9/11 and the Politics of Against-ness

Twenty years. I meant to time this post to our actual exit from Afghanistan, but I needed a little more time to find the words.

It’s generally hard to move people’s beliefs. We imbibe nuggets of conventional wisdom as adolescents, question them (or not) as young adults, and then spend years cherry-picking anecdotes that support our conclusions. Facts that challenge your own experience become suspect.

It’s easy to see how this works with domestic policy. Take roads, for example. Growing up, we hear the assumption that traffic is a problem that is caused by not enough road supply to meet an unchanging travel demand. We then assume that widening roads will fix traffic.

This, of course, is not how roads work. That travel demand is induced by the road network, and adding lanes (or highways) incentivizes more trips and make traffic worse. But tell this to your friend, and they’ll have an anecdote or two ready to go.

We’re able to connect most domestic policy directly to our own experiences. We make the stakes real for ourselves, which lets us find policy positions that align with our values in the best of times, and with our prejudices in the worst of times (which is almost always). This, I think, helps to explain why recent media coverage of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which largely fell somewhere between “open contempt for the withdrawal” and “actively berating anybody who doesn’t want forever war”, occurred as it did.

Consider Vietnam, a US military failure so severe that it would be hard to make such mistakes again. we’d obviously see anything that bad coming from a million miles away. (Wait a minute…) Still, initial sentiment toward war efforts in Vietnam in the United States were largely positive. This graph of Gallup poll respondents saying it was a mistake to send troops to Vietnam starts out in the 20s, a similar number to those who said the same about Iraq in 2003.

Interestingly, since the end of WWII, that immediate disapproval figure of ~20-25% has been remarkably consistent. It was also true in Korea, and it was true of the first Gulf War as well (in the limited polling we have, since that conflict was much shorter). Gallup has always worded these questions consistently, which helps us identify an extremely consistent trend across all of these wars: 80% of Americans like, or are okay with, the idea of going to war and the sense of national pride it brings, but by and large, as the effects of the war are seen, opposition mounts.

The trend is shockingly consistent: opposition starts out around 20-25 percent, then quickly jumps to 40-50 percent, where it remains for the rest of the war.

Vietnam and Iraq went past 50% disapproval as they dragged on, but the only real exception was Afghanistan, where the war had astounding initial support, but did still follow the trend eventually, after 10 years.

So what is it with that ~25 percent of people who initially support a war but consistently turn against it? Unique factors seem unlikely to produce such a similar trend in each war. I’d argue that the issue is that war isn’t immediate to people until it happens.

We speak so loftily of not only our wartime heroes, but our wartime presidents, in the history books we give our children. There’s an automatic mystique given to these people, and that national pride is something we expect to feel good about.

But war is hell. It always has been. We look at the death counts. But plenty of people suffer debilitating physical injuries that they will deal with for a lifetime. And long-term, PTSD incidence rates are as high as 30% (with 75% of those having substance abuse issues too).

This is before we get to the civilian cost. Estimates of 200,000 direct combat deaths in both Iraq and Afghanistan don’t include indirect deaths from interruption of vital services etc., which typically number anywhere from 2x to 15x(!) direct deaths.

These numbers and statistics are probably not the reason for the 25% jump in disapproval, though. It might be the veterans. It might be the video footage on the news. Or it might even be the financial cost. The war is fine, but only if it weren’t so damned expensive.

Still, Afghanistan is a war that Americans continue to sour on, with a plurality believing it was a mistake to go in at all. But you wouldn’t know it from press coverage, which remains intent on figuring out why the strange president does not want forever war.

The press, perhaps more than anybody, has a front-row seat to that initial 95% national pride. And they played a major role in pushing the Afghanistan invasion to that point. I wonder if that urge comes from a misguided idea of journalistic success among folks making those editorial decisions now. The press should build bridges, so let’s emphasize things that give us a sense of national pride. Push for the popular policy: the start of a war (before that war is exposed for its hellishness).

After all, the press has a front-row seat to those swells of national pride. And to the extent that they’ve internalized the greatness of wartime presidents, the beginning of a war is a ticket for a front-row seat to a display of greatness.

To be clear, this is not some kind of screed against all journalists. But those making editorial decisions to favor continued war at these major outlets were likely in the field in 2001. They were likely carrying water for the “9/11 changed everything” narrative. And they’re likely the folks who are having trouble admitting a mistake, especially one they haven’t had to challenge themselves on for 20 years.

Really, what did 9/11 change, though? The US has seen mass terror incidents both before and since.

