Another September 11th has come and gone, and another American general, Heaven help him, is trying to fight a war despite a deeply divided home front. For the country has grown weary of this war. Weary, confused and divided.
Called home to defend his strategy, four-star Gen. David Petraeus faced not just some fair questions but the usual scathing attacks from the usual overheated quarters. (The lowest? A full-page ad in the New York Times headlined: "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?")
American strategy has changed, but reports of progress are disputed. Rancor spreads. At home and abroad, the government's every move is challenged in the media, in the courts, in the minds and hearts of the American people.
The leader of the opposition in the U.S. Senate declared this war lost months ago. And even before this commander testified before the House Armed Services Committee, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had pronounced him "dead flat wrong." Divided we flail at each other.
The next presidential campaign is already under way more than a year ahead of election day, and a president's approval ratings haven't been this low since another feisty commander-in-chief seemed determined to persist in an unpopular war on the Korean peninsula.
Officially, that conflict wasn't even a war but a "police action." Unofficially, it was called Truman's War, and it, too, was declared lost, or at least stalemated, but certainly dead flat wrong. The wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place. At one point the American commander in the field was replaced, but the war continued a constant drain on American resources and a steady sacrifice of American blood.
Sometimes you hear today's war on terror referred to as the so-called War on Terror, its very name disputed. Words of resolve and courage have given way to uncertainty, recriminations and just plain war-weariness. The casualty figures mount and the military funerals go on.
There is no aspect of this war, whether it's being waged in Iraq or Afghanistan or around the world, in airports or through intelligence operations, that has not come under criticism, yet no clear alternative to victory has emerged.
Yes, we were warned this would be another long, twilight struggle akin to the Cold War, and that this war would be different from any other the country has waged: "Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success." George W. Bush, September 20, 2001.
But speeches are one thing, reality another. It's one thing to utter brave words amid the still smoldering wreckage of the Twin Towers, another to go on fighting year after year, one September 11th after another.
There was even a debate this year over whether the date should inspire so much ceremony. The day that changed everything hasn't; we bicker and quibble and grumble and litigate and castigate as the war joins one more topic over which we Have Issues.
Yes, this is a different war from those of the past as we remember the past. For by now history has done its usual trick and turned into myth, and we remember even the cruelest war in man's history, the Second World War, as the good war fought by the greatest generation, when the country was united, all of us supported a dynamic leader who enjoyed the nation's confidence, and victory inevitably awaited. As usual, memory dims and is replaced by monuments.
The grinding war of the GIs, the helpless feeling that it would never be over no matter what the wartime propaganda said, the dreaded telegrams from the War Department ("We regret to inform you…"), all of that is now seen from the perspective of the outcome, not the way it was year after year, blow by bitter blow.
We forget the weariness and confusion, the conspiracy theories about how FDR had provoked the Japanese into attacking our unprepared fleet at Pearl Harbor, and the anger at those who had brought all this on us, whether deliberately or through sheer incompetence.
Forgotten is how one leading isolationist the distinguished senator from Montana, the now well-forgotten Burton K. Wheeler compared Franklin Roosevelt's foreign policy, specifically his Lend Lease program, to the New Deal's agricultural policy: The senator said the object of the plan was to plow under every fourth American boy.
We forget how some of the country's leading intellectuals, artists and statesmen opposed the whole endeavor, warning that this war, rather than assure our security, would cost us our freedom.
Today, too, many look back nostalgically to an idyllic pre-war time that exists only in their imaginations, and wonder why we have to fight. Couldn't the terrorist attacks of 9-11 have been handled like the earlier ones on the World Trade Center, on our African embassies, on the USS Cole, and left to the FBI, the police, the courts? And not made into a world war? We still haven't learned to connect the dots.
Some things never change, like America's periodic bouts of historical amnesia that leave us open to the next surprise attack. Even now many of us don't seem to realize that a victory over al-Qaida in Iraq would discourage terrorists everywhere, and that its victory there would represent a major defeat for our own security, and for liberty and stability around the world.
Rest assured, or rather don't rest assured: The enemy is plotting its next September 11th. Our foes will not rest even if we do. Especially if we do. That is why this war must be pressed, at home and abroad. Year after year till these fanatics meet the fate of others who also once confidently expected that, weary and divided, spoiled and decadent, Americans would tire and give up, and that the future belonged to them. We shall see about that. For the September 11ths will keep coming, not just on the calendar but in our guts.