9-11 and the Lessons of Antietam–10 years later

Ten years ago, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I offered a remembrance of sorts about the magnitude of the day coupled with a cautionary reflection about our national tendency to forget events of such magnitude. To make my point, I recalled events from a different September morning, in 1862, when American suffered an even more catastrophic loss of life. You can read my original post here.

It has since become my tradition to revisit that post as my way of commemorating the day. It serves as an important reminder to us that when we vow “Never forget,” such a vow carries with it an obligation to do our part to make sure we don’t. Yet how many people do you know who think history is boring or that it doesn’t matter or that it doesn’t connect with our daily lives? For many of us, 9/11 was lived experience, not history, which gives it an intimacy that even twenty years can’t diminish; for most of my students, though, not born yet when 9/11 happened, the events of that September are as removed from their daily lives as the events of September 1862.

Do the seeds of forgetting lay in that lack of immediacy? At what point does the forgetting begin? And despite all our vows to the contrary, is there anything we can do to stop it?


For Further Reading:

In 2019, I reflected on the 9/11 attacks in the context of some experiences I had over the summer at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Oklahoma City, and the site of the final Confederate surrender of the Civil War. You can read that reflection, “Acts of Violence Against America,” here.

Earlier this year, I paid a visit to Flight 93 National Park. Here’s the video from the ECW YouTube page:


12 Responses to 9-11 and the Lessons of Antietam–10 years later

  1. “Do the seeds of forgetting lay in that lack of immediacy?”

    In defense of your students, they can’t forget something they never really knew, or experienced. I’m sure that, on 9/11 and in the months afterward, parents bent over backwards to shield the youngest children from the horrors of that day. Assuming that children under 10 were shielded, that means that people born in 1991 (10 years before 9/11) were probably shielded from the worst horrors of that terrible day and its aftermath. Someone born in 1991 would be 30 today—old enough to run for U.S. Senate.

    I’m confident that adults who lived through 9/11 haven’t forgotten. But, the idea of having to wage a decade-long war against Islamists was, over time, probably too much for a lot of Americans. I’ve done a lot of research on the post-WWII era, and many Americans, once they beat Germany and Japan, wanted to move on and focus on matters at home. At least one official in OMGUS (Office of Military Government, United States) in Germany commented that, a few years after WWII, most Americans seemed to want to forget WWII.

    9/11 was very upsetting, and most humans don’t like to dwell on upsetting things. And, twenty years is a long time. 20 years after WWII, the Bundeswehr had been integrated into NATO for more than a decade. 20 years ago, the president was George W. Bush and hardly anyone had heard of Barack Obama.

    You can’t be faulted for forgetting something that you never really learned.

    1. Thanks, Don. I agree. I guess I was asking the question more on the societal/cultural level than on the individual level. Because the individuals didn’t live the history, does that make it easier for them as a group to begin the process of historical forgetting because they aren’t as invested in the memory to begin with?

      1. “Because the individuals didn’t live the history, does that make it easier for them as a group to begin the process of historical forgetting because they aren’t as invested in the memory to begin with?”

        I’d agree with that. Plus, I think it’s natural for each new generation to want to have its own take, its own opinion on the past. They don’t want to just accept what their parents thought—they want to have their own idea on what history really teaches us.

        In that sense, they’re not really “forgetting.” “Forgetting” implies that you’re failing to remember something that’s already been decided. Perhaps the younger generation wants to come to its own conclusion on what the lessons of the past were. Which is their right. But, that also means that older generations will inevitably come into conflict with younger ones. Which is how it’s always been, for centuries.

  2. Seeing as this is a Civil War blog, I suppose I should say something about the Civil War here…

    …but I don’t see how it applies to 9/11.

    In 9/11, foreign terrorists tried to harm the United States. In 1861, Confederates chose to leave the United States. They wanted to set up their own country. They didn’t try to destroy the United States of America. They wanted to go their own way.

    I think they were stupid to do it, and I’m glad they failed, but I don’t see any parallels between the South seceding and 9/11. Unless you want to assert that the United States of America, without the Southern states, was so weak that it was doomed to collapse.

    I can’t imagine that anyone who’s rational and studied history (and actually learned something from it) thinks that. The Northern states were the ones with the power and the energy in 1861. The CSA was doomed to second-class status among nations. The Northern states would have dominated the new states in the West that had yet to be settled. (Does anyone think cotton plantations would have flourished in the Dakotas? In Arizona?) So, if anyone argues that the North had to invade the South in 1861, in order to save the United States—I can’t buy that.

    1. As the Confederate States of America did exist, and did send armies into the North, they are considered the enemy, and can be considered a foreign army on Americans soil.

      Like 9/11, and like December 7th, 1941, , and like the firing on Fort Sumter, the United States suffered an unprovoked attack.

