Shadows on the Wall
On a cool April night in 1986 I stood with several other young soldiers as a barricade of sandbags grew outside the PX gate in Heidelberg, Germany. We watched as the sandbags were offloaded from a five-ton truck, its headlights casting the scene upon a two-story wall behind us in abstract relief—great, inky shadows lumbering about like misshapen giants.
I was twenty years old, barely three months out of U.S. Army Military Police training at Fort McClellan, Alabama and suddenly I found myself wearing a Kevlar helmet and a flak vest, holding an M16 rifle. In my admittedly short career as an MP in West Germany, we had never before worn the helmet and flak vest on duty; to that point we had donned them only for training exercises.
Roughly twelve hundred miles away from where I stood with my M16, trying to make sense of why a squad of MPs had just been assigned to ‘secure’ the American PX, more than sixty U.S. aircraft had bombed targets in and around Tripoli and the Benghazi region. Operation El Dorado Canyon, the strike portion of which lasted around ten minutes, represented my country’s attempt to “pre-empt and discourage” Libyan terrorism. Depending on what sources you read and heard over the following days, between twenty and one hundred people were killed in Libya as a result of the bombings. One American F-111 went down during the attack, the two crew members killed in action.
“Today we have done what we had to do,” President Reagan said in reference to the attack, “If necessary, we will do it again.”
We did not know any of this, however. And I don’t believe any of us had ever heard of the La Belle discotheque in West Berlin, where Libyan agents had—ten days earlier—set off a bomb that killed a U.S. Army Sergeant and wounded two hundred and thirty other people, including fifty Americans.
“What’s going on?” one of the guys from our squad called out.
“We just bombed Libya!” someone shouted from the truck.
“Shit, man!” One young man whispered, louder than he intended, “I don’t wanna go to war.”
“Let ‘em come,” came the bravado-filled voice of another, “we’ll kick their asses all the way back to Libya…wherever the hell that is.”
“Libya’s in North Africa, moron. You should look at a map once in a while instead of playing with your gun all the time.”
Everyone laughed, which served to break some of the tension. Still, in my ignorance I was left to wonder at the events which had led to the American military machine—of which I was now a part—coming to life in such dramatic fashion.
Through my own shock and confusion I saw a continuum of reactions that night, from the young man who verbalized his great fear at the prospect of war to those who saw this as an opportunity to “get in the thick of it” and fight for their country. Emboldened by our national response to the Libyan threat, the latter group postured for their own benefit, talking loudly of what would happen to any Libyans who dared venture near our hastily-constructed bunkers of burlap and sand. In the middle, of course, were those who weren’t sure what this might mean to us as individuals and Americans. As the hawkish rhetoric escalated I saw some of those who straddled the fence go over, at first only laughing at the diversion but little by little engaging in the infectious verbal assault on an enemy they had not even been aware of an hour earlier.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit to being enthralled to some degree by the intense camaraderie that engulfed our group that night. Our purpose had in a moment been galvanized into something bigger, elevated beyond patrolling the downtown bar district looking for drunks. Now we were setting up a defensive position against potential terrorist attacks. Oddly, the impetus for these circumstances—whether we or the Libyans could more accurately be deemed the ‘instigators’—didn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that we were bound to a common cause.
As far as I can tell, this surreal night in Heidelberg was the first time in my young life that I had been forced to think about what was happening, what could happen, and how I wielded absolutely no control over the powers and events in motion all around me. I saw myself as a pawn, a powerless spectator to my own fate, and it suddenly felt like I had a lot to lose.
As fate would have it, though, hordes of Libyan terrorists did not converge on Heidelberg and I don’t even remember how long we wore our flak vests and Kevlar helmets. Eventually the sand bags came down and we traded the M16s for our standard Colt .45 side arms. Doubtless many would say that we avoided further violence from the Libyans only with our own swift, sure response. Despite our return to a sense of normalcy, however, terrorism as a means to an end had lost little of its appeal. Sure there were different causes, different painful oppressions and abuses, fundamental ideological differences—but far too many of them had been suckled on violence and demagoguery. Kidnappings, bombings, ransoms and political assassinations all chugged on.
Ironically, this established system of self-propagating madness, which pained me as being so utterly self-destructive, ended up giving rise to my military vocation. A year or so after El Dorado Canyon I was recruited into the Protective Services Division, a unit formed with the specific mission of protecting the American commanding generals in Europe. The PSD was born in the aftermath of the Red Army Faction’s 1981 RPG attack on General Kroeshen in Heidelberg. In the PSD we received daily briefings on terrorist groups and activity throughout Europe, and that information revealed a lot to me about how Americans were perceived abroad; my naive notion that our country and culture represented the nexus of civilization was short-lived. It was during this season that I first began to see the pieces of a bigger geopolitical puzzle lining up, like tectonic plates drifting toward each other with the inescapable certainty of friction to come. Indeed, friction appeared to be the one constant throughout history: an eye for an eye, carry a bigger stick, do unto others, and all that. Sadly, this timeless formula would not change. As we would soon learn, the only variables were the players and the methods.
* * *
In September 2001 I stood looking up, like so many other Americans, at a sky eerily void of air traffic and vapor contrails, trying to shake the images of paper and ash falling like black snow. And as I gazed up into that peculiarly vacant expanse waiting for answers that did not come, I recalled the cocktail of fear, confusion and self-righteous anger I had tasted fifteen years earlier. I held a briefcase now instead of an M16 and was overcome with conflict: relieved not to be in the fray, guilty that I wasn’t. We had been attacked in such a huge, ruthless and calculated way that our untouchable American essence was literally burned to the ground. And the flash-in-the-pan indignation experienced by a platoon of young MPs back in Germany suddenly seemed ridiculous and petty.
It wasn’t only the source and magnitude of 9/11 that made this so different from the U.S.S. Cole, the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, and all the other anti-American attacks that I was familiar with, though. My life had changed, and with it my perspective. I had children now—a daughter and two sons who were young yet, but whose very existence forced me to see events in a different, other-centered light. As long as there have been parents we have asked ourselves what kind of world we make for our children, and I could all too clearly envision my boys wearing flak vests and holding rifles as they tried to figure out exactly when the innocence of youth must die.
I remember going to a wedding not long after the World Trade Center fell. It was an odd time, painted with the brushes of unity and common cause, but with the heinous act looming constantly in the background like ghost towers on the Manhattan skyline. So many Americans were struggling with how to contribute, how to pitch in and do their part. Sitting in the wedding, my mind conjured visions of men signing up by the thousands after Pearl Harbor, of women heading off to the factories to feed the war machine that would ultimately claim victory in the ‘last great war’. Just then a man walked into the church, a soldier in uniform, and I was overcome with longing to be back in that uniform. I was angry and I wanted revenge. I wanted to defend the honor of my country and hurt an enemy who had hurt us.
It took a while, but I think that’s when the seed was planted and I began to ask some new questions. Does blame count? Is retribution a valid concept? It seems to me that the answers are fluid, and have as much to do with which side of the line you find yourself on at any given time as they do with concrete concepts of right and wrong. Looking back, I see I was working through the answer to a question I wasn’t even aware of: what does it take to change the way one man looks at the world, to mold how he sees himself as a man, soldier, father, and citizen? Perhaps the turning point can be traced back to something as simple as shadows on a wall—dark, fragile giants stacking sand bags on a spring evening when bombs go off in crowded discos just as easily as they fall from the midnight sky.