Pearl Harbor and 9/11: History Doesn’t Repeat Itself

It was a transforming event for the countless people who witnessed it, for our country and for the world. The date of September 11, 2001 will stand in infamy for generations to come, along side December 7, 1941, the date Pearl Harbor was attacked. Both dates mark rare episodes in modern American history when American soil has been invaded by foreign hostiles.

America has been graced with immense oceans and friendly neighbors that insulate us from the hostilities that routinely threaten the borders of most other nations the world over. We were drawn only begrudgingly into World War I, and it took the shocking attack and tragic death of more than 2,400 Americans on December 7th, 1941 to mobilize the U.S. citizens and government to respond to the treachery that Hitler, Mussolini, and Emperor Hirohito had afflicted on much of the rest of the world.

But after Pearl Harbor we knew who our enemies were. Heads of nations openly declared war against the U.S. Those same enemy nations had ruthlessly and violently invaded autonomous nations, committing genocide and unspeakable atrocities in their bid to establish a new world order. Our friends and allies, particularly Winston Churchill in Britain, had been asking for our involvement for years. Yet, Americans hung stubbornly to our isolationism until Japan drew us into the inevitable show down with Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Hirohito’s Japan.

The coordinated attack against the U.S. by Al Qaeda on 9-11 primarily targeted civilians from the U.S., but the World Trade Center hosted global citizens. Innocents from 115 nations of the world became victims of Al Qaeda. Fires burned for 99 days. The 2,819 victims of the attacks that day included a great many heroes, including 343 firefighters and paramedics, 23 NYPD police officers, and 37 Port Authority officers, among many others. And since 9-11, thousands of first responders who searched for survivors and cleared the 1.5 million tons of debris from the wreckage have suffered from respiratory illnesses, cancer, heart disease and other dire effects from exposure to toxins, according to ABC News.

But history marches forward, never following the same path. Pearl Harbor drew us into a war that offered clarity of purpose, clearly identifiable enemies, and a formal end to the hostilities within 4 years. The loss of life, of course, was horrendous. But the stark clarity and overwhelming tragic effects of Pearl Harbor and WWII eventually yielded some benefits. We toppled Hitler’s campaign of hatred, and the U.S. emerged as a world power, an economic and military force that was unparalleled. And despite the atrocities that accompany warfare, today Japan, Germany and Italy rank among the United States finest allies.

The war against terrorism sparked by the 9/11 attacks, however, has drawn us into an ill-defined war against elusive enemies who have no borders. It’s been ten years. The war against terror stretches on and there is no end in sight.

In a misguided attempt to respond to the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration was driven by a need to retaliate immediately. America jumped head-first into the rabbit hole of nation-building in the Mideast. We embarked on a resource-draining war in Iraq and then Afghanistan. The Iraq war alone is estimated to have cost more than 3 trillion dollars, according to The Washington Post. And as of May 2010 the monthly cost of the Afghanistan war exceeded that of the Iraq war, reports USA Today. These expenditures no doubt have contributed significantly to our current debt crisis and economic woes.

Nonetheless, in the aftermath of 9-11, Al-Qaeda has essentially lost their war against the U.S. and the world. Osama Bin Laden rests in pieces somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Misfired terrorist attacks, in one case the work not of Al-Qaeda but of a psychopathic loner, have failed. Loner Richard Reid was unable to set his shoe-bomb afire and Nigerian Abdulmutallab failed to detonate his explosive underwear. Al-Qaeda is in disarray, and they stand by uselessly, proving the futility of their methods, as Mideast nations like Libya and Egypt achieve political change without relying on terrorism as their modus operandi.

Yet, the body count of heroes and victims of 9-11 continues to rise. Nearly 7,500 coalition and US personnel have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 45,000 have been wounded, according to CNN. More than 92,000 Iraqi civilians died from armed violence from March 20, 2003 through March 19, 2008, during the course of a military endeavor that began as a search for non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

Unlike pre-Pearl Harbor days, the U.S. no longer tries to isolate itself. We interject into the affairs of other nations to promote democracy and to protect the interests of our nation, economy and allies. A growing legion of experts such as Chalmers Johnson argue that democratization of totalitarian states must arise from internal political movements and infrastructure transformation, and not from external military intervention. However, currently, 99 percent of our investment in foreign nations goes to subsidize military campaigns. These questionable campaigns are not directed toward hostile nations, but against divergent sects and groups that hide within and across nations.  Victory in these battles is barely definable, let alone attainable.

As we honor the fallen heroes and victims of 9-11, we must also weigh the consequences of our reactions to the tragedy. We must balance our fear of disparate and desperate terrorist groups with the recognition that 9-11 was concocted by an increasingly fringe group, and not by a cadre of nations that we can defeat in war. When we forfeit lives and squander wealth on unwinnable ventures we weaken our economy as well as our international stature. After Pearl Harbor, we grew and used our military to defeat well-defined enemies at war. After 9-11 we have been using military actions to attempt to forge new nations, a task for which the military is ill-suited.



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