Why did New York City firemen ascend the stairs of the melting World Trade Center?
None chose to retreat or, in contrast, raced in wildly. In turn, from survivors' accounts, there was little panic on the part of workers in the towers. In orderly fashion, both survivors and victims sought to descend the smoking stairs—perhaps more methodically than what we see sometimes at airline rebooking lines.
Aristotle—who argued that courage was the first virtue, without which none of the other elements of human goodness were possible—defined it as a golden mean between recklessness and cowardice. While we might expect that Manhattan office workers are not by habit reckless, on 9/11 they seemed as uncowardly as audacious men of the wild who cut down huge trees or fish on the high seas.
National unity unraveled in the partisan 2004 elections, amid arguments about the Patriot Act, Guantánamo Bay, renditions, military tribunals, and, of course, the wars: first in Afghanistan, and then, most heatedly, in Iraq. But the one constant was the courage of the American soldier, whether on patrol high in the Hindu Kush or fighting jihadists in the apartment blocks of Fallujah. Perhaps the attack on 9/11 had eclipsed memories of Vietnam, as this generation of war critics more or less focused their ire on policy makers, finding it hard to indict soldiers so willing to take such risks against such illiberal enemies.
In this regard, Pericles had much advice for the citizens of Athens, who were distraught over their losses in the Peloponnesian War. But the central theme of his funeral oration, as recorded by Thucydides, was the classical qualities of courage—specifically his definition of martial bravery as a mental as well as physical virtue. For Pericles, true courage in wartime had to meet three criteria. It was not the act of the desperate, whose wretched material circumstances made the thought of dying not so unwelcome. Nor was courage the dividend of unthinking, ingrained militarism—as he hinted was the case with the Spartan army. And courage was not the product of impulse or recklessness. Rather, it arose through reflection. Only the man in a liberal society who has the most to lose—and who then willingly risks all on behalf of his comrades and country—is the truly courageous citizen.
Just 26 days after 9/11, American forces went into Afghanistan to dislodge both Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which had given Osama bin Laden sanctuary. We were warned that Afghanistan was the proverbial graveyard of empires—rugged, remote, landlocked, harsh, and backward. Poverty, difficult terrain, a brutal history, and radical Islam had forged fearsome tribal warriors. Americans were further apprised that the radical Islamic world had millions of jihadists for whom paradise was a delightful reward for killing the infidel. And yet tens of thousands from an affluent postmodern America, willingly went into the premodern world of Afghanistan and removed the Taliban.
Much has been written about the wisdom and morality of the war in Iraq, but what has never been in dispute is the courage of the volunteer American soldiers, who there again met all the classical criteria of courage. They gave up the good life at home, knowing full well what was entailed in fighting those energized by religious zealotry, embittered by poverty, and inspired by fighting on home turf, from Anbar Province to Sadr City. And yet once more they fought superbly, as did their ancestors at the Meuse-Argonne, Okinawa, and Chosin, who had lacked this generation's expectation of an affluent and secure life.
In acrimonious fashion, we still debate 9/11 and our responses in its aftermath. But the fact is that the United States has not been attacked in like fashion since, when all our experts warned us that it was only a question of when, not if. For all the blood and treasure lost abroad, there is still no Taliban, no Al Qaeda in control of Afghanistan. Saddam Hussein is gone. Iraq is not translating its oil wealth into invasions against its neighbors.
Those achievements were not the results of skillful diplomacy; indeed, our naïve policy makers and military planners made error after error. Nor were these successes due to overwhelming national unity or unquestioned support for our homeland-security officers and soldiers abroad. In fact, America was never more divided than after 2003.
The reason that more skyscrapers have not fallen, and the reason that members of Al Qaeda—not Americans—are in hiding and dispersed, and the reason that thousands of terrorists do not find safe havens in Kabul or Baghdad, is the courage of the American soldier, the military counterpart to what civilians exhibited on September 11. In the most unlikely times, they showed a calculated willingness to risk their good lives for others when most would not.
Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His new book, The End of Sparta: A Novel, will be published by Bloomsbury Press in October.
Also in this special issue:
Charles Kurzman asks: Where are the Islamic terrorists?
Evan R. Goldstein explores an oral-history archive.
Jacques Berlinerblau reflects on Ground Zero.
Peter van Agtmael captures images of 9/11's aftermath.