The 9/11 generation

September 8, 2011

By David Rohde
The opinions expressed are his own.

In a speech last week at the American Legion convention in Minneapolis, President Obama rightly hailed what he called “the 9/11 generation,” the five million Americans who served in the military over the last decade.

“They’re a generation of innovators,” he declared. “And they’ve changed the way America fights and wins at wars.”

The following day, at a ceremony marking his retirement from the military, Gen. David Petraeus affirmed Tom Brokaw’s similar praise as the two men toured Iraq in 2003.

“He shouted to me over the noise of a helicopter before heading back to Baghdad: ‘Surely, General, this is America’s new greatest generation’,” Petraeus recalled. “I agreed with him then, and I agree with him now.”

I agree as well. There is a kernel of truth – and hope – in both statements. There is a 9/11 generation, one that extends beyond the valiant military members both men correctly hailed. Instead, it includes all Americans who experienced the attacks and responded to them over the last decade.

Its members include the tens of thousands of civilians who worked as diplomats, aid workers and contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq; the millions of police, firemen and teachers who stabilized American society in the fall of 2001 and subsequent years; and the tens of millions of innovative businesspeople and workers who brought the American economy roaring back after the attacks.

As a reporter, I covered the 9/11 generation in action. From the collapse of the World Trade Center, to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, to the death of Osama bin Laden, I watched them toil though a bewildering decade.

Egregious mistakes were made and the threat of terrorism still lingers. Yet the 9/11 generation has largely won its struggle. Bin Laden is dead. Al Qaeda is greatly weakened. And by remaining steadfast allies of the moderate Muslims who have joined the struggle against militancy, the threat of terrorism will continue to be minimized.

By any measure, the 9/11 generation is a greatest generation that can now innovate American society back to prosperity. Why, as a generation and society, do they continue to doubt themselves so deeply?

Among Americans, the weakness that I witnessed over the last decade was not incompetence or cowardice in the field. It was growing dogmatism at home.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, blind belief in one’s own political views was rare. The soldiers, CIA officers, diplomats and aid workers I met did not see the world in terms of political parties. They did not question the intelligence or morals of anyone who disagreed with them. Instead, they generally listened, searched for pragmatic solutions and found that sacrificing for others gave great meaning to their own lives.

The opposite was true in the halls of power and on partisan cable news television shows in the U.S. On the home front, bias, denigration and bombast triumphed. On the battlefield, principle, pragmatism and sacrifice prevailed.

At one point over the last decade, I was kidnapped by the Taliban and held captive for seven months. I despised my captors and saw them as a group of criminals masquerading as a pious liberation movement. What struck me was the fact that the Taliban questioned our values.

Americans were selfish, feared death and interested only in the pleasures of this world, they told me. We were greedy, impatient and did not stand by our promises. Any Muslim who worked with us, they said, was as well. The vast majority of Americans I met in the field proved them utterly wrong. So did the moderate Afghan journalist who was kidnapped with me and eventually helped me escape.

I now live a few blocks from the World Trade Center. After bin Laden’s death was announced, I went to the site to report on public reaction. Teenagers, most of whom were in grade school on September 11, 2001, chanted ugly slogans.

Four people weren’t shouting. A 29-year-old Brooklyn army reservist was about to depart for Afghanistan on his fourth combat tour since 2001. He said he came to pay his respects to the dead. A 25-year-old Pakistani college student said bin Laden had defamed Islam. He said he hoped the Al Qaeda leader’s demise would reduce tensions between the United States and predominantly Muslim countries.

A 43-year-old businessman from Philadelphia said he hoped bin Laden’s killing would end ten years of war, economic collapse and bitter political division. And a 40-year-old construction worker from Queens said he hoped Americans would unite again as they had after 9/11.

“This country needs something to carry us forward,” he told me.

Bin Laden’s goal was to make Americans more dogmatic, to get us to see the world solely through the distorted lens of religious bigotry. The more we blamed all Muslims, the better for bin Laden. The greater our division and paranoia, the better for Al Qaeda.

The four members of the 9/11 generation who stood silently that night embodied the American values that are slowly defeating Al Qaeda: sacrifice, respect, unity and optimism. They are a new greatest generation.

They show that the lesson of the post-9/11 decade is idealism, not cynicism.

PHOTO: A U.S. flag is seen on a twisted piece of steel from the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, is seen at a memorial site across from Ground Zero in Jersey City, New Jersey August 11, 2011. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton


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Well said. The challenge we face is not to win hearts and minds, nor to change any culture or even individuals. In this global economy – the goal should be to increase understanding and foster moderism.

Posted by JoeMafandone | Report as abusive

The post-9/11 military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were unsuccessful and played a direct role in the economic problems now seen worldwide. With that in mind, I’m not sure why praise for the military is justified. I knew people who signed up after 9/11 just to “kill some towelheads” (their words, not mine). Those angry high-school dropouts are not part of some honorable campaign to set America back on its feet, they’re part of the dogmatism that keeps the nation in doubt.

