I remember growing up hearing stories about where people in my parent’s generation were when President Kennedy was assassinated. My grandparent’s generation could tell you where they were on a Sunday in December when news broke of a sneak attack on America’s fleet in the Pacific. To me, those dates and names were pages in a history book. I was too young then to appreciate that these events weren’t dusty history to the men and women who lived through them. They were visceral, living parts of their life’s narrative.
As each year we’re further removed from the shock and disbelief of a September morning. For more and more of our citizens, September 11th is just one more of those dates that mark an historical reference point rather than a life experience. For those of us who lived through it and the days that followed, though, I have an increasing suspicion that the day will always feel a bit like current events – a recent memory, still very much alive and tangible.
The stories of where we were, what we were doing, and who we were with will probably always be seared into our individual and collective memories for as long as one of us remains to tell it. The confusion at first report, the wide mouthed disbelief at seeing the second plan burrowing in, the continuous loop of smoke rising from the Pentagon, and two buildings that crumbled in front of us are were a clarion call to arms, to unity, and to remind us that our long experiment in democracy was and remains surrounded by those who would snuff it out.
Seventeen years on, it’s a punch to the gut I can feel just as strongly today as I did all those years ago. Over all the long years from then to now, we sought justice and rough vengeance, we rebuilt, thousands of families found the internal fortitude to go on living and endure, but most important, on this day and always, we remember.
I heard a statistic this morning that 25% of the people living in the United States weren’t yet born on the morning of September 11, 2001. I don’t know how accurate that number is, but fifteen years is a pretty long time and there do seem to be an awful lot of young people wandering around these days. To them, today’s date is something from a history book – about as tangible as the attack on Pearl Harbor or the burning of Washington. For those of us who lived through that gut wrenching September day long ago, though, it’s not so much history as it is something we carry with us every day.
If I were to walk into Great Mills High School today I could show you exactly where I was standing in the lobby when someone passed by and told me about an explosion at the World Trade Center. I commented wondering why they were running old footage of the bombing back in ’93. No, that wasn’t it, they assured me, dragging me down the hall to the library where a dozen people stood gape-mouthed around a television cart.
Bells ring. Class changes. I’m due back in my own room. Walk me into that room today and I can show you exactly where I was standing, elbows propped on my lectern, when we saw the first shaky images of the Pentagon burning and then when the towers fell. A lot of these students were military kids and maybe they “got it” more than some others. It might have been the first and only time in my brief teaching career I experienced a room of quiet searching, of contemplation, and of understanding that fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters would soon be going in harms way. There was no use trying to “teach” anything at that point. The best I could manage in that moment was just talking, individual conversations about what happened, about terrorism, and about what came next.
In my head the details of that morning are still every bit as vivid as that damned bright blue sky. I don’t expect that will ever change. Time flies, they say, but there are some moments, no matter how far past that stay with you forever.
From the Pentagon today, POTUS commented that “Ideologies are not defeated with guns but better ideas and more attracting and more compelling vision.” It’s a nice sound bite. It also has, at it’s core, at least a kernel of truth. The United States and her allies rolled back fascism and communism in the 20th century in part because democracy tends to be a far more appealing rule set for most people.
That being said, though, we should probably note that it took one hell of a lot of guns to make that vision a reality and shove the Wehrmacht off the Norman beaches and chase them back across the Rhine to destroy their ability to carry on the war in the German heartland. It took a massive stockpile of nuclear weapons to just barely keep the peace in the second half of the past century. It took a vast (and extraordinarily well-armed) navy to maintain the sea lanes for global trade.
Democracy may not take root from the tip of a bayonet, but bloody history has proven that it virtually never gets carried forward in any other way. We’ve certainly got a more compelling and attractive vision than some wannabe throwback to the 8th century, but if we’re afraid to crush that ideology into tiny bits and then salt the earth from which it sprung, we’d might as well send off a note to the enemy and ask if they’re ready to just hug it out.
The wellspring of modern civilization is under daily assault and if we continue to do nothing other than talk a good game, well, I’m not sure we even has such a compelling national vision these days. Without a real vision for what the world should look like and the firepower and willingness to back that vision up, we’re just whistling past the graveyard of fallen world powers. As for me, that’s company I’d prefer not to be in since we can avoid it.
So the intrepid leadership of the Dysfunction of Defense has magically discovered a way to reduce the total number of required furlough days for civilian personnel from eleven to six. On the surface, that sounds like a fine thing and if you’re not picky about the details and surrounding circumstances, I suppose it would be. Being the slightly jaded and cynical jerk that I am, of course, I have a slightly different take on how things are going inside that five sided funny farm on the banks of the Potomac.
As close as I can figure, reducing the number of furlough days probably has as much if not more to do with the legal requirements for the Department to close the books on the fiscal year before the clock strikes midnight on September 30th. Someone, somewhere deep in the bowels of The Building has probably realized that along with the rest of us schleps, the finance and logistics people they need to close out the fiscal year are also working 20% fewer days and not authorized overtime. In my experience, that makes completing the year end financial festivities a statistical impossibility. Woops.
Another perk of getting everyone back to the office in the next week or two is that it gets everyone into a nice routine for the inevitable shitstorm that’s going to take place at the start of FY14. My best guess is that the fiscal year about to start on October 1st will include such highly sought after features as Debt Ceiling Induced Government-wide Shutdown, Furlough: Part II, Reductions in Force, and Pay Freeze: Part 4. Hopefully I’m wrong about some or all of those predictions, but I don’t think I am.
I have the sinking feeling that this six day furlough was a dry run – the storm before the even bigger storm ahead.
The thirty-day hiring freeze and 30-day extension are now something on the order of 65 days old. Now of course there’s some logic to waiting to see if the jackrabbits in Congress can actually manage to pass a budget before sending us all home on Friday, but maybe a word of “hey, standby. We’ll let you know after Friday” would be better than the overpowering silence coming from the civilian personnel office. It’s the 10-ton elephant in the room that they refuse to address other than referring back to a memo put out over two months ago.
If you’re going to extend it, just announce that already so we can get busy retooling our resumes for jobs outside DOD. If it’s going to be dropped, how about a scientific guesstimate of when they machinery of civilian hiring might start moving again. Even with the cynicism that I usually bring to the table when discussing issues of competent leadership at pay grades above reality, I can’t believe that the decision hasn’t already been made somewhere about whether it’s time to fish or cut bait. Of course I could be completely wrong about that and the denizens of that five-sided concrete cobweb could be even more jacked up than I thought possible.
The total tonnage of backlog that’s going to exist after continuing to make announcements and conduct interviews, but not make selections is certainly going to be enough to stun a mule team in its tracks… Especially considering that mules are a damned sight easier to work with than the personnel office. Let it run another month or two and I’ll be dropping retirement papers before they manage to get it cleared up. Pay freeze, hiring freeze, and no budget in sight… It’s getting very hard to love working for Uncle.