Nearly one year ago, I wrote a column about how our generation makes sense of the post-9/11 world we’ve inherited. That was the tenth anniversary of the 2001 attacks, and tomorrow will mark the eleventh.
Before Tuesday comes and we observe moments of silence to honor those lost to terror and war, I think it’s fitting to reflect on the challenges we still face — not only as a nation, but as individuals.
One of the most obvious — and costly — legacies of 9/11 is the ongoing war in Afghanistan. This war is the longest in U.S. history. As of Sep. 7, the Department of Defense reports that the total number of American casualties in Afghanistan is at 2,106. However, this figure does not begin to illustrate the human suffering that underlies raw numbers. Indeed, headlines like “War-weary US is numbed to drumbeat of troop deaths” are frighteningly accurate observations of the widening gap between domestic public opinion and wars abroad. (For an excellent depiction of life at war in Afghanistan, see the 2010 documentary “Restrepo.”) The article attached to that headline, written by Robert Burns, highlights a recent spate of American deaths in Afghanistan, including that of Pfc. Shane W. Cantu of Corunna, Michigan. Cantu was only 20 years old.
Despite all of the lives lost, this protracted war does not figure prominently in the minds of Americans today. According to a July 2012 Rasmussen poll, only 30 percent of Americans deemed the war in Afghanistan a “very important” issue. Meanwhile, as the November presidential election approaches, the economy remains the most pressing concern for the majority of voters. At the Republican National Convention, Mitt Romney did not once mention Afghanistan. Clint Eastwood referenced the war one time, but, like most of his cringe-worthy speech, it was incomprehensible. Similarly, at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama mentioned Afghanistan only twice. With the exception of vague platitudes about Israel and Iran, one would think our presidential candidates can’t acknowledge the existence of any other nation outside the U.S. border — let alone that we’ve been at war with one for almost 11 years.
At the core of this disconnect in civil-military relations is a striking paradox. Although we’ve become willfully deaf to the distant sounds of war, we reflexively and unquestioningly lavish praise on all American men and women in uniform. Now let me be clear: they deserve this praise entirely. But what of those who fail to return home alive from their service abroad? As the names of the dead pile up and fall by the wayside in the 24-hour media machine, who among us will offer them our gratitude for their sacrifice?
After all, the most accessible portrayal of warfare is currently NBC’s sanitized, sensationalized and much-derided reality television show “Stars Earn Stripes.” We are taught to have pride in, and give thanks to, those who protect us, but we refuse to acknowledge the brutal, less-than-glorious reality of war itself.
I was reminded of this on Saturday, when the University of Michigan hosted the U.S. Air Force Academy for the first home football game of the season. At the beginning of the match, the crowd roared as a B-2 Stealth Bomber flew over the Big House. At halftime, in a formation spelling out “America,” the marching band finished off their military-themed show with a rousing rendition of John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” In the student section, fragmented chants of “U-S-A!” rang out across the stands. And in an editorial published last week, The Michigan Daily endorsed a student initiative to ban the fourth down “You suck” chant — especially in time for the Michigan vs. Air Force game, since, they assert, “[i]t’s important to show other universities and sports fans that Michigan students have respect for those risking their safety for our nation’s.”
This is all very well, but I find it insincere to suggest that this, of all things, is the best way to show those who serve our country our respect. Such efforts are well intentioned, yes, but superficial.
Real respect requires more than chanting patriotically and refraining from immature jeers. Respect starts with honesty. The great majority of us have grown lazy, myself included. With the complicity of the media and overly simplistic political rhetoric, we are at war without understanding what war entails. We’ve led ourselves to erroneously believe that we show our respect by cheering for America but remain silent when faced with too many deaths to comprehend. Sound bites and gaffes now blot out the deaths of young Americans in our collective consciousness. That is why we lack respect, and all of us are guilty.
As I wrote in my column one year ago, our generation has inherited a seemingly endless war. This is why Tuesday, on the anniversary of September 11th, I encourage everyone to think deeply about the persistence of the past: the consequences of 9/11 endure in the present. Although those attacks occurred more than one decade ago, they continue to claim victims today. The tragedy of 9/11 is not delimited to history — it remains a current event. To ignore its legacies, to turn a blind eye to the lives our wars continue to claim, would be tantamount to ignorance.
For this, I challenge The Daily to buck the trend in the national media and more prominently feature stories on the American casualties of war — particularly those related to the state of Michigan and the University community. It is the responsibility of this newspaper to inform the student body. If we are to offer genuine respect to those serving abroad, as we claim to, let’s begin by building awareness at home among the leaders of tomorrow.
Daniel Chardell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.