Saturday, September 11, 2021

A Veteran Looks back at the War on Terror

Normally, of course, this blog is devoted to my historical research, but today, September 11, 2021, I have to step back and reflect on the history of which I was a part


September 11 has a great deal of meaning to me. It is a powerful, emotional day of both national – and personal tragedy. It has, however, been a date in which I recalled the triumphs, the overcoming, the good that came out of such a horrible thing. For the last few years, this has been a solace amidst the sorrow, a salve to the suffering.

We all know where we were on that beautiful, crisp morning. For myself, I was preparing for work. I was the Deputy Press Secretary for U.S. Senator Phil Gramm, based in his Dallas, Texas office. I was still at breakfast when I saw the second plane hit the towers. I rushed into office and we gathered around the TV. Then came news from the Pentagon, and we realized the scope of the attacks. We evacuated the Senator’s office, of course, but somebody needed to man the phones and the fax machines and send out the press releases. And that someone was me. So I sat alone, all day, watching the footage, writing and editing press releases as my boss, Larry, dictated from locked-down Washington. I remember it like it was yesterday. Senator Gramm, who had just announced his retirement the week before, set the tone. His quote used a noun like a verb: “We Will War on Them.”

With the release sent out, I finally could pause. The news was no longer fresh, and I turned towards my big picture window with a panoramic view of the Dallas skyline. There was no noise. The streets, eerily empty. I stared out that window, looking for answers to the question, but my eyes kept drifting back to my own reflection in the glass. Who was I? More to the point, who was I meant to be? At the time, I was a 29-year-old single, young, urban professional – selfish, materialistic, and with inflated notions of my own importance as an up-and-coming political mover and shaker, filled to overflowing with ambition nearly tripping over itself.

I was a passionate student of history, in awe of the greatest generation, proud of the cold warriors who stood the wall when I was a mere child. But all that seemed over and superfluous. The world was at peace, the wall did not need to be manned. Then came the horror of that day, which shook and tore at my soul just as it did yours, and every American and even the souls of people throughout the world, some of whom didn’t even like our country. But it rent my ego apart, and exposed the lie that was my life: I was living for me, and people had died because someone wasn’t there. I’m not even sure I knew where there was, but there was a there, and the right someone in the right place, standing at the guardhouse on the wall against barbarism, could have done something, anything to stop it. And it occurred to me that the someone might be me.

Not me alone, of course, my ego was never that great. But lots of mes. A whole generation of them who needed to stand up just like Americans had done on December 8, 1941. This was our Pearl Harbor, and though we didn’t need 8 million men in arms, we needed someone.

At the time, the Army cutoff was 30 years old, or so I was told, and I was two months shy of that age. But after two years of searching, I found the right way to serve. The U.S. Navy was taking people up to 35, through what was called the Direct Commission Officer program. You join in the reserves, meaning you could keep your civilian career, you just sacrifice your private life: one weekend a month, two weeks a year, and then once you’re trained, you’re deployable. What’s more, the key need in the War on Terror was intelligence officers. The details they could train, but the skills they needed – research, writing, analysis – these were the sort of things I had been doing in my civilian career, which had started in journalism before winding its way into public policy.

Sworn in at Texas State Capitol, 2004

So in 2004, I raised my hand at the Speaker’s dais in the Texas House of Representatives – where I worked by that time – and became an ensign in the United States Navy. I was so focused on getting in and doing my part to serve that I never even read the fine print. I was committing to 8 years. I saw that and said, well, yeah, I can do that. That was 17 years ago. I’m still in.

I spent the first few years getting my clearances and learning all I could about intelligence. Basically if you want to know what Navy intel is, it’s what the two civilians are doing in Hunt for Red October and Top Gun, only it’s really Navy personnel doing it most of the time. But of course, in the War on Terror, the enemy doesn’t really have much of a navy, so I was told from the beginning that I was an interchangeable unit; I would be trained in joint intelligence and when the time came up, I would be loaned out to the army.

Of course, it got real when I had to deploy, and knowing that my time was coming, I chose to call my own shot. I didn’t want to go to some extraneous theater – even though there really is no such thing in such a conflict – but I wanted to go where the action was. So in 2007, I volunteered to deploy to Iraq. After two weeks of training, including very basic combat training (which consisted of Army guys showing us how to not get killed so that we Navy folks would not be a burden on our army counterparts), I deployed, first to Camp Virginia, Kuwait, arriving in the blistering month of August. I pulled my utterly wrinkled uniform out of my bag on that first day, and outside, where the temperature was pushing 130, my uniform was pressed within five minutes – by the ambient air. Further training, including additional rifle instruction, and I was ready to depart, via Ali Al Saleem Air Force Base, to Baghdad. Only at the last minute did I check the date: I was flying into Baghdad on September 11, 2007.

