Col. Paul Russell
I attended the Merrill Chapter of Ducks Unlimited a week ago and was reminded by Dieter Nickel before the dinner prayer, that we were approaching the 14th Anniversary of the 911 terror attacks on America. All the veterans in the audience were recognized and given a free raffle ticket for some special prize. As usual I didn’t win but had a wonderful night with family and friends. Later that night I reflected on what seemed like yesterday when we all watched planes crashing into targets killing innocent Americans in places like New York, Washington DC and Pennsylvania.
Every generation of Americans experience those significant moments of history where they remember exactly where they were and what they were doing in a moment of time. For the traditionalists (WWII generation) they lived these events; stock market crash on Oct. 29. 1929 leading to the Great Depression, Japan bombing of Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941 and the birth of the atomic age in the bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, bringing an end to the war after the one that was supposed to end them all.
For the Baby Boomers it may have been the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963 and the void of leadership. Or Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon on July 20, 1969, giving us hope again and raising the American spirit. For Generation X it may have been the Challenger disaster on Jan. 28, 1986, where hopes were crushed again on live television. Or on Nov. 9, 1989. when the Berlin wall came down and that hope once again was vibrant and promising. For the Millennial generation, it may have been the relief on Jan. 1, 2000 when the new millennium was celebrated, computers continued to work and doomsday passed us by. Or for all of us, in each generation, it was the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 when the first hijacked airplane flew into the World Trade Center.
Each and every one of us recall where we were and what we were doing at that moment in time. For most of us we watched the second airplane fly into the second world trade center building. We watched on live television the carnage at the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. In total, the attacks claimed the lives of 2,996 people and caused at least $10 billion in property and infrastructure damage. It was the deadliest incident for firefighters and law enforcement officers in the history of the United States, with 343 and 72 killed respectively.
The United States responded to the attacks by launching the War on Terror and invading Afghanistan to depose the Taliban, which had harbored al-Qaeda. Many countries strengthened their anti-terrorism legislation and expanded the powers of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to prevent terrorist attacks. Although al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, initially denied any involvement, in 2004, he claimed responsibility for the attacks. Having evaded capture for almost a decade, bin Laden was located and killed by members of the U.S. military in May 2011.
On Oct. 7, 2001, the War in Afghanistan began when U.S. and British forces initiated aerial bombing campaigns targeting Taliban and al-Qaeda camps, then later invaded Afghanistan with ground troops of the Special Forces. This eventually led to the overthrow of the Taliban rule of Afghanistan on Dec. 9, 2001 by U.S. led coalition forces. Conflict in Afghanistan between the Taliban insurgency and the Afghan forces backed by NATO Resolute Support Mission is ongoing and surpassed Vietnam as the longest war in U.S. history.
A just war or not, in 2003 the United States along with allies invaded Iraq and toppled the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Ending combat operations in 2011, the United States found itself re-engaged in 2014 when ISIS started an offensive campaign in Iraq and Syria. According to Department of Defense casualty statistics, 6,717 Americans made the ultimate sacrifice in the Iraq war and ongoing war in Afghanistan. In addition, numerous first responders across America were killed or injured while conducting homeland security and counter-terrorism operations.
The other major attack on US soil was the cowardly Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor to prevent America from entering World War. The base was attacked by 353 Japanese fighter planes, bombers, and torpedo planes in two waves, launched from six aircraft carriers. All eight U.S. Navy battleships were damaged, with four sunk. All but the USS Arizona were later raised, and six were returned to service and went on to fight in the war. 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed; 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,178 others were wounded.
Mark Twain wrote “history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes.” The parallels of these two attacks on our nation should be noted; America is not immune from global threats or world challenges just because she has an ocean on either side. Both attacks marked the United States’ entry into protracted wars. In World War II, the enemies were clearly defined nation-states: Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. But 9/11 thrust Americans into battle against nebulous, not-easily-defined adversaries in Afghanistan and, later, Iraq.
It would be difficult to overestimate the effect of the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent World War II. It set in motion the Cold War. It solidified our position as the dominant economic power in the world. It brought women into the labor force in large numbers. It set us along the path of racial integration. It is not known at this point whether the 9/11 attacks will be remembered generations from now in the same way as Pearl Harbor. Will 9/11 be seen as a small preliminary event to a much larger global conflict say 10, 20 years down the road. Or it might stand alone as an event that shaped America’s entry into the 21st century.
What is known is America is the greatest nation on earth and symbolizes true freedom across the globe. In time of need, her people come together and protect that freedom at all cost. That cost is American lives who volunteered to protect and defend the citizens of this nation and her security. Today let us remember these brave men and woman who were citizens, military personnel and first responders on Sept. 11, 2001. They and those who have served since are America’s first generation heroes of the 21st century.
Editors note: Paul Russell is a veteran of Afghanistan and served 31 years total in the military.