A local journalist wrote recently comparing the disaster of 9-11 in 2001 to that of Custer in 1876. As a “Custer buff” I was immediately drawn to the article if only to look for holes in his historical account (not bad for a non-buff). But his point is to compare Custer’s hubris and failure to see things beyond his own myopia. I think the writer complimented the Custer Battlefield as an effort to see an issue from both sides.
But the article got me to thinking about the way that Americans celebrate their defeats more than the victories. Everyone can recognize things like September 11, December 7, Custer, November 22, and the Fall of Saigon. But what about September 1, May 8, or November 11 (Armistic Day not Veterans Day)? What is it that draws us to remember the pain of the Arizona blowing up or the collapse of the Twin Towers and not the triumph of GIs and Doughboys?
I like to think that a military defeat, like any disaster, personal or national, is what teaches us the most. What do we learn when we graduate from school or land that job? Not as much as when the report card comes back with Fs or the interview goes sour. I’ve heard that Japanese business people call failures opportunities and I think they have something there. We don’t recognize what went wrong unless it results in failure. When we fail we ask, why? We look to others to blame, then to ourselves. Should I have worked harder in that class? Should I have prepared better for the interview?
Pearl Harbor has shaped U.S. military and political policy for almost seventy years: Never be unprepared again. Custer left us with a whole list of lessons: “recon the objective” (taught in Infantry school) and beware of over confidence.
What do the 9-11 attacks teach us? Don’t allow sharp objects on airplanes? I don’t think so (but don’t tell that to the tens of thousands now employed to collect nail clippers at airports). We learned that no one is ever totally safe from a terrorist attack, but how does that instruct the future? Be afraid? No. Spend billions on cosmetic security measures like the machine-gun inflatable boat that shadows our ferry? I don’t think so.
How about, “stuff happens”? That is to say that the world is full of hazards, hurricanes, serial killers, oil wells, and fundamentalists bent on murder and suicide. None of us has ever been completely safe since our ancestors left the trees to strike out across the savannah and none of us can ever be completely safe again. Leopards and fundamentalists will always be out there, but we have to eat.
We can keep our eyes open and pay attention to the systems designed to protect us. As I have posted before we need to question whether the system is defective or just needs to work correctly. We can do our jobs, but that doesn’t protect us from those who don’t do their jobs. Custer didn’t do his job, the Army and Navy didn’t do their job in Hawaii, BP didn’t do its job in the Gulf of Mexico, and the airlines didn’t do their job on 9-11. But what is the lesson?
We were attacked because we were successful as a nation and a society. We have peace and prosperity where so many others have neither. The resentment was translated into some abomination of religious thought. Being successful at something will always make you someone’s target whether it’s a burlar after your new HD wide screen or some lunatic resentful at our shopping malls. We can never make those crazies happy and we can never kill them all. We can try to see things from their point of view, but they will still keep coming. We can keep working to make things better for everyone.
Like a small group of Homo Erectus which has just lost a member to some prowling cat, we keep heading toward the horizon. Stuff happens.