This is my chapter excerpted from the book In the Shadow of Greatness, true accounts from the first Naval Academy class to graduate after 9-11 which was praised by Tom Brokaw as a “must read for all Americans” and made the Chief of Naval Operations official reading list. I recommend the book not because I helped to edit it, but because of all of the other stories included which give a valuable perspective on how 9-11 shaped our generation, a generation wedged between Gen-x and the Millennials.
It’s an hour until midnight on September 11th, 2010 and I am on board a plane bound for Jordan. The small monitor embedded in the headrest of the seat in front of me displays a GPS map of the East Coast of the United States. Location names are written in yellow Arabic script, making the familiar geography seem like a foreign land.
After a few seconds the screen switches over to a graphic of the plane with an arrow pointing towards Mecca, to aid the observant with their prayers. Mothers in hijab are trying to keep restless children happy through the red eye, but there will be some crying all night. It can’t be helped. As I recall my multiple PCS moves, flying and driving across the country with children in tow, my heart goes out to the parents.
I’m a Foreign Area Officer now, one of less than 250 Naval Officers who specialize in foreign language, culture and history. This sub-specialty was created in the wake of 9/11 because the Admirals and Generals who advise political leaders can’t find a junior officer who speaks two languages; much less possessed of the cultural awareness necessary to counsel decision makers. And although my ticket into the community was specialization in Iranian social media, needs of the Navy summoned me to an Army desk in Rosslyn, Virginia as an Operations Officer for UN Peacekeeping. There aren’t many US Military members involved in UN Peacekeeping; in fact just over 30 total. I handle admin and support for the Officers sent on one year IA (Individual Augmentation) assignments to Israel, Iraq and Egypt.
Amman is an intermediate stop en route to Iraq where I’ll be visiting two of the four US Military members serving as UN peacekeepers there. Yesterday marked the end of Ramadan which, by the numbers, could have been a more dangerous time to fly. Flying to the Middle East on 9-11 on the other hand, feels a bit surreal, especially since the flight originated in DC and laid over in New York. On the TV in the lounge, President Obama made a speech to smooth over the tension caused by a pastor in Florida who was threatening to burn a Quran.
Despite news reports of unrest in New York City and Afghanistan, JFK airport was quiet and security was relatively pain free. Dinner on the plane was good – some kind of spiced chicken. I couldn’t quite place the flavor, but washed it down with a free Corona. I spoke at length with the guy in the seat next to me in my broken Arabic about Jordanian weather, the job market in America, the difficulties of making money as a mechanic and the sacrifices we make for our children. I have four now. He has five. We both congratulate each other with a thousand congratulations, “alf mabrook!” As our conversation wanes and the night deepens, I can’t help but reflect on this day nine years ago and marvel at the course my life has taken.
I was on my way to a Creative Writing class, one of my favorites as an English major at the Academy. I’d finished breakfast early with my squad and was making a bee-line down Stribling Walk headed for Mahan Hall. The weather, as I recall, was typical Annapolis fall fare, beautiful and crisp. A youngster walked past me. I didn’t know him.
He called out to me, “Hey, a plane just flew into the World Trade Center.” I assumed he was referring to a low slow flyer of some kind, a freak accident, but his alarmed tone gave me the sense that this was more than just the news he heard at the breakfast table. He obviously felt compelled to share it with me, a stranger, for a reason. A few minutes later I arrived at the classroom in the basement of Mahan. I was the first one there and the room was still quiet. The new classrooms had pull-down screens with projectors hooked up to cable TV. I extended the screen and cued up the live news feed just as a few other students came in. They asked what was going on and I explained what little I knew, that a plane had flown into one of the Twin Towers. The Professor arrived and then the rest of the students a moment later. We all stood and watched in silence as the news commentators reported on things they could not see, things that we could see happening live behind them, the impact of the second tower, the fire, the people jumping, the cascade of smoke and ash as the towers collapsed, the confused and grieving news anchors. The hour passed without any discussion and we wandered to the next class with a vague sense of appropriate process. A few rooms down the hall I found my seat in another English class. By then everyone knew. The Professor walked in. We opened In Memoriam, Tennyson’s classic poem wrestling with pain and death. She began to read and then stopped as tears came. She left the room. I tore the pages from the book and tucked them away to keep.
