We all have our 9/11 stories. Where were you on 9/11? I was at Andrews Air Force Base, just outside DC in Maryland, attending a conference. I represented US Central Command’s Intelligence Directorate, with a small team there to discuss the gigantic, outsized issue of “joint C4I,” or the thorough IT-ification of the military, as organized through the prism of what was then called the Global Command and Control System, or GCCS (“geeks”). As we milled about in the conference facility’s lounge during our first morning break, someone called out “Shhh!! Shhh!!! Hush up! A plane just ran into the World Trade Center!” We gathered around the TV, speculating on what could have happened.
An hour later we were watching in horror as endless footage ran of the second plane plowing into the tower. The conference leader, an Air Force colonel, had been notified of this event in the middle of a presentation, and wisely decided to end the conference and let us all get to the business of returning to our commands. That would be difficult and require ingenuity and persistence. Shortly after being dismissed we learned, from the announcement of a base-wide alert and lockdown, that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. Footage of this, too, began to show up on the TV in the lounge. Unable to leave the base, or even the conference building, we all pulled out cell phones – and then lined up at the pay phones near the restrooms when we found cell phone service unresponsive. Everyone on the Eastern seaboard was trying to make wireless calls that morning.
After a brief conversation with my boss (“Get back, now.” “Got it.”), I took multiple turns at the phone to get through to someone in my family, to let them know I was OK. All Mom knew was that I was at a conference in the DC area; for all she knew I was in the Pentagon, which had just been hit by a passenger jet. Flipping through the trusty address book, I finally got hold of one of my brothers at work and let him know I was fine, in no apparent danger, and would be heading back to Tampa as soon as possible.
Some hours later Andrews lifted the lockdown, and released us back into a world that had changed forever. Flying back to Tampa was not, of course, an option. All civil air traffic had been grounded. One of our number had a rental car that would seat the five of us. We could drive it back to Tampa, if we could find an unblocked way out of the area. This took some doing, but eventually, by wending our way around back roads (every one of us knew the hinterlands of DC pretty well), we had gotten onto I-95 from somewhere around Fredericksburg, and were headed south.
As we drove through the night we listened, by tacit consent, to the radio, which had continuous coverage of the 9/11 events on every channel. My cell phone started getting service as we got further from DC, and everyone took a turn on it to call home. It was a weird, mostly silent drive; I couldn’t say what was going on in the others’ heads, but I was praying for a lot of it. We pulled into Tampa about 7:00 AM on 9/12 and got everyone dropped off. I called in and the Colonel said, “Get a nap and come in this afternoon.” I did. In the short hours since the first plane hit the World Trade Center, everything at CENTCOM headquarters had turned upside down. The reassignment of office space was already underway. A 24-hour manning schedule for every division and branch had been implemented. The terrorists had to have come from our “AOR” – geographic area of responsibility – and whatever the action was, it would involve CENTCOM.
The whole game had changed. In the days before 9/11 the Intelligence Directorate at CENTCOM had been brushing up targets in the AOR for a handful of contingencies: targets that fit longstanding operational concepts rooted in maintaining the sanctions on Iraq. We had, of course, been following since early 2001 the proclamations of Osama bin Ladin and other Al Qaeda operatives that something big – “the big one” – would happen soon; and since our AOR ran from Southwest Asia to the Horn of Africa, the area where three major attacks had been mounted from 1996 to 2000, it was for our troops and bases in the AOR that we were concerned. No warnings were ignored: they were just non-specific, and we were looking for another attack abroad, like the ones in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Yemen.
Responding to an attack on the American homeland was, however, a significant switching of gears. Looking back, it amazes me how quickly everything swung into action. There was nothing remarkable about my role in the process, and indeed, the Navy decided shortly after 9/11 that it needed me to proceed directly to my next sea duty tour, rather than allow me to stay at CENTCOM with the fight on, as the headquarters requested. The upshot on that was that I went to sea duty (the Marine colonel I worked for was sympathetic, and pressed for my transfer), and so began disengaging from CENTCOM operations by the end of September. I would be back in the Middle East in 2003 for Operation Iraqi Freedom, aboard USS Nimitz.
But in the whirlwind weeks before I left, on 9 October 2001, the Brits and Aussies — of course — showed up at CENTCOM, and the Canadians, and very quickly a procession of Gulf partner militaries, and one by one our NATO allies, and then military representatives from India, and eventually others. What had once been the staff parking lot for the HQ building became “Coalition Village,” where dozens of doublewide trailers sprang up, hooked to power and A/C and satellite antennas, to house the growing population of foreign officers. In my last days there, I went through the command checkout process walking literal miles around the base because there was only one parking area left, and it was a long way from everything. Sandbags and M-50 (machine-gun) positions were installed at the entry gates to the base, as they were at other major bases around the nation.
