Executive Editor Debbie Gershenowitz’s interview with John Bodnar, author of Divided By Terror: American Patriotism after 9/11

In light of the 20th anniversary of the dramatic, world changing events that took place on September 11th, 2001, Executive Editor Debbie Gershenowitz interviewed John Bodnar, the author of Divided By Terror: American Patriotism after 9/11. Americans responded to the deadly terrorist attacks on 9/11 with an outpouring of patriotism, though all were not united in their expression. Bodnar’s compelling history shifts the focus on America’s War on Terror from the battlefield to the arena of political and cultural conflict, revealing how fierce debates over the war are inseparable from debates about the meaning of patriotism itself. Bodnar probes how honor, brutality, trauma, and suffering have become highly contested in commemorations, congressional correspondence, films, soldier memoirs, and works of art. Read below as Debbie and John discuss Bodnar’s approach to the research behind Divided By Terror, the riot at the Capitol, our recent presidential administrations’ stance on patriotism and how living in a college town can impact different experiences during times like 9/11.

Debbie: John, you’ve written extensively about war, patriotism, culture, and memory in the modern era, but Divided By Terror published while US troops were actively on the ground in Afghanistan in a seemingly “forever war,” which has just taken a drastic turn with their removal a couple of weeks ago. How did researching and writing this book differ from your work on World War II, a “good war,” with a definitive beginning and end, where the US emerged unambiguously victorious?

John: Although World War II had a clear beginning and end point for Americans, it shared many similarities with the Global War on Terror. The public celebration of the world war and the “greatest generation” that fought it should not obscure the fact that both conflicts produced fierce debates over meaning, memory and the painful realities of trauma. Soldier memoirs from both wars contained a heavy dose of regret over the loss of brothers-in-arms and a critique of all the violence. I would say there was a slightly stronger effort on the part of vets from the War on Terror to recall their war in traditional patriotic terms which meant downplaying the trauma. Yet, the best novels from these wars written by men who fought–Norman Mailer’s, The Naked and the Dead, and Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds (on Iraq) were essentially meditations on the brutal and painful realities they experienced.  The popular account of Iraq by Chris Kyle, American Sniper, is a highly patriotic view of Iraq and downplays its brutality and any culpability on our part for the carnage as does Audie Murphy’s, To Hell and Back for World War II. Interestingly, Hollywood made popular films based on our heroism and not our culpability from the last two titles but the not the first two.

Both World War II and the War on Terror were born in a climate of anger and revenge–Pearl Harbor and 9/11.  Americans criticized the messy departure from Afghanistan more than they did the  final stages of World War II in Japan. Yet, the world war ended in a much bloodier fashion with atomic bombings of Japan that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people. It’s ironic we welcomed an end that was so brutal and grew upset over the chaos in Kabul. Perhaps we are simply more politicized now than we were in 1945. I thought the news coverage over Kabul was not only critical of Biden’s mistakes but –less recognized–unwilling to scan back over the all the damage we did in Afghanistan. It was as if the real problem was Biden’s planning and not the 150,000 Afghans who died from our invasions. Trauma is a something Americans have a difficult time confronting in any war. 

Debbie: Your book was already in production when the attacks on the Capitol occurred on 1/6/21. Had you still been writing, how would this be incorporated into the history, memory, culture, and politics of 9/11?

John: I thought the attackers who broke through police lines on January 6th to assault the U.S. Capitol were, in part, products of the far-right political stream that was rejuvenated after 9/11. The terror attacks unleashed brutal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a wave of violence in the homeland that led to round ups of people who looked like the men who flew the planes on 9/11, unlawful detentions, and physical violence. I suspect as the foreign wars dragged on with no end in sight, belligerent patriots turned even more attention to other forms of violence and intolerance by joining political campaigns against immigrants and even racial minorities. This far-right/ anti-democratic agenda was also furthered by a rhetoric of false claims. For instance: Obama was not born in the United States, Trump’s inaugural crowd was larger than we saw in photos, the Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election, we have nothing to fear from the pandemic and it will disappear, and–the key one for January 6th–the 2020 election was rigged and by implication only Democrats can do the rigging.  

Donald Trump both benefited and help shape this political movement. At its core it was anti-democratic and contemptuous of democracy itself with its insistence of equality before the law and the dignity of all humans. This is implied in the wars we started after 9/11 and the right we reserved for ourselves to determine who might die due to our anger. Like World War II we were also embarrassed by the fact that we were successfully attacked by people we considered to be inferior to us. That was certainly the feeling of many about the Japanese after 1941 and about Islamic terrorists in 2001. This assault on non-white people continued in the politics of the Trump era not only against immigrants but against Black Lives Matter protestors and really anyone seen as a political opponent.  Democracy and tolerance did not die with 9/11. People pushed back to protest racism, the harsh treatment of newcomers at border and voted Trump out of office. I think the growing disregard for others, however, resulted not only in the deaths of innocents in Afghanistan and Iraq but in the indifference to human suffering during the pandemic and the resistance to vaccines and masks. 

Debbie: Divided By Terror incorporates 3 presidential administrations’ reactions to both the 9/11 attacks and public opinions of those events. If you were to write an epilogue today about the Biden Administration’s stance on war-based and emphatic patriotism, what might some of your quick-take observations be?

John: I believe Biden seems torn between the tenets of a belligerent patriotism dependent upon an insensitivity to the violence we wage and a more empathic patriotism rooted in a concern for the fate and needs of others. He did support the authorization to allow Bush to go to Iraq and  then disavowed his decision when ran for the presidency.  In 2002 he felt we needed to have a tough foreign policy. I don’t believe he withdrew from Afghanistan over all the carnage–not that he wasn’t affected by it. He left because it was no longer a foreign policy priority. But still the empathy he does display for the needs of others is not another false tale for a politician. His liberalism and his life experience does depend on a capacity to see in others what he sees in himself. He’s not beyond reproach (as Trump thinks he is) but I think he would agree with Lincoln at Gettysburg. When the sixteenth president thought about the reality of human carnage that had just taken place on the field of his speech, he insisted that the only justification for all the death and suffering was that we recommit to the project to see that a government of the people should not perish from the earth. Trump might say there was not as much death as you think. I can’t believe he would recommit to saving a government by the people. 

Debbie: You live in a college town where the “town and gown” divide can be pronounced – I witnessed this myself while living in Bloomington during the First Gulf War, where demonstrations of and debates over empathic and war-based patriotism were on full display. What was that experience like on 9/11?

John: Unfortunately, I was in California on 9/11–spending a year at the Center for Advanced Study at Stanford. I know there was some violence toward people thought to be Muslim, p. 218 in my book, in Bloomington but I was not there.  In the Palo Alto area I was struck by the fact that people would light candles and gather on corners in the days after 9/11. Their response was mournful but not warlike. 

Debbie Gershenowitz is an Executive Editor at UNC Press.

John Bodnar is the Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at Indiana University.