Last week, the United States remembered one of the most pivotal moments in the modern world. In the dreary Sunday morning of December 7th, 1941, the day that shall remain written on the souls of every American began with Japan attacking the Naval station at Pearl Harbor. This would set a standard for the nation which helped it climb to greatness. We proved that our population would rise to the moment and respond with their blood and labor.
The attack at Pearl Harbor became not only the war cry on the front lines, but the spirit with which Americans on the homefront produced ships to replace the lost fleet, built tanks and trucks and produced enough food, bullets and weapons to ensure that the Allied powers would be victorious over the evils of fascism and genocide plaguing Nazi-occupied Europe.
Following World War II, this enabled the US to become one of the largest superpowers. That spirit of resilience and manufacturing that led America to victory also positioned the US to be an economic force to be reckoned with in the world. We grew in world stature. Then, one morning in 2001, it happened again.
Our JFK Moment
Historical events that shock a nation to that extent are, fortunately, few and far between. But the important ones stick out. I remember when my parents and those alive for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Jr., used to talk about where they were when they heard the news. And on 9/11, we got to see our own “JFK moment” unfold on live television.
I remember the morning that I walked into my eighth grade homeroom class and saw the classroom dialed into the morning news. A friend told me that a plane had hit a building in New York. Being a kid, I remember thinking it was a small Cessna or something — an accident. But it wasn’t long before all of America witnessed the second plane hit the Twin Towers.
Everyone has their own story, and there are many, many more that have far more significance. But for me, the 9/11 attacks were always something that happened on TV, something that happened to our country like any other national event. I loved my country, I was proud when we heard about our intelligence community and special forces were “boots on the ground” in Afghanistan, tracking the monsters that committed this atrocity.
Eventually, I would have the distinct honor of taking my place among the ranks of conventional forces who would deploy to Afghanistan. I would do my part. It was more than just “for better or for worse.” I think that a lot of veterans would echo my sentiment that I saw it as my responsibility, in gratitude for everything this incredible country ever gave me. It was my turn to do my part, and in the process I got to befriend and know some of the greatest people to ever bear the title of American.
Following my time in the military, it seemed evident that I had experienced my own culmination of world events. After a long readjustment period of folding back into the ranks of “civilian,” it seemed that my war was in the past. That the lands the news started to talk about was less and less the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts that had been there since my teenage years and more and more about Iran, Syria, Russia and a whole host of other actors on the world stage. It seemed that time — and history — were passing on.
The Deafening Silence
Opened on September 11, 2011, the 9/11 memorial became its own part of history. Taking its place next to the iconic battlefields of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the historic sites for the Spanish-American War, the War of 1812, and Pearl Harbor itself, the site now sees visitors that come in from all over the world.
I had heard about the monument for years, but when I visited my brother in Manhattan, I’ll be honest in saying that the 9/11 Memorial hadn’t even occurred to me. It was my brother and his wife that had put it on the list of things to see when we moved passed Chinatown. Among the packed city blocks and craziness of the City that Never Sleeps, there was a point at which everything began to fade away against the backdrop of falling water.
Although wedged in between the Hudson and Harlem rivers, there are no waterfalls in New York City — or so I thought. As we turned the corner and moved onto the property at the memorial, the silence of everyone present in the midst of the city was profound. It moved me. It drew me in, and it invited a flood.
Names Stretching on Forever
As I walked up to the first fountain in the memorial, I went off alone. This was too intimate a place for even my relatives. Walking up to the etched names of every single person who died in any one of the two World Trade Center attacks, both from 2001 and 1993, was surreal. It’s impossible to refrain from reaching out and touching the names inscribed. And that’s when it all connected.
Standing there in the footprint of the Twin Towers, running my fingertips along the etched names, looking into the endless waterfall fountain that plummets into the depths of the ghost building’s foundation. The names are placed in groupings based on where the victims were when they died.
Walking along the rows of names, you see the various towers, but you also come across the names of the people on board the planes — including Flight 93, in which a group of everyday civilian heroes stood up and said “enough is enough” and retook their plane by force. Although the story there ended in tragedy, it’s very likely that those lives lost saved many more.
Sacrificing one’s self so that others may live is what I think of when I imagine “great Americans.” It’s through the self-sacrifice of others that we have the world that we do today. Every single one of those names leaves an impression.
In architecture, the concept of the arch is one of the best accomplishments of our ancestors. It’s a structure that supports itself and is highly efficient, but it’s solely reliant on what’s known as the “keystone.” A keystone must be strong, as it supports the entire structure. If anything were to happen to the keystone, the entire arch would fall apart.
In many ways, my experience at the 9/11 Memorial was the keystone for my own experience. My brother looked over at me when we were leaving and said, “I imagine this place sort of puts your journey into perspective.” He’ll never know how right he was.
It brought back cold, dark memories from far away. It brought all of the good, all of the bad, every long road march, every loaded magazine, every departed friend, every bit of grit, every bit of blood and sacrifice — all of it. And in doing so, it brought me a new meaning and appreciation of the American experience that we are all so privileged to live.
This, to me, is the value of national monuments. It’s what we see within ourselves when we look back on history and appreciate the sacrifice of those who have come before. And for those who have had the pleasure, the pain and the honor of being part of the right arm of US foreign policy, it lets us know that we may rest in the comfort that when things were happening in the world, we bothered to raise our hands and asked the coach to put us in the game.