My Life and September 11

There's been no peace in my lifetime as an American.

I was born on the island of Manhattan. Signs and portents. I was born between Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

World War Two segued into the Cold War. I don't know if fear of nuclear war had any effect on the Soviet Union but it sure affected me. The background radiation of the Manhattan Project has followed me everywhere.

Was I born with post-traumatic stress disorder? No, my mother said I was a happy baby. She must have done a good job distracting me. At least, I didn't notice the Korean War.

But as a citizen of the United States, I've lived through one war after another. They were not all called wars. In my lifetime the American military has been involved in Iran, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Korea, Guatemala, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Panama, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Dominican Republic, Oman, Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Libya, Bolivia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Somalia, Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Haiti, Croatia, Zaire, Liberia, Albania, Sudan, Macedonia, Afghanistan, Cuba, and Vietnam.

I didn't repeat any countries even though we had repeated engagements with some. I may have left out some.

In January 1961, President/General Eisenhower said, "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

We were in the Cold War more than 40 years. We have been in a war with Cuba for 39 years and counting. We have been in an ongoing war with Iraq for 10 years.

Economists talk about the peacetime expansion of the U.S. economy. There hasn't been a time in my life when the U.S. was not involved in killing people in my name somewhere in the world. Yet this passes for peace. I think this is because U.S. military activity has always been global, mostly out of sight, away from home.

When I was my son's age the U.S. government was killing Buddhists in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Now it is killing Muslims in the mountains of Southwest Asia. This is what this "Judeo-Christian" country keeps doing while pledging allegiance to its flag, singing patriotic songs, and invoking its variant of God, a Supreme Being.

These things go on simultaneously. The military activity is constant and continuous. That is why the military budget is so large, more than $350 billion this year. "Pentagon spending now accounts for over half (50.5%) of all discretionary spending," says the Center for Defense Information. "Global military spending has declined from $1.2 trillion in 1985 to $809 billion in 1999. During that time the U.S. share of total military spending rose from 31% to 36% in Fiscal Year 1999."

I live in a country whose economy is dominated by military activity, by a preoccupation with killing people in other parts of the world, which has become the formal occupation of many people and the informal occupation of many more. This is our routine activity, not only in the military, because of course it spills over into other sectors as well. It pervades education and corporate business. Organized religion in this secular democracy seems to have both military and civilian branches.

If this isn't always on our minds that is an indication of how effectively we block it out. It is remarkable that concurrently with such government-administered killing, so much else goes on in the society. But it is precisely our insulation from the facts of this side of American life that accounts for the inability of so many people to believe or understand what happened on Sept. 11.

We are in a state of denial much of the time, it seems. We choose not to think about the thousands of nuclear warheads in our government's arsenal, the radioactive nuclear waste, the chemical and biological weapons stockpiles. We'd rather not think about that, which means we leave the burden of thinking about it to others. "At the beginning of 1996, there were some 21,000 operational nuclear weapons in the world," says Greenpeace.

And then Sept. 11 happens. Much of people's reaction, I think, is their struggle with themselves not to think about these things. We hate what happened on Sept. 11 because it's like the elephant in the living room. It's impossible to ignore. When we hear that Sept. 11 changed everything, that means that it made it necessary for Americans to think about and deal with a lifetime of things they find unpleasant and try so hard to avoid. But it has caught up with us. The crematorium in lower Manhattan is still burning. It has become our eternal flame. My life has come full circle.

November 2, 2001