Everyone older than 20 remembers whom he was with, what he was doing and how he learned we were at war that beautiful Tuesday morning a decade ago. Most of us recall a gorgeous late-summer morning with blue skies -- "shirt-sleeve weather" -- and then the horror: two of the world's tallest buildings collapsing into piles of rubble, the west wall of the Pentagon in flames and a fire-bathed crater in the soil of Somerset County, Pa.
Like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that Sunday morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the assault on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, was a complete surprise. Politicians, pundits and quasi-historians have tried to find similarities in the two events, but there are few other real parallels.
The Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet required 58 warships, 350 aircraft and more than 10,000 sailors to carry out. Though the raiders killed 2,403 Americans, only five U.S. Navy vessels were damaged beyond repair. In Washington, Congress immediately responded with a nearly unanimous declaration of war; only one member voted no. The American people answered the call to duty, and 16.5 million young men and women were soon in uniform. The U.S. became the leader of a grand alliance supported by both political parties. Everyone knew right from the start who our enemies were and that the war would end only when those enemies surrendered -- unconditionally.
That's hardly the case with what happened on and after 9/11. Until that terrible morning, most Americans never had heard of al-Qaida or Osama bin Laden. The attack bin Laden carried out with just 19 radical Islamists aboard four commercial airliners killed 2,973 Americans -- more than the Japanese had at Pearl Harbor. In strategic terms, the 9/11 attack was a nearly perfect "economy of force" operation.
Though there was no declaration of war, hundreds of thousands of young Americans volunteered to take up arms against an enemy they understood but Washington has steadfastly refused to name. Every one of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen and Marines on duty today either "joined up" or "stayed in" because of what took place on 9/11. In the decade since, more than 2 million of them -- the brightest and bravest of their generation -- have served in the extremely difficult and dangerous places where this long war is being fought. And they continue to do so, despite Washington's inability to define victory and despite the growing antipathy of our mainstream media.
The nation that once honored its war heroes with parades and celebrations now all but ignores the extraordinary sacrifices being made on our behalf. Instead, politicians, pundits and the potentates of the press constantly seek ways to denigrate those who serve in our nation's uniform.
Those who define what is "news" for the rest of us have beaten Abu Ghraib like a rented mule for more than a half-dozen years. Newsweek magazine created a totally fictional story about a Quran's being flushed down a toilet at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, generating scores of attacks in Muslim-majority countries. Sen. Dick Durbin likened our troops to those who served Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Cambodian despot Pol Pot. And a reporter for The New York Times claimed that most of those serving in harm's way are just "poor kids from Mississippi or Alabama or Texas who could not get a decent job or health insurance." Those who believe this drivel don't know the warriors of 9/11.
This week's memorial services on the 10th anniversary of that devastating attack on our soil will justly focus on the first responders. The firemen, police officers, emergency medical technicians and everyday citizens who risked -- and sometimes lost -- their lives that day are heroes and deserve to be recognized as such. So are those who watched the events that day and decided to don a uniform and fight back at those who wrought such death and destruction on our shores.
Thanks to young Americans wearing helmets, flak jackets, flight suits and combat boots, Saddam Hussein -- the Butcher of Baghdad -- is no more and bin Laden is dead. Al-Qaida, the vicious radical Islamist movement bin Laden spawned, is fractured and badly damaged but still alive in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Chechnya and seeks to take advantage of uncertainty in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The ayatollahs in Iran are guiding violence in Syria and threatening stability in Iraq.
While we recall those who were lost on 9/11, we would do well to also remember those who serve in our armed forces because of what happened that day. They forfeited the comforts of home, absented themselves from the affection of loved ones and went into harm's way to protect us from those who would once again visit unspeakable terror on our homeland. They, too, deserve our thanks and prayers in this decade of war, because it isn't over yet.