Today's seniors in college were just seven or eight years old on 9/11. In my courses on Iraq and Afghanistan at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, I find that many students who grew up with the war on terror as a backdrop to their lives barely remember that day and are disconnected from the wars that followed. And even for those of us who do remember that sad day, the memories are fading fast as America's war in Afghanistan, its longest, winds down and most troops finally come home this fall.
But it would be a bad thing if America forgot this extraordinary era and failed to learn from its successes and mistakes. Fortunately, there have been efforts to remind Americans about 9/11 and the bloody wars it spawned against the Taliban fanatics in Afghanistan and the secular Socialist regime in Iraq. Most notably, the 9/11 Museum built underground at the foot of the former World Trade Centers.
I visited this museum in July and was profoundly impacted by it. From the crushed fire engines and massive iron support beams that had been spray painted by rescue workers to parts of the planes that took down the buildings, I was blown away by the scale of the cavernous museum.
But it was the smaller human exhibits that touched me the most. The most powerful exhibit for me was a glass-encased red bandana. This bandana was worn by Welles Crowther, a World Trade Center employee who ran back into the burning building on numerous occasions bringing out wounded people. He was said to have saved 12 people, all of whom recalled being saved by a man wearing a red bandana over his mouth to keep the smoke out. Tragically, Welles was killed when the South Tower collapsed that day.
I was also touched by an exhibit featuring final phone calls from passengers on flight 193 which crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. One message was from a woman calling her husband and calmly telling him that her plane had been hijacked, but that she was ok. If she died she wanted him to know she loved him.
On this and several other occasions my eyes involuntarily welled up with tears as did those of many other tourists in the exhibit. In this I noticed a trend that I had similarly seen at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. Tourists who had not yet gone into the museum were happily taking "selfies" of themselves before the massive pools that have been built where the World Trade Centers previously stood before going in, but when they came out they were more somber. Being in that massive underground museum, which memorialized those who died, had brought the tragedy to life for them and they remembered those whose lives were lost on that day.
Sadly, many, many more Americans died in the wars spawned by 9/11 and there is no Vietnam-style war memorial for them in Washington DC. But we should recall the wars they died in and remember them on 9/11 as well -- 2,343 Americans gave their lives fighting in Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban regime that gave sanctuary to Al Qaeda. Approximately 4,500 Americans died fighting in Iraq in a war that was predicated on defending the U.S. from weapons of mass destruction that we now know did not exist. This is perhaps the ultimate tragedy of 9/11, that the Bush administration took advantage of the courage and trust of America's soldiers to send them into harms' way to prosecute a war that had no links whatsoever to 9/11.
Today as ISIS terrorists conquer much of Iraq that was ruled by Saddam Hussein's Socialist-Baathist regime until our invasion overthrew it, some voices, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, have called for America to once again involve itself in that jihadi-infested desert wasteland. Fortunately, the vast majority of Americans are opposed to putting more troops in harm's way in a quagmire in Iraq, and a mere 22 percent support the idea of U.S. boots on the ground in this bloody sectarian conflict according to a recent poll.
This is cause for hope. It shows that the American public have wised up to the true costs of wars and are much less inclined to invade other peoples lands on flimsy pretexts than they were when the Bush White House sold them on the mythical Iraqi WMD threats in 2003.
This is perhaps the greatest legacy of 9/11 and the two wars it spawned. A nation that, whiled honoring its dead, seeks to preserve more of its fighting men and women from being sent into harm's way to die for dubious causes.
Brian Glyn Williams is Professor of Islamic History and author of The Last Warlord. The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior who Led US Troops to Topple the Taliban Regime and Predators. The CIA's Drone War on Al Qaeda.