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On September 11th and Duty

  • Published
  • By Stephen Arionus, PhD
  • AFPC

On a clear September morning in 2001, nineteen men associated with the al Qaeda terrorist network hijacked four planes headed for Los Angeles. At 0903, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Seventeen minutes later, and caught on network television, the world watched as United Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower and exploded into a ball of flame. Whereas there was some initial confusion after the first plane struck the tower, the second left no doubt: these acts were intentional. As everyday New Yorkers ran for safety, first responders ran toward danger to save lives. When the structural integrity of both towers finally gave way—the South Tower at 0959 and the North Tower at 1028—412 first responders were among the 2,606 who perished in New York that day. While the World Trade Center lay in ruins, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at 0937 claiming 184 lives. The final aircraft, United Flight 93 smashed into a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, after a group of passengers attempted to retake the aircraft from the hijackers. All told, 2,996 people lost their lives that day. It remains the most devastating terrorist attack on U.S. soil in American history.

Lt Col Kimberly Toney was at the first floor bakery getting cinnamon twist donuts for her front office at the Pentagon when the plane struck. At the time, she was Executive Officer to Lt Gen Michael Zettler, Deputy Chief of Staff for Installations and Logistics (AF/IL). Sirens blaring and smelling smoke, she “knew something went wrong.” Military training kicking in, Lt Col Toney ran against evacuating foot traffic to get back to her office on the fourth floor because “she had to take care of Lt Gen Zettler and our front office.” Once she arrived, Lt Gen Zettler filled her in on the situation and she helped securely lock down her office, which contained sensitive materials and equipment. They then proceeded to the Command Center where Air Force senior leaders mustered to assess the situation. Later, helicopters airlifted the generals and other senior leaders to nearby Bolling AFB.[1]

Leaving the Command Center and the Pentagon, Lt Col Toney witnessed first responders and hundreds of volunteers doing all they could to take care of injured personnel. She then walked over to the Crystal City area to check in with AF/IL Civil Engineers who had set up an office area nearby for accountability purposes. One of her concerns was contacting her family to let them know she was all right but congested cell towers made that difficult. Eventually, she walked to her nearby apartment after a trying and exhausting day.[2]

Speaking of her emotions that day, Ms. Toney recalls feeling a deep sadness for those who lost their lives and sympathy for their families. She experienced survivor guilt as well. She had lived through the most deadly terrorist attack in U.S. history. Like many Americans, she expressed apprehension about “what’s next.” Nevertheless, with ashes still falling and smoke clinging to the air, she went to work the next morning. That was her duty. It eased her mind knowing that that her brothers and sisters in arms were also on the job, flying overwatch in the skies above. “When you hear the airplanes fly, it truly is the sound of freedom,” Ms. Toney said.[3] 

With the benefit of hindsight and historical perspective, we can better understand al Qaeda’s rationale for launching the 9/11 attacks. In January 1981, President Jimmy Carter signed Presidential Directive 63, which stated unequivocally “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States. It will be repelled by the use of any means necessary, including military force.”[4] The Carter Doctrine has guided U.S. foreign policy in the region ever since even if that conflicted with other regional interests. Emblematic of this tension is the lead up to Desert Storm in 1990. Shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait, the United States began building up its army within the borders of Saudi Arabia. This action infuriated a young Osama bin Laden who had just ousted the Soviet Union from Afghanistan with his mujahedeen fighters financed and armed by the CIA in Operation Cyclone. His interpretation of Islam found it blasphemous to have foreign military forces in Saudi Arabia, the home of two of Islam’s holiest sites.[5]

Bin Laden’s outspoken criticism of the Saudi royal family led to his expulsion from that country and the loss of his Saudi citizenship. He first fled to Afghanistan and then to Sudan before finally resettling in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. From there he declared war on the United States in 1996.[6] Observers now believe that many of the terrorist attacks in the 1990s had al Qaeda connections: Yemen (1992), the World Trade Center (1993), Riyadh (1995), Khobar Towers (1996), the U.S. Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Nairobi (1998), and the USS Cole (2000). In response to the embassy bombings, the Clinton administration launched cruise missiles at what then SECDEF William Cohen called “terrorist university” in Afghanistan.[7] The efficacy of the airstrikes were minimal. 

In the eyes of the Bush administration, the scope of the destruction in the wake of 9/11 demanded a different type of response. A resolute President George W. Bush vowed, “Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”[8] On September 18, 2001, the U.S. Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force near unanimously, which essentially gave the president carte blanche with respect to war powers against what he defined as terrorism. Representative Barbara Lee was the lone voice of opposition. Two days later, President Bush delivered an ultimatum to the Taliban government in Afghanistan: deliver al Qaeda leaders, close their training camps, and hand over every terrorist in their country or face reprisal.[9] Two weeks after that, and less than a month after 9/11, President Bush announced that the U.S. military had “begun strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan” in order to “disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations.”[10] So began the United States’ Global War on Terror.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, many Americans sit glued to their television screens as they watch the war in Afghanistan come to an end—a war born amid the twisted metal, broken glass, and human remains that littered Ground Zero. They watch an endless stream of C-17s leaving Kabul with the remnants of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan along with those Afghans desperate to flee Taliban rule. They watch with horror after hearing an ISIS-K suicide bomber claimed the lives of eleven young Marines, a Navy corpsman, and a soldier who were helping to evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghan refugees.

Many veterans of Afghanistan might ask themselves, was it worth it? That is a fair question and one that will likely haunt military planners, policy makers, pundits, and politicians for years to come. That question is one I cannot possibly answer. But perhaps another way to reframe it would be to ask instead, in the nation’s darkest hour how did its military and their families respond? The answer to that question has to be that every solider, sailor, airman, and Marine did everything their nation asked of them and more, sometimes heroically so. This feat is all the more remarkable because fewer Americans wear the uniform with the advent of the all-voluntary military in 1973. Thus, twenty years of deployment and war has been borne on the backs of a small few—twenty years of missed birthdays, missed anniversaries, missed holidays, and strained marriages.

Duty is no substitute for decisive victory and ticker tape parades, but in an era in which shared sacrifice turned into sacrifice among a few, perhaps duty and love for country is all that remains. That is not nothing.

[1] Historian interview with Ms. Kimberly Toney.

[2] Historian interview with Ms. Kimberly Toney.

[3] Historian interview with Ms. Kimberly Toney.

[4] Jimmy Carter, “Presidential Directive 63: Persian Gulf Security Framework,” January 15, 1981, (accessed August 24, 2021).

[5] Drawn from Andrew Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, Penguin Random House, 2016.

[6] Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East.

[7] Secretary of Defense William Cohen, “Remarks at Press Stake-Out on Capitol Hill,” Washington, D.C., August 21, 1998, (accessed August 24, 2021).

[8] President George W. Bush, “Address to the Joint Session of the 107th Congress,” September 20, 2021, (accessed August 24, 2021).

[9] President George W. Bush, “Address to the Joint Session of the 107th Congress,” September 20, 2021, (accessed August 24, 2021).

[10] President George W. Bush, “Address to the Nation on Operations in Afghanistan,” October 7, 2021,, (accessed August 24, 2021).


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