The teacher stands before a class of young men. He is flanked by open windows. A military parade passes outside the school and martial music fills the classroom. The teacher, a certain Mr. Kantorek, is exhorting his students to enlist. "I believe it will be a quick war," he says, "and there will be few losses." It is 1914, the war lasted four years and the losses were staggering. This is how the movie "All Quiet on the Western Front" begins. So did Sept. 11, 2001.
We are just a few days short of the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that caused an enormous loss of life and a horror that is still emotionally unmanageable. I was in Lower Manhattan that day, and for a long time afterward the sad, damp wail of bagpipes -- the inevitable "Danny Boy" and "Amazing Grace" -- suffused the island, funeral after funeral after funeral. The occasional passing of a firetruck, often to spontaneous applause, was an emotional experience. This is how I and so many others got to be like those German students. We were off to war.
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Now it is 10 years later and the war is not yet over. We fight still in Afghanistan and Iraq, wars now without purpose or, in the case of Iraq, reason. Like those students, we got high on war fever and marched off led by men -- a president and his vice president -- at least as incompetent as the German kaiser or, on the other side, that gaggle of statesmen and field marshals who allowed Europe to be convulsed by a war whose effects are still being felt.
It is the same with the disaster in Iraq. It was not Saddam Hussein who attacked us and it was not Saddam Hussein who had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons or a nuclear program. None of these existed -- not a mere intelligence mistake, as is now claimed, but a mistake caused by preconceived notions, an insistence of seeing a goblin in every shadow, a nuclear program in the weak glow of a watch face, a lust for the head of Saddam. Oops, we marched smartly off to the wrong war.
This is a melancholy season in Washington, much talk about the decline of America and how our vaunted system has broken down. I won't quibble. But the most consequential breakdown of our system is exemplified by waging an unnecessary war and then -- history, brace yourself -- the re-election of the incompetents who had done it. Is it possible that for all the treacly talk about "the fallen" and all our salutes to the troops, we care so little about them that we casually gave second terms to the very people who wasted their lives?
This lack of accountability is not limited to our ill-conceived military adventures. After all, the financial system collapsed, but afterward there were no metaphorical hangings. People of modest means, suckers fooled into thinking a home of their own was a gift of citizenship, lost it all, but the guys at the top had a couple of bad years and then got the bonuses they were accustomed to. The SEC allowed Bernie Madoff to rip off the charitable and their charities, and again the hangman was given no work. We are a get-over-it nation, always moving on.
Still, Iraq was different. Lives, not homes, were lost -- and the Middle East was thrown up into the air. When it came down, our enemy Iran was stronger, its influence increased even in Iraq itself. The war against al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan was given short shrift. The passage of time blurred its purpose and so we fight, as Hannibal did in Italy, because we can't think of what else to do. This is an odd reason to die.
I went home on Sept. 11 with my shoes dusted with the detritus of the World Trade Center. I felt a hate that was entirely new to me. Soon after, the anthrax attacks began and I was ready for war -- against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, for sure, but against Saddam Hussein as well. I was wrong, and for that I blame myself, but I blame us all for going along with it and then rewarding incompetence with another term. I believe it will be a quick war, our teacher effectively said.
Sept. 11 is the day that never ends.
Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr(at)washpost.com.
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