Kabul, Afghanistan— We all remember where we were when the towers fell. I was a junior at Princeton University, with a new set of Army fatigues hanging in my dorm-room closet. Al-Qaeda’s attack on America was the ultimate validation of my decision, just four months earlier, to join Army ROTC. We were going to war, and I would be a part of it. The nation cheered as our special operators made quick work of the Taliban, and I’ll never forget watching a soldier slap an American flag on the face of Saddam’s falling statue 19 months later. We were kicking ass, and the world was changing. It was our time to be Teddy Roosevelt’s “Men in the Arena.”
Ten years later, I write this e-mail from a war-torn and contested Afghanistan. With three tours under my belt (so many have done so much more) — and three years of war advocacy on the home front — my twenties, like those of hundreds of thousands of my compatriots (but fewer than 1 percent of Americans), have been consumed by events that emanated from that sunny Tuesday morning in 2001. Early “victories” in Afghanistan and Iraq slowly turned into protracted conflicts — testing the boundaries of our military capability, national resolve, and political will. Through it all, we persisted.
September 11 was a horrific day — we lost almost 3,000 Americans, including the heroic members of Flight 93 who saved countless lives and first responders who raced up smoke-filled stairs in downtown Manhattan. We must always remember these Americans and that day. We need to force ourselves to remember, from the comfort of our offices, homes, and backyard barbeques. While we’ve remained safe on the home front for the past ten years, the world remains a dangerous place. As I type this, there are radical Islamists and rising regimes eager to exploit our weaknesses and curb American power.
In light of this fact, the ten-year anniversary is not only a day to remember, but also a day to recommit to both the greatness of America and the defeat of her enemies. We mustn’t be afraid to champion the American experiment in our schools, churches, businesses, and communities. Likewise, we must incubate the collective courage required to inflict decisive violence on those who wish us harm. America’s economic and military ascension was never preordained, nor is our perch atop the world stage guaranteed to be permanent. The sweat, tears, and blood of our forefathers made it possible, and without the Sons of Liberty, the First Minnesota, the Harlem Hellfighters, the Boys of Pointe du Hoc, the Frozen Chosin, the Magnificent Bastards, and the Berlin Brigade (look ’em all up!), America would not be the country she is today.
The 9/11 Generation — having lost more than 6,200 brothers-in-arms in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with more than 45,000 wounded — is only the latest group of war fighters to carry the mantle of freedom. These battlefields — amongst other corners of the globe — have been our “arena.” But they certainly won’t be our last.
I often hear soldiers, politicians, and policymakers say, “We fight so that our children won’t have to.” The idea is attractive, and appeals to my fatherly desire to provide a peaceful life to my young son. The problem is, the statement is patently false. I fight today, fully cognizant that my son — and other sons of the 9/11 Generation — will be needed on tomorrow’s yet-unforeseen battlefields. History isn’t over, and despite efforts to overcome the human condition (in Ivy League lecture halls and United Nations assemblies), America’s military still carries the burden of liberty amidst a fallen world — we remain the last, best hope. If not me today, and my son tomorrow, then who?
Our sons and daughters will not bear the scars of falling towers, so the job of remembrance lies with us. Our job is to infuse America’s unique and indispensable principles, values, and role in the world into their thoughts, words, and deeds. In order for America’s influence to live on, our sons and daughters must both remember the threats we face, and stand ready to advance our values and interests — by the pen, the podium, the checkbook, and, when necessary, the M-4.
So, as I write this from Afghanistan — along with 100,000 fellow Americans — I ask that you use the anniversary of 9/11 not only to remember the events that took place ten years ago, but to recommit yourself to the American cause of liberty. Not everyone needs to pick up a rifle; but we all need to work together — through shared sacrifice, selfless service, and an entrepreneurial spirit — to ensure that the lives of future generations of Americans are better than ours, and exist in a world where liberty, democracy, enterprise, and prosperity are on the march.
As the Washington Post recently pointed out, “The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have not had the broad cultural impact of previous conflicts such as World War II or Vietnam. The new wars have not produced war bonds, . . . victory gardens, or large-scale counterculture protests. Movies about these fights have largely flopped.” For better or worse, the events of 9/11 mobilized America’s military, with little impact on most of the country at large. This cannot be sustained indefinitely, as this disconnect is unhealthy for the military, the public, and our shared safety. I pray the memory of 9/11 — ten years later — draws us closer and stiffens our collective resolve.
This weekend we remember the events of Sept. 11, 2001; and afterward, let us mutually pledge to build another American century. Our lives, fortunes, and sacred honor depend on it.
— Capt. Pete Hegseth, a contributor to NRO and former executive director of Vets for Freedom, is currently deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S. Army as a counterinsurgency instructor.