Note: On September 14, 2001 President Bush went to Ground Zero. Standing atop a buried fire truck the President draped an arm over a firefighter wearing a helmet bearing the number "164." Talking through a bullhorn, President Bush began addressing the rescue workers. When someone shouted that they couldn't hear him, the President responded:
"I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon" I went through a good deal of what I wrote during the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. I've chosen to reprise this column because it was, unfortunately, prescient in the way it portrays the ways wars start and the way wars end.
I know you may be suffering from 9/11 fatigue, but I hope you'll spend a few minutes and re-read this column from nearly 10 years ago:
Wars start with old men telling young men there is a great cause.
Young men run tell their young women they are answering the call.
In the movie "Gone with the Wind," Charles Hamilton says to Scarlett: "Miss O'Hara! Miss O'Hara, isn't it thrilling? Mr. Lincoln has called the soldiers, volunteers to fight against us." Then he says, "But it's war, Miss O'Hara! And everybody's going off to enlist, they're going right away. I'm going, too!"
And so, with the bands playing and the flags waving, the Scarlett O'Haras and the Charles Hamiltons embrace and she waves goodbye to her man as he leaves, depending upon where they are in history, on horseback or in a Humvee.
And most times it IS a great cause and it IS a worthy call as is this present crisis. And most times it IS good against evil. And most times good DOES emerge victorious.
But soon the bands pack their instruments, and the parade organizers furl the flags, and the women go home, again depending upon where they are in history, to mind the garden or merge H-P with Compaq.
The young men go off to the war. Now, the young men and the young women go off to the war. And the war is often a horror.
Stephen E. Ambrose, in his gripping book "D-Day" makes the point that nearly all of the soldiers who went onto the beaches in the first wave were novices - they had not been in battle. Because experienced soldiers, knowing what they would be facing, might not have gone.
A War on Terrorism is not like the War on Drugs or the War on Poverty. Like so much else in the last third of the 20th Century, the overuse of the word "War" has devalued the meaning of the word "War."
Nor will a War on Terrorism be, we have already seen in excruciating close-up, like the Gulf War when the Army, Air Force, and Naval personnel drove through the sand, flew over the sand, or sailed abreast of the sand of the Middle East, while the rest of the country, in effect, hit out of the sand on the 16th hole of their country club.
President Bush, who was accused to ducking the whole thing on Tuesday afternoon, toured the ruins of the southern end of Manhattan Island on Friday afternoon.
He stood among the strong men and women, mud-splattered from digging in the rubble, hopeful and happy as their Commander-In-Chief stood among them; on a pile of the same broken concrete on which they have ripped their hands. He stood among them in a windbreaker. Speaking through a bullhorn. His arm was draped around retired firefighter Bob Beckwith the way men do when they are comfortable being around other men.
The workers were in hardhats of blue, green, white, yellow, and every other color of the spectrum. Some of them - perhaps many of them - may soon be trading those hardhats for black berets and olive drab helmets.
One, a hard hat still on his head, told a TV reporter how thrilled he was about having had had his picture taken with the President. He said it made him think about how far he has come. He was an African-American. It made me think about how far America has come.
He didn't appear to be concerned about the whereabouts of Air Force One on Tuesday. He was thrilled about the whereabouts of its principal passenger on Friday.
"U-S-A! U-S-A!" They chanted the way strong men and women do when they are standing among broken stones and broken bodies sharing, a moment with their President.
As a nation we know what we have to do. And we know whom we have to send. And we know what the inevitable toll will be for many of them and for many of us.
The man standing next to the President was a retired fire fighter. He was not stage dressing. He had goggles and a respirator dangling from his neck. His helmet was not colorful. It looked like firefighters' helmets have looked, more or less, for generations: Black leather. Bill around back. Shield on the front: 164.
He could have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
A lot of us are 164.
Perhaps 164 has a son or daughter who will go to this war. And 164 will, as all of us will, be proud of that child. And he will pray for the safety of his child, as all of us will pray for the safety of everyone's child.
But let us remember, as we proceed into this war, that there will be more days like Tuesday. Bad days.
And there will be more days like Friday. Good days.
And when our children come home the young men will have old eyes from what they have seen. They will meet their young women who will have old hearts from what they have feared.
Our job, then, will begin. Our job will be to stand, like 164: Seasoned. Proud. Knowing what they know, having seen what they have seen, and having been afraid of what they have feared.
When the bad days come, we who are like 164, will have the job of soothing the eyes, and softening the hearts.
We, too, are ready.
God Bless America.
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