A C-17, far roomier than the C-130

It was a dangerous time to be in Iraq. The military newspaper, the Stars and Stripes had just reported that the casualties and attack levels in Iraq had reached their highest level ever. We loaded up on a C-130, packed so close that the rail-thin African-American female Air Force officer across from me had her knees interlaced with my own. She looked properly terrified, and I gave her smiles of encouragement, but could say nothing, because it’s a C-130 and they are louder than being inside the engine of a NASCAR racer. Anyway, we came in at night, and as we approached Baghdad International Airport (BIAP), the C-130 plane spiraled in with a corkscrew pattern. I can’t recall if it was that flight, or another one later on, but on one of them I saw through the small porthole window as a streak of light – which I later found out was an RPG rocket – stabbed across the sky in some insurgent’s futile attempt to target our aircraft by sound in the darkness.

We arrived sometime after midnight and I spent a miserable night sleeping on gravel next to all my gear, the next day hitching a ride across the large, sprawling Camp Victory – about the size of a U.S. city – to a transient camp, where I would stay until I got my permanent housing. Exhausted from the flight, from the gravel, and from the brutal heat and sand, I climbed into my rack about 4 pm and went to sleep. What happened next I will quote from my Iraq blog:

A rocket attack on Camp Victory, Baghdad

I’d been up for over 24 hours, so after checking in at work, I had the day off to relax. I went back to my tent, unpacked my gear, and lay down to take a nap.


I perked up my ears.


A sound, very clearly of some large object flying through the sky, from my left to my right, as I sat in my tent.


I sat up. At about that moment, the loudspeakers outside cried, “Incoming!” I had no fear. I had heard the object clearly, and it had passed completely over me – perhaps a little bit far off. A few minutes later, the all-clear sounded. I went back to sleep.

 From my training, I knew that insurgents shot off mortars and other objects at our large base every few days, and that they were poorly aimed, and almost never hit anything substantial. Later that day, I talked to an Army Captain. The object I had heard was indeed a rocket of some sort, and it had landed near the center of the base. The first sound was the launching, then I heard it's trajectory, and then finally, it's impact.

 It was a 240 mm rocket – the largest ever fired by insurgents in Iraq – and it had gone right over my tent. The explosion, I later learned, killed two, neither Americans, but allies. It was the insurgents sending a message on September 11.

The next day I was told when and where to report, and thus made my way to the Al Faw Palace, on Camp Victory, adjacent to the airport. It was an old palace of Saddam Hussein, which among other things, featured a throne that had been presented to the dictator by Yassir Arafat. This was the administrative heart of the whole war in Iraq, and I was assigned to the Joint Operations Center there.

Al Faw Palace, Baghdad
Over the last few months, I had been steeling myself for all sorts of dangers, and had walled myself away from the outside world to focus on this new reality. But now, on September 11, I was once again blindsided from a completely unexpected direction. Arriving at my work, instead of being put to work immediately, I was told to report to the Command Sergeant Major, who received me with a very sober look. He handed over a paper. At the top of it was the symbol of the International Red Cross. It read, “Your father is sick…actually dying.”

Indeed, he had already died before I even read the letter. And thus September 11 assumed a new meaning that for me, virtually eclipsed the already-horrible one it had for everyone else. Returning home on emergency leave for the funeral, I took a while to reacclimate once I returned to Iraq. But I settled in and began my own mission. It had to go on and it needed me.

The stark world of the deployed:
My home in Baghdad, known as "Dodge City."

Most of what I did was at a classified level, but I can explain it in simple terms: As the Intelligence Battle Watch Captain, I analyzed insurgent tactics, techniques and procedures, wrote daily summaries of their activity, provided analysis projects on demand and spot analysis for the JOC commander. In one case I recall, a helicopter hit a power line and made a hard landing and the crew needed to be evacuated and the aircraft recovered. I did a route analysis of all the IED and EFP (explosively-formed penetrator) hits on convoys for the past few weeks, mapped a path with the least likelihood of ambush, and made my recommendation. The colonel took my map, didn’t even bat an eye, and gave the green light. I sweated every minute though, because more than a dozen men had their life on the line because I made my best guess. The QRF (Quick Reaction Force) and the recovery team got out, got the crew and the bird, and got out without a single attack.

