I was 15 years old on September 11th 2001, walking from 2nd period art class to 3rd period English when I saw the news.
At the time every classroom still had the boxy CRT type TVs mounted up on the wall to watch movies, the occasional daytime news event, or more often than not an educational-ish movie so the teacher could grade papers. The school must have bought them used from other districts in the state because no matter what grade I was in, the wall mounted TVs always looked like they’d spent years in a hair salon lobby that still allowed smoking. That morning the sound warbled in and out as the reporters tried to make sense of the growing chaos in New York city.
It’s the weird obscure little details that stick out in your head at times like those. I couldn’t tell you what I was wearing, but I remember that stupid television set.
The first of the twin towers had just been hit and was obviously burning. I shrugged it off as an accident then trudged on down the hall hoping the line at the vending machine wasn’t too long. I was sitting in my English class a few minutes later when the second plane hit the south tower. We watched live as they fell. The girls in class were crying. The boys looked genuinely scared.
Because I was the school weirdo… I started ticking off all the military installations within driving distance of our rural dot on the map. The CDC in Atlanta, Warner Robbins AFB in Macon, Fort Moore on the Alabama line, the old nuclear bomb plant just up the Savannah River, and Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base to the south all had me paranoid about who was next. I kept waiting for words like biological weapons and dirt bomb to appear on screen.
It was easier to focus on potential future disasters than the one that had just happened. The perpetual “what if” was easier to tolerate than the reality that we were truly vulnerable.
I can still remember the hollow feeling of that Tuesday morning in September. I remember the panic buying, the American flags everywhere, the remembrance stickers on the back window of everyone’s cars… It was gut wrenching to experience, and I lived 800 miles south of New York city in one of the more sparsely populated counties in Georgia. I still can’t wrap my head around the idea of living in NYC or DC or Pennsylvania and having a plane destroy a swath of my reality. It just wasn’t in the list of possible scenarios for the average U.S. citizen and is still considered a one-off event in many people’s minds two decades later.
Now, I read the news in the mornings and try not to think of how horrible it would be to lose my son. He’s almost two and I try not think of what it would be like to suddenly, horrifically, lose him in a senseless attack. That hollow feeling from 22 years ago returns a hundred-fold and it nearly doubles me up in my chair.
I see what is happening in Israel, see the civilian death toll, the kidnappings, and it tears out my heart.
I couldn’t tell you where I was when I heard the news, likely on my phone while I blearily slurped coffee at some ungodly hour. At first it sounded like yet another tit-for-tat exchange like we’ve been reading about since the Gaza Strip was created. Reality has turned out to be much worse.
People keep calling 10/7 Israel’s 9/11. I certainly hope not.
September 11th immediately claimed 2,996 lives that morning, and we are still tallying casualties today. Counting civilians, we may never know the total. It set off two decades of war on two fronts and destabilized the world in ways I don’t think even Bin Laden could have predicted.
We still have first responders dying of cancer from ground zero. The New York City government sent human remains to a landfill along with the tower debris where they have no plans to have them recovered. We lose nearly 50 veterans a day to suicide. How many are being ignored or flat out denied by the VA after the last 20 years of war? How many children grew up without a parent, who either died in combat or was simply gone for most of their childhood? How many children had parents come home scarred, broken, and complete strangers? Will we ever get an accurate count on the civilian death toll because our enemies used their host population like shields?
The anger and fear of a teenager seeing his nation attacked has turned into the anger of a man who has seen the aftermath and still doesn’t have anyone to blame. It is now the anger of a veteran who is watching other vets who have retired and continue to sacrifice long past their need to.
Now I see terrorist doing it again to another country, to an ally, and I feel despair.
I can’t claim any kind of authority on the Israel-Palestine conflict, let alone start to assign blame. I also can’t ignore our country’s $6 billion hostage trade to Iran, or Iran’s relationship to Hezbollah and Hamas. I will not ignore the civilian that weren’t collateral damage, but intended targets from the outset. Additionally they went on to casually torture them before kidnapping or killing them.
Maybe I am an idealist and should know better than to stand on principle when talking about war. Afterall, the insanity of the Vietnam War has been well documented. A few decades prior the U.S. dropped not one but two nuclear weapons on Japanese civilians in World War II. Less than a century before that it was still committing genocide against the native tribes of the North American continent.
The blood has dried on our hands and since been ground in.
I find our country’s past actions against non-military targets horrific and cannot condone them.
That said, what Hezbollah and Hamas have since done and continue to do turns my despair into rage that I cannot do anything with.
Now, there is a carrier strike group in the Eastern Mediterranean and I wonder if we’re going to get bogged down in a third war. The paranoia from high school has reared its head and I can’t help but do the math. The Suez Canal is less than 150 miles away from Gaza. An organization willing to rape and behead civilians likely won’t bat an eye at sinking an oil tanker in the ditch out of spite. On the other end of the scary spectrum, a tomahawk missile has an effective range of about 1500 miles, which puts some of the Ukrainian front lines within range of that strike group.
I worry and can’t see a way forward. However, I am not one to sit on my ass and just be afraid and angry. Since I can’t go over there and put bullets on bad guys I am going to study while I wait for them to eventually come to me.
To that end, in an effort to understand, I am digging out books I should have paid better attention to when I read them the first time. A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin, goes into great detail about the historical events that set much of this conflict in motion a century ago. If you want to try to understand what is going on, it’s a good place to start.
For this side of the Atlantic, American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis by Adam Hochschild goes into grim detail of the horror story that the U.S. had become after we entered the first world war. The scene looks eerily similar to today’s political and social climate.
Some of the best generals (and leaders) in modern history were readers and perpetual students. Former Secretary of Defense and prior Marine General Mattis was kind of infamous for having a personal library he hauled around with him.
I’m not arrogant enough to claim enlisted puddle pirate is the next Mattis, Patton, or John Boyd, but dammit I’m not going to sit in despair without trying to figure things out. Who knows, maybe I’ll be able to write something revelatory.
Postscript: Another avid reader, and Vietnam vintage Marine LRRP 2ndLT, has recommended a The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder by Sean McFate.
K.C. Aud has made a career of being lucky and has managed to find something positive in nearly every poor decision he’s ever made, even if it was only a new perspective on how not to do something.
Enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard in 2010 he became an Operations Specialist (radio and navigation) and did his first tour in Georgia guarding submarines from drunk fishermen. In 2014, tired of the heat and the bugs he transferred to a 210-foot medium endurance cutter in Washington state. The cutter then regularly deployed to the hot and buggy west coast of Central America to hunt down drug runners. Aboard USCGC Active he traveled 94,194 miles and personally handled enough cocaine to keep a small country high for a decade. Somewhere in there, he learned to write, if not spell.
Three years later, daunted by the prospect of spending the rest of his career in a windowless command center, he separated from active duty. After 13 different jobs ranging from beer brewer to dairy farmhand, to machinist, to Navy civilian contractor, he reenlisted in 2020 as a Coast Guard reservist, changing rates to Maritime Law Enforcement Specialist. When not helping the Navy assets in the Puget Sound troubleshoot radios, he’s on drill in Seattle doing water cop stuff and or flailing away at his keyboard. Though married and now a father, he misses the mission.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.