A Letter from Henry Rowland

mpu   |   September 12, 2021

For my son, Lincoln –

There is a famous adage that says “if you can’t explain something to a 6-year old you probably don’t understand it well.” Typically, that quote is applied to some technical field, such as physics or other sciences. I think about it often as it relates to 9/11, and other difficult topics for that matter. If my 6-year old, the oldest of my three children, asked me “Dad, what is/was 9/11?” How would I answer? What explanation would satiate a 6-year old’s curiosity? What would lead him to understand what happened on that day and what has happened in the 20 years since?

Let’s play that out for a second because it could go several ways. Here’s one version:

Me – “Well, a bunch of bad guys decided to steal some airplanes and fly them into buildings, hurting lots of people.”

Him – “What did we do about it?”

Me – “We fought them for 20 years.”

Him – “Did we win?”

Me – “No.”

Him – “So they won?”

Me – “Not really.”

Him – “Why did they do it?”

Me – “Because they think we’re bad guys.”

Him – “Are we?”

Me – “Not really.”

Him – “I don’t get it.”

Me – “Me neither.”

Here’s another:

Me – “Twenty years ago we were attacked by some people who believed we deserved it. They stole airplanes and flew them into buildings and hurt lots of people. We’ve been fighting them ever since but neither of us have won because we don’t really know what winning looks like in this situation.”

Him – “Did they say they were sorry?”

Me – “No. And even if they did it wouldn’t matter.”

Him – “Why not?”

Me – “Because they hurt lots of people and we thought they would keep hurting people unless we stopped them.”

Him – “Did we stop them?”

Me – “Not really. But they sort of haven’t attacked us again. So…”

Him – “Ok. So was it worth it?

Me- “Maybe.”

Damn it. I guess I don’t understand it well, despite that event changing the trajectory of my life and the lives of countless others. Despite fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite working hard for 20 years to understand the geopolitical, military, and cultural complexities of the “War on Terror.” It turns out that I don’t understand it well enough to explain it to my 6-year old. I know we had to do something, we were attacked. But why wasn’t it more decisive? Or have a more limited scope? Or if none of those, why wasn’t our military action in Afghanistan reevaluated once we initiated military action in Iraq? Or at the 5 year mark? The 10 year mark? Why wasn’t there a bipartisan, nonpartisan, or hell, an apolitical effort in our government to end the conflict earlier? Once it was clear that we were involved in a protracted, multi-year, open-ended war, couldn’t we have grabbed the reins and come up with some achievable and attainable end state that, admittedly, would have been well short of defeating “terror” in all its forms but still acceptable to the international community? I have more questions and not enough answers for my 6-year old to be able to explain it well.

What I can tell him is that the decisions that were made may not have been made in the best possible way. Even if the initial decision was justified, the proceeding 20 years happened, in large part, because of the political dysfunction in our country. I can tell him that very few people actually have a say in who represents our country in matters as grave as these and, unless things change, he will have to choose a side, a political party, in order to be able to influence anything. And I would very much like for that not to be the case when he’s old enough to vote. I can also tell him that we have a responsibility to help our Afghan partners, having had a large part in creating the current situation they are facing. But how do we execute on that responsibility? I have no idea. I know that we could not sit idly by as the threat of harm loomed over our country and our allies. I also know that my brothers and sisters in arms served and continue to serve admirably and should be proud of that service, as I am proud of mine. Let’s get some thoughtful people in office who represent the majority of us, and, in matters of war, who aren’t influenced by anything other than prudent use of violence. Wielding the world’s most powerful military is something that should be aligned with not just our national security and foreign policy interests, but also with the ideals and principles that make America the country that it is. Waging war, or initiating any significant military action, should not be a national security or foreign policy endeavor, but a nationwide endeavor.

– Henry Rowland