But this one gave us an entity to unify *against.*

What the post-Nixon GOP has used to great effect is the idea that unifying *against* a boogeyman is far more effective than embracing shared values. The USSR served this role well, as they were never the direct target of wars and therefore couldn’t suffer from the fatigue of the wars in Korea and Vietnam. But after 1991, there wasn’t an obvious choice.

The GOP experimented with various racist options in the ’90s. Hip-hop, superpredators, HIV+ people, welfare queens. Each did plenty of damage, but none of them stuck as a good option to mobilize *against*. After 3 straight popular vote losses, 9/11 fell into the GOP’s lap.

Foreign options tend to be better than domestic ones, because, as discussed, people’s views on foreign policy aren’t tied to personal narratives. 9/11 thus gave the US a new option, interpreted variously as bin Laden, Afghanistan, Iraq(?), or Islam generally.

The problem for the GOP is that support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan eventually followed the usual trajectory, and they needed a new boogeyman. In 2007, they found one: a Black man who was so “ignorant of his place” that he thought he could be president.

From there, it was just a short hop to “owning the libs” becoming a fundamental animating principle of the party. And as much as we’ve made fun of that reasoning this last decade, it’s driven substantial turnout. Recall Trump got 11.3 million more votes in 2020 than in 2016.

Even if fancy editors recognize this through line, though, they can’t admit to this chain of events. Their biggest moment of unity in the last 50 years can’t be the genesis for the seemingly irreversible fracturing of modern society. That would be too big a mistake to admit publicly. We as a society remain extremely bad at admitting and attempting to grow from mistakes, and the press, as the literal gatekeepers of the discourse, are not going to turn it on its head.

And so these powerful editors soldier on, content to play lapdog to a military industrial complex trying to sustain itself on the boogeymen it can place in the nightmares of the populace. They’ve built up a lot of credibility, so trying to spend it this way is not necessarily doomed to fail.

I want to emphasize again that I think that these incentives in the legacy press sphere are largely structural, and I’m really not trying to point any specific fingers. But a problem being structural does not absolve us of the responsibility of fixing that problem.

9/11 did really change everything. But not in the world out there.

The change was inside of us the whole time.

The hatred of a Great Other was easily instilled in a new generation, through a political sector in which the average American hadn’t developed any strong first principles. We remembered that there was one emotion stronger than hate: collective hate.

Islamophobia, of course, never left, even if it’s usually ancillary to the hatred of the GOP’s target du jour. But sometimes it isn’t. And while I do believe that Obama would have inevitably inspired the Trump backlash given the racial history of the US, eight years of fighting over (or, sometimes, leaning into) that Islamophobia primed us for the deterioration that followed.

So, 20 years in, is there a way to stop this hate train? Perhaps, but the GOP isn’t going to give up its attempts to find boogeymen. As someone teaching critical race theory in Spring 2022, I can assure you of that.

The strongest recent elections for Democrats, though, have been those where we’ve been able to convince voters of the threat of our own boogeyman: Trump. But Trump cannot be the boogeyman forever, or Democrats will continue to lose ground up and down the ballot. And as much as I would love to message this way, making “racism” the only boogeyman simply does not work (see, e.g., 2016).

Ultimately, I think this demonstrates best that racial and economic justice must be treated as two sides of the same coin. The boogeyman is the corporation: the one that pushes for war to get lucrative defense contracts, the one that shorts you on hours so it doesn’t have to give you insurance, the one that tells you not to share salaries so you don’t find out women and minorities are paid less. The one that feeds you a myth of “efficiency” to justify a “disability minimum wage“. The one that creates something to fear in order to sell you a product. The one that works directly with the CIA to overthrow a government to improve their profits.

As you consider the full extent of what we have wrought over the last 20 years, remember that we have consistently given our leaders cover for more war. When George W. Bush was given an offer by the Taliban in October 2001 to hand over Osama bin Laden, he knew that the American people would be fine with a continuation of the war in Afghanistan. And that kind of cover, when combined with the power of the defense contractor lobby, can make the prospect irresistible.

I’ve already seen some new tributes today on my feeds for the 13 service members who perished during our withdrawal. The best way to honor them, as well as the 20 years of US casualties and the hundreds of thousands of dead Afghan civilians, is to stop having other people’s wars.

War is hell. And we should remember that before, not after, the next one starts. Not only for the troops we’d send into harm’s way, but for the civilian suffering and instability we’d avert. For the avoidance of PTSD that begets generational trauma.

The military industrial complex, 60 years after Eisenhower’s warning, will try and make us forget. They’ll wrap themselves in the flag, and they’ll try to get the press to come along. They might even succeed at that.

But war is hell. 9/11 didn’t change that.

And in these times, it’s something worth never forgetting.

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