The day was June 3, 1957. A day that will live in infamy. How could I forget the day I died. A little. Inside. The day I got the notice that I had flunked geometry. The day I knew that I wasn't going to graduate from high school. I could "walk," but I wouldn't get a real diploma when I marched across the auditorium stage and received a blank diploma page from the principal of Yonkers High School.
How could I not acknowledge the anniversary of the day my mother got on the phone and registered me for Summer school and then called Dr. Gianelli and set up twice-weekly geometry tutoring sessions.
Why do I remember this so well? Because I had failed. Because that failure confirmed my parents' warning. I failed to "pay attention" to advice that could have helped me avoid future humiliation. Taking advice is called "getting wisdom."
I didn't. In college I still screwed up; still didn't heed academic storm warnings. I had a learning curve of zero when it came to profiting from my academic mistakes. I slid by with "gentleman C's."
It was only when my draft board contacted me after graduation and I was working in marketing research that the real threat of "going to Nam" reared its most ugly head that I wised up and thought -- grad school! Student deferment time. Psychology, I joyfully learned, was considered a "vital occupation."
I had already marched against the war (wrong war, wrong place, wrong reasons). Now it was time to elude it for as long as I legally could. (Just how many PhDs owe their original impetus toward "the intellectual life" to avoiding the draft is anybody's guess. But is it any surprise that so many academics are liberals?)
June 3, 1957. A black, black day. Really, though. Why? Why commemorate my failure of imagination, will and purpose? We should learn from failure, of course, but not commemorate it (alas, I slept through that lecture).
So, it seems, did some American Presidents. And their advisers. But with them, the consequences were fatal and costly--at least for others.
Wars and Damned Wars
"Remember the Alamo." "Remember the Maine." "Remember Pearl Harbor." Battle cries. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution? A preamble to the Vietnam war. One battle. Three wars. Remember them? No? Well, for a while...we used to. Battles and wars. We lost 50% of them.
The Spanish-American War of 1898, WWII, and the Vietnam War. The precipitating events for all three wars exist historically under clouds of suspicion. The Spanish-American war was one of America's early expansionist forays into becoming a world and nascent colonial power. The U.S. soundly defeated former colonial power, Spain, which ceded Puerto Rico and Guam to the United States, and allowed America to purchase the Philippines for $20 million. The sinking of the battleship Maine in the harbor at Havana, Cuba lit the match of war.
Who or what actually sank the American Battleship Maine was a murky issue: Spain, Cuba, terrorists, or simply an accident? America said Spain. Spain said, nuh-uh. America declared war on Spain anyway. History reveals that the U.S and its business interests wanted foreign powers out of the Americas (the Monroe Doctrine). Later investigations blamed spontaneous combustion in the Maine's ordinance hold (oops! Sorry Spain. "...losers weepers").
Pearl Harbor was the attack which allowed America's entry into WWII. Did FDR know of the attack probability in advance but allow it to happen to override the powerful voices supporting American isolationism and get the U.S into the war against Germany, Japan and other Axis powers? The jury is still out on such foreknowledge, but the ferment of suspicion and conspiracy continues 71 years later.
The Tonkin Bay Resolution was a call to arms in answer to an alleged attack against American ships in 1964. It provided President Johnson the rationale for launching a full-out "retaliation" against North Vietnam. With one Congressional vote the U.S. abandoned the pretense of its just being advisors to South Vietnam, and started a conventional war against a Communist country. This was part of our Cold War strategy of Communist containment.
But was it a really an attack or some trumped up affair, just radar ghosts, following an earlier skirmish between U.S. ships and North Vietnam torpedo boats in which no Americans were killed or wounded? The latter, it seems to be.
In that ill-conceived and ill-fated 10-year misadventure, 40,000 American lives were essentially lost for nothing except a test of civilian patriotism and the cold war Domino Principle, a futility acknowledged by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, before his death.
Today, of course, there is another decade-long commemoration. For 9/11. And after it, the commencement of our retaliation against the Taliban government in Afghanistan for harboring the terrorist group, Al-Qaeda, and its leader, Osama Bin Laden. This was followed by our exercising the Bush-2 Doctrine -- the right of pre-eminent attack -- ostensibly because of Iraq's alleged (and at best oblique) connection to the 9/11 attacks, Saddam Hussein's alleged possession of WMDs and an alleged intent by him to use them against the U.S. in retaliation for the first Gulf War under Bush-1.
We have been fighting these two wars in the Middle East for 10 years, with no end, successful or otherwise, in sight, the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld Administration's reassurances of a brief, cheap, low casualty war to the contrary.
The more thing change, the more they remain the same.
Evidence has accumulated over the decade that the Bush administration ignored warnings about an imminent attack by Al-Qaeda operatives months before the actual attacks. Evidence from investigative bodies and individual voices inside and outside the government also abounds on the dubious accuracy about Iraqi involvement in 9/11 and its WMD threats against the U.S.
Richard A. Clarke, Special Advisor to President Bush, on cybersecurity and chief counter-terrorism adviser on the National Security Council, was sharply critical of the Bush Administration's cavalier, underestimating attitude toward counter-terrorism before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and of the decision to go to war with Iraq in 2003.
Then there was former U.S. Ambassador to Gambon and several other African nations under Bush 1, Joe Wilson, (husband of outed CIA operative Valerie Plame) who, at the behest of the CIA, went to Niger to verify the charges of the sale to Iraq, of yellow cake, a component of weaponized nuclear material, .
Wilson's non-supportive findings and recommendations were, like Clarke's, ignored by the Bush Administraration in its testosterone-dripping march up to the war with Iraq in 2003, and its bungled aftermath.
What Are We Commemorating?
So, on September 11, 2011 what are we commemorating? The heroism of the 40 passengers on Flt. 93 who overwhelmed the terrorists hijackers, who were intent on turning the plane into a guided missile and crashing it into the Capitol building? They forced them, instead, to crash into an empty field in Pennsylvania, sacrificing their lives while saving the lives of others.
Or are we remembering the first responders, the members of the NYC police and fire depts. who heroically gave their lives or their health to rescue survivors at the Twin Towers, ground zero? Maybe we're just remembering the loss of over 3,000 Americans on that nightmarish morning? Or perhaps it's just the good old resilience of the American people.
Surely we're not commemorating the failure of the Bush administration to attend to the warnings of Clarke, Wilson, and other alarm-raising voices in the various intelligence communities. Surely we're not commemorating the Administration's deliberate intent to divert attention and resources from the real and continuing threat of Al-Qaeda onto the trumped-up threat of Saddam Hussein, for reasons still mired in double-talk.
How odd, after so many lives have been lost and bodies maimed and crippled since 9/11, that we may, inadvertently, be remembering the actual failures and inept and/or corrupt policies of our leaders. Years from now, I hope we'll look back on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars as we look back on Vietnam, as questionable military ventures. With a more brutally truthful yet more painful candor, we may also allow ourselves to perceive the senseless sacrifices of American lives and treasure for the ego, the blind ambition of (charitably) misguided leaders and their financial supporters. These world stage players nurse ambition that has little to do with the security and daily lives of most Americans. It has even less to do with what so many Americans now struggle to cling to: pride, respect, and the love of their homeland and values for which it stands.