The war started for me while I ate dinner in the wardroom of my ship, a navy destroyer, floating in the Arabian Gulf within eyesight of the coast of Iraq. The phone rang at the captain’s seat. My roommate answered, said “ok” and hung up.
“Someone just flew a plane into the World Trade Center.” he said.
That’s all we knew. I went up to the bridge and took over the watch. Minutes later, the phone in front of the captain’s chair on the bridge rang. It was my roommate down below.
“Someone just flew a plane into the other tower. The towers fell.”
I hung up the phone and looked around the bridge at the other men. They were kids. So was I. My feet felt like they were frozen to the deck. A hand on my shoulder snapped me out of it. It was the captain. He handed me a yellow sticky with some coordinates and nodded to the chart table. A subtle order that started the war. Then he climbed up into his seat on the right side of the bridge and sat down.
That’s when I heard it.
Over the marine band radio, the ones we used to talk to the other ships and boats in the area. We heard laughing. And cheering. And music. As the towers fell, we heard cheers of joy.
A little over a month later, the first shot in the war rumbled out of the forward missile launchers of my ship. I watched it from the same place I was standing when the towers fell. That night, as I went to sleep, safe in my stateroom, I had two thoughts before I drifted off. The first was that we were at war with an entire region; maybe even an entire religion. The second was that I never again wanted to fight it from the safety of a ship.
The next day, my ship was on the cover of every newspaper in the world.
Two years later I returned to that part of the world as promised, with a with a very different group and had a very different mission. The details of the what and the who aren’t important. But what I learned is.
The end to a hard nights work in that life was always signaled by the same two things. The light purple glow on the horizon of the dry flat earth. And the wailing of the call to prayer. One morning, as the low droning sound of Arabic echoed from the speakers over the harbor, one of the young officers from the partner unit my team worked with looked at me. He was a Muslim. And he was born and raised in the area in which we were working.
He was a friend.
“I wonder what that sounds like to you Lieutenant.” He smiled. “It sounds like God to me.”
We weren’t far from where they cheered over the radio on 9/11 in distance. But things were different between him and I. They always are when you do the work to close the distance between people.
That’s the lesson I learned.
My team conducted dozens of operations to fulfill objectives of the Global War on Terrorism on that deployment. My Muslim counterpart, and his team of Muslims, Christians and others were shoulder to shoulder with me on every one. I’d go back a third time a few years later. Hundreds of missions that time. On every one of them, a Muslim was the first one through the door. Sometimes, they were the only ones through the door.
Lying in my bed in my stateroom, ten years earlier, I’d gotten it wrong. We weren’t at war with a region. Or a religion. We were at war in a region that had a religion. And the Muslim men and women that fought with me were fighting because the first countries that radical Muslim terrorists invaded, were their own.
I’m not naive. I know there are people over there that don’t love America. I’m confident that there were even men I fought along side who hated me, my country and what I represented. Some I’m sure eventually wound up on the other side after I left. But there are also people over there that are just trying to get through this life in one piece. And feed their families. And keep them alive. And they don’t give a rip about anything other than that.
We don’t have to do anything for them. They aren’t American citizens. They aren’t protected by the laws of America. And who does and doesn’t enter the country is every bit the prerogative of the executive branch of the United States Government, whose leader we just elected.
Much of America is just waking up to the fact that, in the domain of immigration, the actions of our previous leaders were governed more by the societal norms of decency, charity and global leadership than they were by laws. And when it comes to immigration, the president can pretty much do whatever he wants, within the bounds of the very few laws that dictate how we address other people in other places.
We’re all realizing now that the choice we made this November was that decency, charity and global leadership are no longer a part of the American message to the rest of the world.
And maybe that’s fine. Maybe we should be ok with that in order to preserve our safety and our way of life.
Maybe we’re pretty safe right now. One third of one percent of murders in America come from terrorist related violence. No fatal terrorist attacks in America have ever been conducted by someone coming from one of the seven countries for which we just banned the entry of refugees. And we are several times more likely to drown in a bathtub than be killed by a terrorist.
And maybe our way of life isn’t so fragile.
We cast off the rule of the most powerful empire the world had ever seen by waging a bloody war against them because they taxed us without due representation. Over 22,000 of us were killed or wounded in a day at Antietam in a war to preserve our union and destroy the institution of slavery. We led the largest invasion in the history of man over the beaches at Normandy to free a continent we didn’t live on. And we put a man on the moon using slide rules and a pencil.
That’s our way of life. That’s America. We don’t hide behind a wall like a coward.