The impact site of a rocket that hit a little close to home
My trailer is behind me. October 2008

There were some tough days, some good days and a lot of mundane days. We got rocket attacks on our base fairly frequently in the latter part of 2007. Most of the time I was in the chow hall – the enemy loved to attack during mealtime in hopes of scoring a big hit – or in my trailer. In the latter, I started off by donning my full body armor as soon as the alerts sounded. Then after a while, I’d simply pull my vest off the floor and lay it over me and go back to sleep. Eventually, I’d just sleep through the attacks. Frequently, they’d come in volleys, and they’d bracket me to all four cardinal directions. One time they actually did hit my trailer, or to be more precise, the concrete barrier outside it. The rocket, exploding, sent shrapnel through my trailer, but fortunately I was not there. Five minutes before, I had left it to go to breakfast, because I was a little hungrier that day than normal.

With the boss, General David Petraeus

We had great success while I was in Iraq. It was the time of the Sunni Awakening, when the good guys finally stood up and started fighting against Al Qaeda, which was also being called the “Islamic State” by that time. Attacks fell precipitously, from 180 a day to 15 by the time I left in June 2008. Two years later, the country was almost peaceful. But I knew at the time it was a false lull. If we pulled out the troops, I knew from experience, IS would come back. And so they did, and a lot more lives were lost because we pulled out too early.

On Saddam Hussein's throne, Baghdad

Back in the U.S. I resumed my civilian job and went back to being a reservist. And eventually, I even got to be a Navy officer for a change. Switching over to the Pacific, I did eight exercises alongside the Republic of Korea forces, practicing defense of that nation. I did additional exercises in Australia, the Philippines and Japan over the next few years.

Finally, in 2017, I knew my time was up and I had to go back and resume my watch on the wall. It was harder now. I had a family – a wife and a child – who I loved dearly, and from whom parting was indeed a sweet sorrow. Indeed, I had to skip out from my very clingy five-year-old son on his birthday, sneaking out of the room while he was pre-occupied, to avoid a meltdown. That bothered me and still does to this day.

This time my destination was Afghanistan. This was where the War on Terror began, but of course, it was a different war now. Literally. The Taliban of 2001 was utterly defeated, and had basically been consigned to exile in Pakistan. But they regrouped, founded new funding (including deciding that Opium, which is offensive to true Islam, was actually OK if it allowed them to buy weapons), and had returned in full force. Still, while I served in that country from 2017-18, we kept them at bay. Sure, they would take a district center here and there, but the Afghans would take it back in a few weeks, and fundamentally neither side gained ground. It was a stalemate. A stalemate that could have endured indefinitely with an American presence.

Afghanistan, 2018

Once again, I served in an analytical capacity, this time doing strategic-level work. I can’t recount too many examples, but one that stuck with me and was widely reported in the papers was the attack on a major hotel in Kabul. I was sitting in an office with the colonel and a two-star general when we noticed something odd in a video feed. We watched the attack happen live, and saw the horrible fate of many innocent civilians. Another time, there was a suicide bombing right outside our base. I knew something was up instantly, because there had been an attack in the same spot two weeks before. That usually means it’s a test, and the second one is likely a bait attack. I watched the live footage of the event – which was about 100 yards from me, on the other side of a wall. Then I saw the camera pan to a crowd that had gathered. It zoomed in on them and I instantly recognized them as journalists. Having been one myself, I knew that gaggle instantly. All the journalists had gathered on a street corner at a sufficient distance from the attack, and were setting up for their live feeds. I instantly knew what the bait had been for. It was not for us, but for them. Sure enough, a few seconds later, with the camera still right on them, the crowd of journalists erupted in a ball of flame and smoke. A terrorist had ridden up on a bicycle with explosives stashed inside its frame and set it off. As the smoke cleared, I saw the carnage, and the last moments of some of the Afghan journalists as they tried to crawl away, some with only one working arm. Finally they simply stopped crawling.

