Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Day Versus A Year

I was interviewed by a couple of newspapers last week about 9/11 because I am a rare commodity: someone in Montreal/Canada who was in the Pentagon that day.  The hardest question I got was how that day changed me.  Why?  Because I spent an entire year in DC, doing something very, very different and living among very different sorts of folks, and those experiences tend to resonate with me more than the one day.   

I left the Pentagon for a meeting across the river at the State Department after the first two planes had hit in NY (and having seen the second one do it while watching CNN from within the Pentagon).*  I was on the bridge in between when the plane hit the Pentagon.  The next hour or two focused on watching the shuttle try to get to its destinations (State, Old Executive Office Building, Pentagon) amid the chaos.    What stands out the most was the guy setting up a camera pointed at the White House, preparing for a plane to hit it perhaps.  So, at that point, I was just an observer-passenger, not really making any decisions.
* For an audio tale of my day, go here for an interview with the CBC.

Then we, the two Army officers and I, got back to the Pentagon.  We walked around two sides of it to get into it since we had classified documents that none of us wanted to take home.  After we did that, the Colonel (who is now a Major General) drove me to the Metro and I got home via metro and then my car.  I proceeded to say hi to my wife, and then watched the coverage for hours.  So, again, observer, not actor.



The day certainly had an impact on me, but less so than the year.  I spent one year in an organization utterly alien to me--hierarchical, integrated, task-oriented, consciously socializing (in the sense that it was introducing me to new norms and identities).  I was constantly acted upon with the folks there engaging me in banter, arguing with me, with my bosses being, well, bossy as they edited my work and told me what to do and to write.  But I was also doing stuff--I was acting as a conduit between different government agencies, finding out stuff, teasing my military friends, asking them questions about their careers, and so on.  For an entire year, I was living the interagency life, going to meetings, participating in briefings, even going on a tour of HQ's related to the NATO/US mission in Bosnia.  On that trip, I fell asleep in the middle of a meeting with a Turkish general, and I used the M word (Macedonia) in a meeting with a Greek general. During the year, I went to a couple of embassy receptions where I felt more comfortable hanging out with the guys in uniform, and I received a burned/stapled invitation that had gone through the anti-anthrax process (yes, it was that year). 

I stuck out like a sore thumb, even on the phone, spelling my name (S as in Sam, A as in Apple, rather than Sierra Alpha ...).  I had a colonel who was an aide to the four star American general heading NATO tell me that I was not stupid but my ideas were (oh, and the ideas were shared by the folks in the "Balkans mosh pit of policy."  He went on to become the spokesman for US ops in Iraq--yet another reason why the first few years there went so badly.  I had only a few occasions to use the secure telephone, and one of those was to the Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations for the Stabilization Force.  That general was David Petraeus.  I don't really remember much from the conversation, but did follow the news stories about him as his division went through Iraq.

The only significant counter-terrorism event in Bosnia was quite public* thanks to the mismanagement of the Rumsfeld folks.  Six terrorists got picked up by Bosnia in October/Nov 01, but had to be released in January 02.  The question was--what to do about it?  Because my partner on the Bosnia desk was out of town, I had the job of coordinating all of the military side of things so that we could develop a guidance cable to our generals in Europe.  We sent them to Gitmo.  Oops, my bad.
* See here, here, and here for articles about these events.
The other big legal drama was toward the end of my year as the US was insisting that all peacekeeping ops in which we were participating would have to come up with language to guarantee that American soldiers would not be subject to the International Criminal Court.  I thought this was a bad idea since Europe cared about ICC, and we might care about their concerns given the oncoming war.   The folks around me told me to keep typing.

We joked that I earned my acronym badge and my powerpoint tab since both skill sets were very handy for the office.  I learned a great deal about the importance of relationships and individuals (things political scientists are usually trained to ignore).  I also learned how much sleep I need.

I think I have a better idea of how things work, even if most of my theoretical orientations are still intact.  Perhaps others, outside observers, can assess better than I can how much that year affected me.  All I can say is that the year mattered far more to me in terms of my outlook and how I think about things than that one tragic day. Still,  I was pretty happy (not dancing in the streets happy) when I learned that Bin Laden was shot in the face.  I have strong feelings about 9/11 conspiracy theories perhaps in part because of what I witnessed up close that day.  Also because those folks are crazy.  To expect the Bush Administration to be super-competent?  Um, no.  Anyhow, I do know that day marked me somewhat, but not nearly as much as that year in the Pentagon.