Skip to main content

In the News

Looking Back And Forward

June 2024
5min read

Are we learning from the past? And are we honoring it?

How does a great republic sustain itself? How do we keep the democratic ideal before us in a world preoccupied with instant gratification, with allegiance to tribe and creed above all else?

A democracy must always face in three directions at once, confronting the future and the past just as unflinchingly as it does the present. The greatest test of maturity for a nation, as for an individual, is the capacity to plan ahead. And how well we perceive the future depends in good part upon how well we have learned the lessons of the past. This may all seem obvious enough, especially to readers of a history magazine. But as a nation we often seem unable to remember such concepts. Recently a number of disturbing reports suggest that we are not doing nearly as well as we should either in commemorating the 9/11 terrorist attacks or in preparing for the attacks that are sure to come.

Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn’s recent book 102 Minutes is mostly a brilliant piece of reporting by two journalists tracing the heroic efforts of individuals to escape the burning towers on September 11, 2001. But it also traces once again the failures of two successive administrations to properly assess and react to a terrorist threat that struck the exact same target as long ago as 1993, failures that were elaborated on at depressing length in the 9/11 Commission Report. In the January/February 2005 issue of The Atlantic Richard A. Clarke offered a terrifying survey of just how little we have done to truly secure our homeland. And then there was the news that the FBI’s $170 million effort to bring its computer system into the twenty-first century has failed utterly.

Not that we have been completely passive in the wake of 9/11. Our initiation of regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq may be making us all safer by changing the fundamental long-term dynamics of the Middle East. This is also a vital task. But America remains woefully vulnerable to attack at home, and it doesn’t take a magazine article or a book to know this. Despite the nationwide hunt for carry-on lighters at our airline terminals, even the most casual observer can see that our great public spaces and memorials remain largely unguarded, our chemical plants barely protected, our borders porous, and our ports all but wide open. Even our airport security is not what it should be, as I discovered a couple of years ago when, with a large walking cast on my leg, I was routinely waved around metal detectors. I know from personal experience that to walk through the busiest train terminals, public squares, museums, and sporting venues up and down the major cities of the East Coast is to encounter only a minimal police presence and occasionally a few bored and distracted National Guard troops.

This is nothing new. Throughout our history we have often failed to acknowledge the cost of true preparedness and ended up paying a much higher price as a result. From the Revolution right through the Spanish-American War, we almost always preferred to depend on hastily organized, underpaid, and ill-supplied volunteers for our national security. “Millions for defense but not one penny for tribute” made a fine slogan, but it was rarely one that a penurious Congress was willing to live up to, even when the fate of the continent hung in the balance. This handicap was usually overcome by skilled military leadership and the courage of our soldiers, but it led to many unnecessary losses and a few notable disasters. The War of 1812 witnessed a botched attempt to invade Canada, the capture of our nation’s capital, and the torching of the White House.

The Civil War saw thousands of Union troops suffer from an ill-run supply system that allowed unscrupulous profiteers to sell them rotten food and boots and uniforms that fell apart in the mud and rain. The Spanish-American War brought more such boodling, with scores of American troops dying from the notorious “embalmed beef” they were given to eat. Even after their victory in the Revolution, our very first American army was still paid so erratically that only a dramatic, wily speech by George Washington kept the troops from marching on the Continental Congress, with who knows what consequences for the nascent country.

Much of this shortsightedness can be attributed to a deep suspicion of large, standing armies, not a bad predilection for a young republic protected by two oceans. But there was little inclination to adjust to changing realities. In World War I it took more than a year after our declaration of war in April 1917 to execute an independent operation in France. Franklin D. Roosevelt was barely able to keep a military draft in place in 1941, when World War II had already begun. And in 1950 the first wave of North Korean invaders encountered underequipped, undertrained, and badly demoralized American troops.

The Cold War finally forced a change in our national attitude toward preparedness. We have certainly maintained a bigger, more capable, more professional standing military than the nation ever did before. But how have we supported our bravest men and women here at home? Too many Democrats have offered up clearly unworkable solutions to the War in Iraq from an immediate withdrawal to posting a timetable for when we will go. The administration, in turn, has insisted that we can fight a vital, global campaign for freedom with no draft and with private contractors and tax cuts for all. Perhaps one reason our reaction has been so muddled has been our inability to properly commemorate what we feel about 9/11. Particularly disturbing is our continuing lack of any physical commemoration.

In the immediate wake of the attack, the one thing I could not have envisioned was that there would still be nothing on the site of the World Trade Center four years later. New York, after all, is the same city where the Empire State Building rose in 14 months. Putting up a working building that must also serve as a monument is a far more intricate business, of course. In the days immediately following September 11, most New Yorkers probably would have voted to rebuild the Twin Towers just as they were. Barring that, I believe we wanted something that would amaze the world, something that would make a great statement about the resilience of a democracy in the face of the most ruthless terror.

Yet from the beginning the effort to replace the towers has been uncoordinated, inept, and even cavalier. Only a public hue and cry kept a set of buildings that looked like nothing so much as an array of hypodermic needles from being erected. Both Washington and the private sector have remained utterly indifferent to the whole process, and the developer who owned the towers has been obstructionist at best. The man most responsible for overseeing the site, New York’s governor, George Pataki, has been simply missing in action.

The result is that what should have been the most moving and obvious element of any memorial—the ruined shards of the old towers’ trellises—were simply carted off to a dump, and Daniel Libeskind’s original master plan for the site has now been whittled away to nothing. The new “Freedom Tower” as currently designed will be the Twin Towers minus one, another urban glass box, with a windowless 20-story concrete base. As the architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff writes, it “evokes a gigantic glass paperweight with a toothpick stuck on top… . The temptation is to dismiss it as a joke.”

Is this the best we can do? We are, after all, the nation that gave the world what may be the most poignant war memorial ever, Maya Lin’s tribute to our Vietnam dead. Both Lin’s somber wall of names and the more traditional statue of three soldiers planted nearby were controversial when unveiled, but they actually work well together—a rare example of a successful artistic compromise. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is nearly as poignant, as is Saint-Gaudens’s great bronze bas-relief of the 54th Massachusetts on the edge of Boston Common. The Lincoln Memorial, of course, is overwhelming in its solemn majesty, a tribute to a great President that has become a sacred icon in its own right.

Other monuments have been less successful. The recent memorial to our Korean veterans seems to me as confused and ambiguous as the war they fought in: a patrol of life-size troops, their color and expressions so odd and spectral it might have been subtitled “Nineteen Ways of Looking at Christopher Walken.” The new World War II memorial on the Washington Mall has been nearly as controversial as Lin’s design was, fervently supported by some, criticized by others as bombastic, gargantuan, and out of place.

We must do better when it comes to remembering the events of 9/11, just as we must speak now against the day when terror returns to our shores. Any society that cannot properly frame its past, that cannot eulogize its dead and celebrate its heroes, renders itself mute. If we cannot give voice to the past, we will hardly be able to sound the certain trumpet needed for the task ahead.

National Guardsmen on duty in Grand Central Terminal, New York City, during the Republican National Convention, August 2004.
jim hollander/epa/sipa jim hollander2005_4_10

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.