These are the sort of things I saw far too often during my deployments. There was the woman in Iraq whose head, arms and legs were severed, her naked body left as a warning to her village. The blood flowed out and even her breasts collapsed inward on themselves. The most shocking though was when IS recruited two young girls with Down’s Syndrome to be suicide bombers. The girls probably didn’t know what they were doing. They were probably told to carry this backpack into the square, stand by the post, and wait for someone to meet them. Who knows the story. But the terrorists sent these two helpless, poor girls out there with backpacks full of explosives and ball bearings – the weapon of choice for the carnage they cause once released at several hundred miles per hour – and from some safe distance, the terrorists pressed a button and vaporized the two girls, alongside a dozen other innocent Iraqis. They weren’t completely destroyed, of course. Their heads survived, and one of them landed right upright, as if she was not dead, but buried in sand as part of a game. I saw the picture and instantly knew she was Downs Syndrome. I had it in my report before the forensics came in. I knew the look. I see that face, even today, in my dreams.

With my team, Iraq, 2008

Severed heads were not uncommon at suicide bombings. Especially when vests were used. They’d blow up the middle section of the bomber and frequently the head would pop right off. In one case, the head of a young man landed upright and was still there moments later when a local TV reporter arrived on the scene. The head was alive still, and the man (minus vocal cords) was mouthing some words and looking around, the eyes tracking the reporter as he circled the head. It only lasted a few seconds, then they stopped.

Why do I recount these stories? I guess to get them off my chest. There are far more that I could remember. Some I’ve tried to suppress. I guess the point I want to make is that while we’ve been sitting at home watching Dancing With the Stars, this is the world outside there. Real, raw, flies-on-the-eyeballs. It’s what evil looks like in the flesh, and it’s not a figment of our imaginations. September 11 has been happening all over the world, every day, in miniature, and still does to this day. This is what the War on Terror means, and why I fought it. This is an evil that you don’t see in America precisely because we have people standing on the walls. We have been standing on the walls – and some folks a LOT longer than myself – for 20 years now, and those walls will not suddenly grow peaceful with the watch pulled in.

US Embassy, Kabul Afghanistan

This is what angers me about what has come to pass in recent weeks. We simply decided we were tired of it all and pulled back. We were keeping the lid on the insurgency in Afghanistan with a footprint (when I was there) of 10,000 American and 10,000 NATO troops. That’s peanuts. To put it in perspective, after the January 6 riot, the Biden administration flooded Washington with 25,000 troops. Thus we had twice as many Americans guarding mostly-empty congressional buildings than we had standing the wall on the War on Terror. And even then we decided to pull them back.

Maddingly so, the way we did it made collapse of our allies a foregone conclusion. We never even gave the Afghan Army the chance to train to fight without the ubiquitous American airpower. They simply had a phone line they could call for air support one day, and the next they called and got nothing. Afghanistan has a “fighting season.” It’s the summer. It’s a time when the enemy presses the Afghan National Army hard, throws all their chips in, and for the past 18 years, they’ve been defeated with significant losses, then they vanish for the winter to rebuild and try again next year. Yet the present administration chose to pull out of Afghanistan in the middle of the fighting season. That’s like pitching a softball to Babe Ruth. We pulled out of Bagram Air Force Base so fast, the Afghan contingent at the base didn’t even know how to turn the power back on.

The way Afghanistan ended is morally bankrupt. It’s as if we pulled up to the gates of Dachau, opened them, passed out some food for a time, then decided, nah, it’s not worth it, and gave it back to the SS while the prisoners looked at us in horror. The abandonment of our allies to certain death in such a callous manner is unprecedented in U.S. history. It’s the single most morally compromised act of a United States president since the Trail of Tears.

I suppose I should end on a hopeful note. I wish I could. I wish I could say that 20 years on, we put 9/11 in the rearview mirror and consigned the world of large-scale terror to the Ashheep of History. But I can’t. We have done nothing of the sort. We have in fact revived it. We have not even gone back to September 10, 2001, because on that date, there was a real live rebel movement in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban (which doesn’t exist now), and America had allies around the world who believed – who could believe – in our word of honor, and were ready and willing to fight alongside us. Who will believe our word today?

The last few weeks have left me – and every veteran I know – with a seething, boiling internal rage and discord. But we know what we did. We know what the sacrifices were, and whether or not they were all worth it, or whether or not we made mistakes here and mistakes there, we did stand the wall, and that is worth it. Because the wall needs to be stood. As George Orwell famously said, “We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” Those are the men – and women – on the wall, and though our leaders may have grown coward, we are still here, and we are still standing. We will continue to stand, continue to serve. And we will be needed. If you thought the forever war was bad, just wait and see what comes next. I guarantee you it will not be pretty. When the worst comes, there will be recriminations enough. Some justified, some not. It doesn’t matter. When the call goes out, the wall must be manned again, wherever it is.

James Aalan Bernsen

September 11, 2021

The Men on the Wall