One week after the Sept. 11 attacks, [Sgt. David Saftsrom] walked into a recruiter’s office and joined the Army.Now imagine you're a kid, a prodct of the American public school system, a good student--perhaps even an excellent one--but by no means the rare auto-didactic type who goes off to read history on his own. You read the Times for "current events" in your government class. You're pretty sure that Vietnam was bad, but your knowledge of it is filmic, because your history and government classes never make it as far as the seventies (or the fifties, as the case may be). You have never heard of the American occupation of the Phillipines. You understand isolationism as an aberrational interwar policy--like Prohibition. You were born during the Reagan presidency, but can't remember it. You have no context for understanding the Cold War--what it was, who were its participants, how conflicts like Vietnam were part of it. It's not just that you don't possess deep knowledge of the counternarrative to the official history of the Cold War. You don't even know the normative, standard, patriotic history of the era, beyond a few film clips and a general understanding that the Soviet Union had a lot of nukes too. The first war that you can recall was the Gulf War, and what you recall there was a general sense of victoriousness. You've heard of Iran-contra, but you don't know what it was. You've heard the three Presidents you remember--Old Bush, Clinton, Young Bush--say how terrible a tyrant is Saddam Hussein, but you've never heard of the Iran-Iraq War and you don't know that the United States supported Hussein throughout the eighties, nearly to the moment of the Gulf War. You've never heard of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. You don't know that Israel has nuclear weapons--actually, you don't know anything about Israel, excepting a vague sense that it's sort of like a European country, maybe, more than it's like a Middle Eastern one. You don't know anything about Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates, modern Egypt, the Lebanese Civil War, the Partition of India and Pakistan, the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Again, it's not just that you lack a meaningful counternarrative to recieved history; you don't even know the received history.
“You guys want to start a fight in my backyard, I got something for you,” he recalls thinking at the time.
You could not know all these things and still be an overachieving student, a good and responsible kid with a bright future at a good college, or, if you and your family were militarily inclined, a stellar military career.
This is the context in which the David Safstroms of the world joined the army. Forget all the carping about the lowered standards for military enlistment in order to meet recruiting goals made impractical by a now-unpopular war. Consider instead that in the period immediately following 9/11, a nation and its soldiers reacted in grievous error not because they necessarily lacked the cognitive apparatus to understand what had occured and what would occur, but because they lacked the most rudimentary information about their own history, the history of the contemporary world, or the place of the United States in that history. It's not insulting to David Safstrom--because it's not his fault--to say that when he joined the military, believing that some They had "started a fight in his backyard," he didn't know anything about anything. He lacked the most basic information through which he might evaluate the momentous events all around him. In this regard, he was like most Americans.
Off he goes to war, understanding only that his home was attacked, never considering that he was now engaging in a reciprocal attack on someone else's home. When told later that his mission was not retaliatory but democratic and humanitarian, he was easily able to adapt, because he's a bright kid and a good soldier, but it didn't occur to him (and still doesn't, clearly) that regardless of what he called it or how he defined its goals, he was involved in the conquest and occupation of a foreign country. As a letter-writer put it to C&L:
[T]he Injuns shoot back. It happened at Little Big Horn, it happened in Vietnam and it's happening now.This points to a curious paradox in our current discourse. On one hand, terrorism is proposed as an existential threat; the Iraqi insurgents will "follow us home"; we're "fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them here. On the other hand, the idea of "a foreign army kicking down doors in LA" is an entirely meaningless hypothetical for the majority of Americans, who are simulataneously so steeped in American exceptionalism and so deprived of historical context that any proposition of American actions abroad being reciprocated in America is quite literally unimaginable. The irony is that one of the great cultural touchstones for American conservatives imagines precisely such a scenario. Alas, that was in 1984, which in the American reckoning of time might as well be BC.
I mean, for Christ's sake, if there were a foreign army kicking down doors in LA, we'd all be f*&king insurgents.