In all this, it was hard to process the impact of what had happened. There was so much to do, both at work and in preparing for a household move and change of duty station. The footage of the Trade Center towers collapsing, and our fellow Americans jumping from the top floors to escape the flames, was hard to watch. I remember Bush’s speeches having a calming and invigorating effect. Those who were in the military at the time may also join me in remembering the difference there was in the attitude about military planning and execution, between the Bush administration and its predecessor. In the Clinton years priority had been given to making statements with armed force while avoiding “provocation,” a posture that affected both strategy and tactical rules of engagement. The Bush administration clearly did not intend to experiment with Tomahawk strikes to see what that did for us, a la Robert McNamara: it meant to regime-change the Taliban, period. Its orders: come up with the plan to do that.
So, unlike many of my countrymen, I had not really taken a moment to mourn our losses on 9/11 in the weeks that unfolded after it. Of those killed in the Pentagon, I personally knew about a dozen in uniform, half of them intelligence officers. We had a number of memorial events for them as time went by. We slogged on at the headquarters, all complaints suspended, everyone dedicated to just “getting it done,” to executing for the President and the people, and for those who were slain, in Manhattan and Pennsylvania and Crystal City. But time to just cry, to shed painful tears over this terrible event? Wasn’t happening.
Until, in late September, I read about the data entry workers in the World Trade Center. It was one of the many small stories that kept emerging. You probably either didn’t read it or don’t remember it. But a data processing supervisor from a financial firm on one of the top floors had survived the long trek down the stairs, assisted by others, before the tower collapsed, and she spoke afterward of having to walk around the office personally and drag her workers away from their computers – because they were all determined to save and back up their work before logging off.
Now, they didn’t know at the time what had actually happened. They didn’t know a plane had flown into the tower, that their workplace was rapidly becoming a fireball, or that it would collapse before the morning was over. But that aspect of the situation made it all the more telling to me that, in spite of not knowing what was going on, they prioritized saving their work over panicking, or trampling each other on the way to the exits. We don’t normally have a heroic idea of data entry workers, but as I read the supervisor’s story that day, I thought: Al Qaeda picked the wrong people to mess with.
The work ethic, the sense of responsibility, the absence of mindless panic when an alarm goes off – you can’t buy those things. But a people that has them, in the most ordinary matters and circumstances – that people is strong and resilient. For most of my adult life I’ve been surrounded by folks in uniform of whom these qualities are simply the expected minimum. Responsibility and work ethic are just the basics for a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine. But where we get these uniformed heroes from is our ordinary population, from data entry workers and clerks and bank tellers and secretaries, plumbers and farmers and construction workers and pest control servicemen and carpet cleaners. When Al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center on 9/11 it attacked Americans right in that building who would not abandon their posts until the work was done, and their company’s fiduciary responsibility to its clients honored. These were Americans who aren’t usually seen as heroes, who didn’t go to work armed, in utilities and combat boots, who probably had framed photos of spouses and children on their desks, and hanging plants and decorated inboxes, and who probably kvetched about the A/C that was out in the subway, and the prices at the grocery store and the limited menu at the sandwich shop four floors down. But on that September day in Manhattan, a terrorist attack could not deflect them from their purpose.
Don’t give up on America. That is the lesson I take from 9/11. There have been so many stories of heroism from that dreadful event: of firemen and policemen and EMTs in New York, of those in the Pentagon, and of course the heroes who fought back on United 93. But our national heroism started with the attitude of the ordinary people who never thought of themselves as heroes, and who kept doing the things that make us successful, and that make us who we are, while the alarms went off and the steel supports of the Trade towers melted.
The Obama administration seems to be channeling the War on Terror into a police-work manhunt, emphasizing above all else the priority of chasing Al Qaeda around Afghanistan and Pakistan. This was our policy in the 1990s and it didn’t produce a lasting or decisive effect. (It was, in fact, fully compatible with bigger and bigger terrorist attacks.) Policy, eight years after 9/11, appears to be veering off in the wrong direction. The right is concerned as well, and in many ways justifiably so, that our own elected president intends to change America more dramatically, and thus do it more damage, than even Al Qaeda has attempted. There are trends we cannot ignore, dismiss, or hope to live with: a gathering assault on our constitutional liberties, and on the whole founding idea of government that is limited, and is regularly forced by the people to get over itself.
But not all the data entry workers died in the collapse of the World Trade Center. There are a lot of them still out there, conscientious and positive, hopeful and determined. Character and industry are stronger and greater than resentment and hopeless sloth, and it’s character and industry that our people have in tremendous supply. The enemies of our idea of liberty don’t have these qualities. We do. And they are the qualities that win in the long run.