      And to answer your question, the North invaded the South, to preserve the Union. So, yes…..they invaded to save the United States.

      And a good thing they were successful, as it is unknown what a divided America responds to World War 1, and the rise of Imperial Japan, and Nazi Germany.

      1. Confederate armies went into Northern territory after Union armies had already come South. Lee didn’t invade Maryland and Pennsylvania with the intent of forcing those states into the Confederacy; his intent was to destroy Federal armies he’d find there. Chances are, if the USA had accepted the secession of the Confederate states, there would have been no major war.

        Have you seen any evidence that the CSA planned to invade and conquer states that wanted to stay in the Union? Even if some in the Confederacy did have such silly plans, the North had more than enough power to hold its own territory. If the North was satisfied with simply holding on to the border states, it could have garrisoned them with enough troops that the CSA couldn’t have taken them by force. If the USA wanted access to the Mississippi River for commerce, it could have negotiated something with the CSA. Nations negotiate with each other all the time. Access to the Mississippi was a convenience for the North, not a necessity. The Northern states had access to the Great Lakes, and excellent canal and rail systems to move goods to Eastern ports.

        As for the North invading the South to preserve the Union, and in so doing save the United States—did Northerners feel that the South’s secession would set a bad precedent? That it would tempt other states to secede? If so, the “Union” wasn’t that strong to begin with. Could the “Union” only have been held together by force? No. The Northern states would have dominated the expansion west and the new states created out there. California and Oregon were already established on the West Coast as free states.

        Comparing Fort Sumter to 9/11 is pretty shallow thinking, and borders on insensitivity. Fort Sumter was an armed, openly belligerent entity, that commanded the approaches to the port of Charleston. It had refused demands to surrender and the garrison to evacuate. The people in the Twin Towers were simply going to work that day. They weren’t soldiers.

        You are correct that it’s a blessing that the South lost the Civil War. (The South was stupid to start it in the first place, and got what was coming to it. It picked a fight at Fort Sumter, and deserved the ass-kicking it got.)
        Ernest Bevin, British Foreign Minister during the Berlin Wall crisis said that King George III was his hero, because his stupidity led the American colonies to secede—so they could come back almost 200 years later and save Europe from the Nazis and Soviets.

      2. Let’s check our facts.

        1.The South was the aggressor, since they did fire the first salvos of the war, at Fort Sumter.

        2.According to Lincoln, that land the South occupied, was really Northern land.

        3. Since he took an oath to protect and defend the US Constitution, Lincoln would have been impeached if he did not compel the South to return to the Union.

        4.The CSA, was never recognized by any country. The North had no reason to negotiate with the South for use of the Mississippi River, since it belonged to the United States.

        5. Not comparing the 9-11 attacks and the attack on Fort Sumter, indicates a very narrow view of American History. Those in the Twin Towers were doing the work that enables NYC and the US, the Financial Center of the world. Tell me, how the attacks on the sovereign United States, differed in intent.

        6. I agree with you that the South got its ass kicked.

        7. Your views on World War 2 are not in the main-stream. It is generally accepted that the Soviets won the war in Europe, by killing more Germans and by kicking the Nazis out of the land they occupied. The US won the war in the Pacific, defeating Imperial Japan most historians agree. Recall that the US Great Britain and the Soviet Union were allies, that the Soviets and the Brits were fighting the Germans for a longer time than we did.

        I will admit that the Soviets were complicit with Nazi Germany in starting WW2 by invading Poland.

        8. In World War 2, the liberal democracies, The US and Great Britain, and the Soviet Union defeated Nazi Germany.

        9. The US, by its mere presence, turned the tables World War 1 , and it is generally accepted that the US won World War 1.

        I look forward to your response.

      3. My response is that I find many of your opinions—and many of your facts are really opinions—silly. Feel free to think the same of me.

      4. Lincoln, of course’ was working on the premise that the South wasn’t a foreign country.

        Otherwise, the two historical events: the Global War on Terror, and the Civil War, are different, although containing was similar elements.

  3. During the American Civil War, the scale of suffering, death and dying touched almost every American family … in the former Confederacy even more so … these memories were were seared into the consciousness of the Civil War generation and passed along to their sons and daughters who saw the men with empty sleeves or on crutches, heard the stories, and put flowers on the graves on Decoration Day.

    For most Americans, however, 9/11 and the GWOT does not summon any memory at all … kids don’t learn much about it in school and older folks may have some historical awareness of 9/11 or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that’s about it … the wars themselves were fought, not by citizen soldiers but, by a professional military which compromises less than 1 percent of our population …so, other than those in the military or had family members killed on 9/11, there simply is not a lot to remember and far less to forget.

    even my youngest, who is now 20, recalls her brother and i deploying, but not much else … and i am OK with that.

    Chris, thank you for remembering.

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