined by a great wave on Sept. 11, 2001, leaving behind a hole in the ground (and in our hearts) that has yet to be filled. Five years is a notable anniversary, and — in everything but geologic and evolutionary terms — a substantial period of time.
A half-decade, for example, is a year longer than the Civil War dragged on. It is nine months longer than the First World War.
Arguably, the biggest change in the United States since then isn’t the trend toward flying naked. It’s only a matter of time before we are all asked to strip bare before boarding our flights. (On the bright side? Then we really will be flying the friendly skies.)
Rather, it is the war in Iraq. Obviously, we wouldn’t be in Iraq now if it weren’t for 9/11. And here is what I find most disturbing: We have now been in Iraq roughly as long as our nation was fighting the Second World War.
That’s right, do the math. We entered the Second World War in December 1941. Our victory in Europe became official in May 1945; our victory in Japan occurred three months later. So, we were fighting Hitler and Mussolini for 42 months; we were fighting Tojo for 45.
We invaded Iraq in March 2003. It is now September 2006. That’s 42 months: Same as the amount of time we were fighting across North Africa, up the Italian boot, and battling from the beaches of Normandy to the banks of the Elbe River in Germany.
Now, I don’t mean to sound unpatriotic. I view myself as a reasonably patriotic guy. I support our troops in Iraq. Good heavens, I will support anyone who will go to the blast furnace that is Baghdad in July, even when there aren’t whole neighborhoods full of people trying to kill you. I think the American and British men and women serving in Iraq are nothing short of amazing: as courageous, as capable, as resourceful as their grandparents who liberated Europe. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the attacks on 9/11, but we should nonetheless be grateful that he is on trial.
It’s the policies and the strategies that are problematic — not the troops. We haven’t captured Osama Bin Laden. We haven’t ended terrorist threats here at home or in Europe. We haven’t fomented democracy between the Caspian, the Persian and the Red Seas.
On the other hand, in the time it took us to bring down Nazi Germany, we have created an absolutely steaming cauldron of anti-American hatred in the Middle East.
I hope this doesn’t sound like a partisan rant. I hope, if anything, that it sounds like a bipartisan rant. Moreover, I don’t think it matters whether a politician voted to use force in Iraq three and a half years ago. They were voting in an environment in which Colin Powell was telling the United Nations that we had proof the old Iraqi regime was developing biological weapons in mobile labs.
But a definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. And what we are doing Iraq is not working especially well. Nor is it working especially quickly. And so I would ask everyone running for office this November the following question: What do you recommend we do in Iraq? Do we add more troops? Or do we leave — and, if so, how do we leave the place in less of a mess than we made it?
I also would want to know where you stand on an energy policy. After all, a big reason we are in this quagmire now is because we would rather drive a quarter mile than walk. And heaven forbid we should drive cars as small as those the Europeans take for granted.
Let’s face it, five years is a long time. Perhaps the best way we can eulogize the nearly 3,000 Americans who died on 9/11 and the nearly 3,000 more who have died in Iraq — 6,000 total human souls — is to figure out once and for all what to do in the Middle East, and how to take better care of our planet right here at home.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on September 10, 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.