The anniversary of the terror attacks on 9/11 evokes a wide range of emotions and memories. The attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania remain vivid in my memory after two decades. These horrific events changed the world, took the life of my friend’s sister at the Pentagon, set the groundwork for two invasions, united our nation briefly and inspired us all to proclaim that we would never forget.

The smoke from the war on terror has yet to fade.

On September 11th, I was working as a reporter at the Culpeper Star-Exponent. The night before the attacks, I had covered an evening Culpeper School Board meeting. The following morning, I slept in until my phone started ringing relentlessly. Family, work, and friends were all leaving frantic messages about planes crashing. I heard the tone of shock in the calls. I clicked the TV on and dressed. I drove to Culpeper nervously listening to the evolving coverage on the radio.

Within a hectic newsroom, I was given the tasks of writing an editorial on the attacks, interviewing two local witnesses over the phone from New York and Washington DC, and covering community reactions to the attacks. In the span of hours, our small staff of writers, editors, printers, and a photographer constructed a special edition with a huge headline that stated, “A Second Day of Infamy.”

In the hours and days following the attacks, I was immensely proud of my fellow citizens locally and across the nation. American flags flew on car antennas, people rushed to donate blood, churches were filled with prayer and sounds of “America the Beautiful.” In the dark days that followed, I received the sad news that the attack on the Pentagon had taken the life of my close friend’s sister. My former soldier’s mind felt an instant urge for revenge on the terrorists. In the following days I attended a Pentagon Memorial service and the funeral for my friend’s beloved sister.

In the weeks and months to follow, an invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq would begin. The Taliban was ousted from power in Afghanistan, and in 2011, Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. special operations units in Pakistan.

Two decades later as I watched Afghanistan crumble live, an old familiar feeling of anger and betrayal of leadership ate at my heart. I thought about my late father, a two-combat tour veteran of Vietnam.

I remember the hurt in my father’s eyes when he watched a similar scene unfold with the fall of Saigon. To his last day he remembered the brave South Vietnamese soldiers he stood with in combat. He knew their fates were sealed after the U.S. withdrawal.

Today, my heart hurts for all my military brothers and sisters who did their jobs bravely. My heart hurts for the families who lost servicemen and women in this conflict. This is a failure of four presidents, Congress, a politicized generalship, and a news media that relied on press releases constructed with magic smoke.

The images I see in Afghanistan today make me believe that we have “forgotten.” The war was rarely mentioned and relegated to the back pages of major newspapers.

How many Americans were aware of the waste of life, money, material, and time that occurred in our name and with our tax money? Our elected leaders backstabbed each other as money fell like rain.

President Biden, his advisors, and a general officer class constructed on politics, not victory, gave birth to the colossal failure in leadership we witness today. Biden is indecisive, and he has been historically wrong on most foreign policy matters throughout his political career. He blamed the Afghan National Army and every other president. The war effort was built on bribery, fluffy PowerPoint briefings, the enrichment of contractors, and the stifling of rules of engagement—yet this army still bled to the tune of 50,000 casualties as our military went to a support role in the last few years.

This month the support ended. We struggled to manage a withdrawal.

I do not like either political party currently, and there’s enough blame for all four presidents. Some bright day we may learn from history and not discard its lessons. As I reflect on 9/11, I cannot help feeling that we took a few steps backwards over the last couple weeks.

The United States changes goals and opinions with the wind and our national hubris has once again deceived us into thinking that other places want or accept the lectures we provide after victories are earned. Patience paid off for the Taliban.

Our military can defeat any enemy on the field of battle, yet our victories are eaten from within by our own pride and inability to convey our ideals. Afghanistan either should have been a generational endeavor or a quick and furious strike.

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