Turning toward our final descent in Jordan I note the bleached landscape. I would later learn that Jordan, compared to other countries, has the fourth lowest supply of fresh water. Without massive reserves of oil or gas, indeed, without even enough water, Jordan manages to get by as the safe place to do business. It is the crossroads between many points of commerce, and stands to gain the most by supplying one of the world’s most valuable commodities, security.
After a 30 minute shuttle ride, and another “alf mabrook” from the driver on hearing of my progeny, I arrive at Al Meriden Hotel in Amman. It is quite beautiful inside, with turbaned men smoking and talking in the lobby, women in expensive looking hijabs pushing strollers and corralling large families. When I get to my room, I unpack my laptop and set up Skype. The broadband connection is excellent and I quickly find myself connected to the world I know. An Army FAO friend of mine is in Pakistan at the War College there. We bring up the video and chat about our kids, learning language and nuances about Middle Eastern culture. Over Skype, I can hear the call to evening prayer beginning to crescendo. We say goodbye so he can have a virtual date with his wife and 5 kids who are in Monterey, California.
Several weeks have passed since my trip. The time in Jordan, while filled with valuable experiences, seems insignificant next to the import of our meetings in Iraq. I was able to sit in on meetings with key leaders at the United Nations headquarters in Iraq, the US Embassy and Operational Planners leading the way for our troops to withdraw. Our chief concern during the course of that week was to connect the dots between all three entities as the balance of power was shifting away from US military toward the State Department. It became clear that the UN would be changing its security posture in ways that would make it increasingly difficult to send US military along on missions. I returned to the States with a number of items to monitor. The SITREPS from the field began to carry much more meaning in the context of my visit.
Not long after my return from Iraq, tragedy struck, but from an unexpected quarter. A US Army reservist serving in Liberia had tripped and fallen to his death from a rooftop deck. He was only weeks away from coming home to his career, wife and children. He had survived tours in Iraq and Afghanistan only to fall prey to the asymmetrical warfare of chance. His fellow peacekeepers returned to the States soon after, shaken not only by the tragedy of his death, but also by the heartrending conditions in Liberia. As we debriefed, one of them explained to me how much the rule of law had been degraded since the civil war. The infrastructure for education and governance was gone, but even more tragically, the social fabric had begun to unravel in ways that made progress seem Sisyphean. If you could imagine a state of nature, one of them said, that would be like Liberia. “Lord of the Flies?” I asked. “Of course there are two visions of the state of nature – Hobbes and Rousseau – one is nasty and brutish while the other is noble and good,” I said. I was assured that Hobbes was closer to the truth for the situation in Liberia. I couldn’t help but think back to Tennyson’s analysis of the human condition, like Hobbes, as “red in tooth and claw” (In Memoriam, Canto VVI).
The many pointless tragedies of life, pummeling us from every side in the news and social media, raise our awareness certainly, our compassion hopefully, and our defenses inevitably. Bad news cascades like floors of the Twin Towers falling in on themselves, and yet we find a way to survive and even, on good days, to thrive. And that is where Tennyson leaves off as well. Like Hobbes, he sees the human condition as lacking something. But by the end of In Memoriam, he has consoled himself with his faith:
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope. (Canto LV)
As I look east in anticipation of a career at the crossroads of culture and language, I continually look for the common denominators. I think the Navy, and the Naval Academy, helped develop this personal philosophy.
Whatever the human condition may be, and whatever one may say of it, it is certainly true that we share it. Likewise, I agree with Tennyson, that we share in a larger hope, that in the end the cascade of bad news will not be the end of the story.