A friend tells a story of when he was a teenager in driver’s education. He had a great grasp on theory from the work in the classroom, but the first time he was actually in the car he had a mishap when he mistook the accelerator for the brake, went over a curb and damaged some landscaping. His instructor informed him that he would receive a failing grade because of the incident. My friend protested, “But I got 100% on all the tests!”
The instructor simply replied, “Son, you’ve got to realize that driving is not simply an intellectual exercise.”
This story came to mind for me as I meditated upon my response to something that has been weighing greatly on my mind this week. With the approach of the 10th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, I have spent time reflecting on what has occurred in the aftermath of those attacks. Initially, our response as a nation was to launch a “War on Terror.” I recall shaking my head at the level of hubris as our former president made a promise to eliminate evil. Within a short period of time American troops were on the ground in Afghanistan in a quest to find Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the attacks.
No one ever wins a war in Afghanistan; ask the Russians, or the British, or the Persians, or the Mongols, or the Greeks. Of course when the United States went in, much of the opposition consisted of the Taliban ─ the people we armed and supported when they were fighting the Soviet Army.
It appears that the mountainous regions of Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan provide excellent hiding places ─ at least they served well for Mr. bin Laden for the better part of a decade. Meanwhile we began to hear more and more about the evil of Saddam Hussein. At first I wondered if our leaders were confused or I was. I felt somewhat like Winston Smith as I recalled the faint memory that it was somebody with the name Osama rather that Saddam whom we held responsible for the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But it seemed the rhetoric from the District of Columbia began to focus more and more on Saddam and a bit less on Osama and my attention span began to lag.
It didn’t take long before we were engaged both in Iraq and Afghanistan, looking for Saddam or Osama or whoever was the target of the moment. I may have had some qualms about what we were trying to achieve and questioned the decision making of those in charge. But, like most Americans, I was not directly affected so I simply continued to pay my taxes while maintaining emotional distance and a comfortable attitude of moral and intellectual superiority -- in essence saying to myself, “These guys are idiots, but what can you do?” The war was, for me, merely an intellectual exercise.
That changed for me very suddenly on Saturday night when, right before going to bed, I checked my email. I had one new message in my inbox from Joanne Ryan. It was then that I learned her nephew, Michael, had been killed. Specialist Michael Roberts, a 23-year old soldier whom I have known since he was about eight years old, died Saturday when insurgents attacked his military police unit using an improvised explosive device. Michael was on his second tour of duty, having previously served in Iraq.
With Michael's death the war became real. This was the death of a someone who was not just another unrecognized name on an ever expanding list, but a name I knew -- one with a face, a smile, and a voice that I recognized. This was a little kid I once joked with who had become a remarkable young man with whom I shared a beer while listening to his stories of a soldier’s life in Iraq. Suddenly this war that I had managed to ignore, or dispassionately witnessed as if seen in my peripheral vision, was no longer a mere intellectual exercise but a source of deep pain carrying with it an acute sense of loss.
My thoughts these last several days certainly have been on Michael, his parents, brothers and family, and on what might have been. But there have also been thoughts of reproach for clinging so long to the illusory idea that this war does not touch my world. The death of Michael Roberts has given me a heightened awareness of the truth of John Dunne’s reminder, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
May God give you rest Michael, and may He have mercy on me.