Dec. 7, 1941, and Sept. 11, 2001
It never struck me before, not until I saw The Denver Post’s front-page headline Sunday morning: “Colorado Remembers. How Pearl Harbor touched lives in ways that will never be forgotten.”
What struck me was, although most of us weren’t even born yet in 1941, we had our own Pearl Harbor almost exactly 60 years later: 9/11. That too touched lives in ways that will never be forgotten, but more distressing, it probably will touch our lives, and our children’s lives, for far longer than Pearl Harbor ever did, maybe even longer than World War II itself.
Think of the parallels. Both attacks came with faint forewarnings but no straightforward, single provocation. Both killed thousands of Americans, on scales chillingly similar: roughly 2,400 Americans died on that infamous day in 1941, roughly 2,600 Americans (out of 3,000 victims in all) on that equally terrible day in 2001.
And both days led to long wars. With catastrophic, if not commensurate, death tolls. If you include the victims of famine and disease during the deprivations of World War II, as many as 80 million people died, including almost 420,000 Americans. Since our invasion of Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks, more than 100,000 people have died there, including almost 2,400 Americans (interestingly, that’s nearly as many American deaths as 9/11), and that doesn’t include more than 20,000 injured, many with life-lasting disabilities. In Iraq, roughly 4,400 Americans are counted among the estimated half-million war-related deaths there, with 32,000 wounded. But now the parallels end. Beginning with Pearl Harbor, America’s costly involvement in World War II lasted less than four years. Four terrible years, to be sure, but once we were on a war footing, there sometimes was light at the end of the tunnel.
There is no light today. After 15 years we are still in Afghanistan and we are back in Iraq. And even if our uniformed troops someday, somehow, pull out for good, our war will persist. Besides evil-minded terror groups like al-Qaeda, the ideology and impact of the Islamic State are spreading, even if its “caliphate” falls. The most conservative estimate puts Islamic State wannabes, or affiliates, or official cells, in at least a dozen countries. The highest estimates identify more than twice as many. They’re not going away.
We knew how to fight Japan and Germany. Then once the war was over, we knew how to turn our foes into friends.
Political bluster notwithstanding, we don’t know how to formidably fight the Islamic State. And they aren’t ever going want to be our friends. 9/11 was a single day of infamy. Its legacy will last several lifetimes.