It has taken me a while to realize something.
Seventeen years ago, I saw a picture of Mohamed Atta for the first time, and my blood boiled from the sound of his voice emanating from the television, as he said over the airplane’s intercom system: “We have some planes, just stay quiet and you’ll be O.K. We are returning to the airport.” Instead, he crashed it between the 93rd and 99th floors of the World Trade Center’s north tower.
My 23-year-old brother, James, was on the 102nd floor.
Staring at that picture of Atta, I would have visions of what my brother’s final moments were like. I would envision my asthmatic brother slowly succumbing to smoke inhalation on the flat, gray corporate rug of his Cantor Fitzgerald office — trapped, climbing upward and afraid for the entire 102 minutes before the tower’s collapse. Glaring at Atta’s photo, I’d imagine my brother’s body buckling, falling, crumpling, burning, melting, and in that moment of imagination, my entire being wanted revenge against the people who did this.
So I joined the Army.
I joined the war. I deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan.
I learned many things but realized just one.
I learned that deploying for the second time was easier than the first, but each time it’s harder to fully come home.
I learned that I love soldiers. Nothing builds bonds more than living with a group of people in a war zone, getting shot at, not showering for months, roasting our own excrement in burn pits, cracking inappropriate jokes and serving something greater than ourselves.
I also learned how that love turns to heartache when one of those soldiers gets killed, and you pack his gear up in duffel bags to be shipped home to his wife and unborn child. I learned that another family’s losing a brother doesn’t bring my brother back.
But that wasn’t the thing I realized.
In Afghanistan, after an Afghan police officer demanded money from me at gunpoint to get through a checkpoint, I learned of the Kabul government’s widespread corruption. I learned that spending $68 billion on Afghan forces doesn’t buy the essential ingredients of a fighting force: loyalty, courage and integrity. I learned that most generals would always ask for more money, more troops, more time — and more war. It’s like asking Tom Brady what he wants to do on Sunday.
I learned that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. For the past 17 years in Afghanistan, we’ve tried everything: a light footprint, a big footprint, conventional war, counterinsurgency, counter-corruption, surges, drawdowns.
But that wasn’t the thing I realized.
I also learned that those who made the ultimate sacrifice are the very best of America.
I learned to try to live a life worthy of their sacrifice, but perhaps this is a false platitude. We’ll say, “Until Valhalla,” after hearing the news of another brother killed, but perhaps preventing more brothers from dying is just as worthy of their sacrifice.
I also learned to be father. As I hold my son Graham James in my arms tonight, I feel selfish because there are thousands of fathers who never came home to hold their children. I feel selfish because there was a father who came home from war 17 years ago to hold his child in his arms and now that child is going off to fight in the same war.
A hard lesson, but it’s still not the thing I realized.
I learned that Osama bin Laden’s strategic logic was to embroil the United States in a never-ending conflict to ultimately bankrupt the country. “All that we have to do is send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written ‘Al Qaeda,’” he said in 2004, “in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note ….” Why are we continuing to do what Bin Laden wanted all along?
But that, ultimately, was not the thing I realized.
I learned that every part of me wanted to just stay quiet with my feelings about the war because I was afraid of what people might say. It’s easier to bask in the warm embrace of “Thank you for your service” without questioning what that service was for. One way or another, we were all affected by Sept. 11, which has caused us to view the war through a distorted lens. This is why most of us won’t comment or share or at least have a dialogue about the war.
But the main reason I wanted to stay quiet is because it has embarrassingly taken me 17 years to realize something, and what I realized was this: Seventeen years ago, staring at that picture of Mohammad Atta, I wanted revenge against the people who killed my brother. But what I finally realized was that the people who killed my brother died the same day he did.
I refuse to take Atta’s orders, or Bin Laden’s. I will not “stay quiet.” End the war.
Joe Quinn is a United States Army veteran.