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive

The author is pandering. The people of New York did not bring the economy “roaring back to life” after 911. It was ten of thousands of hours of over time and hundreds of millions of dollars in Federal aid immediately after the attack that subsidized it “back to health” as anemic as it was. It has been on life support in large part ever since in spite of frequent transfusions in the form of Bush’s several tax rebates, Tarp and QE1 and 2.

It takes more than fairy tales, flag waving and patriotic BS to makes the economy grow. The so called 9/11 generation hasn’t presented the complete bill for the all the long term medical and mental health issues many will have for the rest of their lives. But a modern country cannot rape the conquered as the temptation was at the start.

More bedside manners on the part of frauds and quacks! Flag waving and fine sentiments will not pay their bills.

I am 60 years old and am fed up to the eyeballs with fine and phony sentiments said by politicians who say what they say to win popularity contents, and said by men like me “who never felt a wound”. I can’t jest at them – only stand in horror at what was done to them and wonder why I am walking around at all intact. A kid down the street sat next to his companion in Iraq and watched him cut in two by an IED. If it had been in his place I would have had an instant nervous breakdown and would very likely have shot myself or someone else on the spot. Just the shock of the explosion would have set me off. I’m sure.

I don’t know who does them worst service? The writer who perfumes the issues or me who calls it the terror it was/still is. I would not want his memory but he seems to take it in stride somehow. He wasn’t injured by his tour like his father was. At least I don’t think so.

And it actually isn’t one generation but at least two.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

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Posted by The 9/11 generation | The Great Debate | Remember 911 | Report as abusive

The challenge is that there are three post-9/11 generations — an older generation for who the attacks and subsequent events (economic, political and military) were a bookend to decades of misdirected engagement; a younger generation whose lives were more directly impacted and whose perspective on the world actually shifted in fundamental ways (5 million of who went to war, millions more who served in other significant ways); and a generation of children whose lives have been imprinted by events they can’t yet begin to fathom.

The four individuals David Rohde cites at the end of his piece represent the middle group; they tend to be more idealistic, forward-looking and are positioned to reinvent America. They are 40 million strong.

Most of the current crop of political and economic leaders and decision makers in our country represent the first group. They continue to attempt to create a future very similar to our post, and have a worldview (and national view) that is half-empty, not half-full. They are 100 million strong.

The 9/11 generation may be ready to rebuild a new, 21st century America, but their more cynical, dogmatic elders need to get out of the HOV lane of American politics and business. I’m not confident that will happen soon.

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Posted by peHUB » peHUB First Read | Report as abusive

Nonsense about the generational splits. America – multiple generations of it – voted in Obama to expiate their guilt. The almost subliminal 9/11 deceit of “we must have done something wrong to all these people so that’s why they attacked us” permeated the land across all generations (but, of course, mostly on the the Atlantic and Pacific coasts).

And so it came to pass that when the economy and indeed the world needed a great leader they got instead, through their own folly, a Saul Alinsky organizer who was light on real world experience and heavy on exploiting American collective guilt. A man with less real world experience than the Indian immigrant running the corner store. A man who though money, if not growing on trees, came from grant awards.

The most incompetent president for decades who like a leader in waiting – not a POTUS – bumbles through economic issues constrained by his radical mindset.

My guess is that by the time he has done his eight years he will have had enough practical real world experience to see the US right. But by then it will be too late for him and for the US.

Osama smiles from his watery grave. He helped elected the nincompoop.

Posted by eleno | Report as abusive

“5 million of who went to war, millions more who served in other significant ways); and a generation of children whose lives have been imprinted by events they can’t yet begin to fathom.”

As much as I sympathetic with the trauma that kid suffered – I am also aware that both he and his father and every other person serving in the military is a volunteer. I hated the draft but g had a deferment. But the draft had the benefit of making sure the war was not put on self-serving, self-perpetuating and automatic status.

A stagnant economy that seems determined to widen the gap between rich and poor is also ideal for keeping an all-volunteer army staffed. The country is becoming as fascist as the Roman Empire and can marginalize anyone not in uniform and guarantee that only those with military service ever have access to ever rarer employment prospects and all in the name of a war that never has to end. It is too easy to invent a terrorist threat.

And you exploit a generation of children that may have been too young to actually know much of what went on at the time. The memorials are making a kind of state religion with holy icons, sacred pilgrimage sites and all the trappings of a popular religion devoid of any spiritual significance. And that popular religion can be abused as easily – even more easily – but all the con men and opportunists that tend to dominate state support religious establishments.

The next generation – the 9/11 generation as the writer calls them – is not likely to enter a brave new world, but one that is very controlled by some very powerful grandees that are noble (and unaccountable) in all but title. And America has had homegrown aristocrats before.

These new aristocrats will not be nearly as accountable for the influence as the old world equivalent. They will never put their own skins or children on the line and will expect their less fortunate, less educated and less intelligent to do the fighting and dying for them. And they will be able to create all the propaganda, home grown patriotic pseudo-religious sentiment they like and broadcast it anywhere they like.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive