[OP-ED] A Millennial: "My country has been at war since I was born"
I was born here in Philadelphia in 1994, and my country has been at war since 2001, the majority of my life. It’s easier to forget about than to think through, but any personal history of my relationship with politics as a millennial must begin with this fact.
The attacks of 9/11 fell on the second week of first grade, shortly after a lesson introducing my class to the different sections of our local newspaper. For the rest of the year, I read the weather as instructed and then skipped back to page A1, which inevitably would feature bearded mugshots, place names I couldn’t place, and every so often the motif of the towers burning as they fell.
We’ve been at war ever since. I’ve learned a lot in the fifteen intervening years—that Saddam never had nuclear weapons, that Guatánamo Bay is for some reason in Cuba and not Central Asia as I’d assumed, and that bomb blasts may even fundamentally alter the brain matter of soldiers, making them more vulnerable to severe depression upon return from deployment. I value and resent these truths, not one of which has been brought to bear on the presidential election, unless you count Donald Trump’s senseless and repeated invocation of “ISIS” and “Radical Islamic Terror.”
Actually, Trump’s example is a useful illustration of how the spectre of our foreign wars has worked in politics for more or less my whole life so far. These wars are hugely expensive. They allow for the expansion of the military and spending related to it. They allow the United States to maintain a presence in areas rich in natural resources. In their first years, they shocked and horrified the nation; over time, we became fatigued by the effort to understand this distant violence in the abstract.
Now, they are a convenient distraction in an election season woefully bereft of substantive policy debate. Mentioning ISIS, or the vigilante-style assassination of Osama Bin Laden, can still perk ears, tug heartstrings, and reopen the pit of fear in our stomachs. But these shallow emotional appeals are not real answers. In fact, a conversation on these terms is not only wholly irrelevant to the everyday problems of making money, sharing space, and being treated with respect in our workplaces and neighborhoods, but requires listeners to accept a vision of the world in which the livelihoods and ideological positions of perceived “enemies” merit total destruction with no due process.
The United States’ approach to foreign warfare reflects its founding as a settler state which relied on the genocide of indigenous peoples to establish its modern borders, and the forced labor of imported slaves to establish its business interests. The questions of immigration, international trade, race relations, neighborhood policing, and gentrification require us to better understand and come to terms with this history. We can do what we’ve always done—find military solutions which dehumanize others whose suffering we are willing to rationalize and dismiss. But it’s about time that we give that up and start taking advantage of the incredible wealth of our diversity.
There are so many Americas that for any one person, or one group of people working independently, some failure to see the problems clearly is guaranteed. We need to build coalitions that reach across the usual boundaries of race, place and education at all levels of our public institutions, and start to look for peace in earnest.