In the coverage of September 11 events this week, several commentators have talked about our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq being America's longest war. My first thought was dismissive--can this be so? But yes, it is, depending on how we define the word "war."
I remember walking across the University of Miami campus after classes were cancelled at noon on that day. As I walked to my car, I saw a group of my students, and I asked how they were holding up. One of them said, "I'm so scared. There's going to be a war, there has to be."
I offered comfort as best as I could. I said that I didn't think there would be a war, just some follow-up action. I wasn't surprised when the U.S. launched military action within the week--I knew that we were unlikely to let that kind of assault go unanswered. But I never would have predicted what came next.
And for what? Is Afghanistan more free? Perhaps, but only in that the current leadership is only slightly less despotic than the Taliban leadership was. But Iraq has come unraveled. And the rest of the region seems to have similarly moved towards chaos rather than towards a bright future. Unlike the Libertarian presidential candidate, I understand where Aleppo is and why I should care if I'm leader of the country.
As I think back over my political predictions, I'm chastened by what I've gotten wrong. I was certain that we wouldn't get through the Reagan administration without a nuclear war. When I parted from my college friends to go to my parents' house for the summer of 1986, I was convinced we wouldn't make it back--Reagan had just bombed Libya, and my parents lived in the suburbs of D.C., and I just knew something dreadful was in the works.
I do tend to expect despots to have more follow through than they often do. I do tend to be surprised at the power of common people to transform common elements like fertilizer or airline jets into agents of mass destruction.
Let us also remember the power of the common people to be a force for good, as we so often are, as we saw 15 years ago in the face of tragedy.