Move On

Sure, those horrific 9/11 images are rolling again, but an old vet says to get a grip

From the perch of his little farmhouse just east of Jerseyville, Illinois, Medal of Honor winner Russell Dunham shakes his head at the war drums, the hand-wringing and the overwrought displays of patriotism swirling around the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

He scoffs at all the fuss.

A child of the Depression who won America's highest military award in 1944 as an infantryman fighting in the bloody Colmar Pocket clashes along the Franco-German border, just south of the infamous Battle of the Bulge, Dunham has sympathy for those who lost loved ones at the twin towers or the Pentagon.

But the 82-year-old war hero doesn't have much use for the refried hysteria and angst stirred up because of today's date and the fear that it may happen again.

"We tend to look on this as a big disaster forever, but we got to go down the road," says Dunham, who lost his wife, Wilda, on July 13. "This is a big country, and a lot of things happen in it and a lot of things always will, but you can't keep staring at it. That's the way I feel: Let's forget it. I can see taking care of the people, but move on."

Against the backdrop of a national pity party, a relentless media blitz and pollsters' numbers that indicate 9/11 may not be the transformational event that the pundits who compared it to Pearl Harbor predicted it would be, Dunham's words are refreshingly cold -- a hard snap-out-of-it slap from a man who hit every beach except Normandy in the crusade against Nazi Germany.

His unit, the Third Infantry Division, had more Medal of Honor winners in it than any other outfit in World War II. His platoon had four -- two who died in combat, himself and another now-aged survivor. Dunham remembers a bloody day at Anzio beach when thousands of comrades fell.

"We had to forget it," he says. "There's no way you can, really, but you've got to and move on."

And he recalls a visit last week to a Veterans Affairs medical facility in St. Louis, where he worked for 32 years, and all the busywork security measures being taken to prepare for today.

"Golly gee, I never seen so many people looking behind themselves -- everybody looking over their shoulder, everybody getting ready for the 11th. It just don't make sense to me," he says. "I don't claim to be a hero or a brave man, but I don't think I'm a coward, either. If another attack happens, it happens. You prepare for it as best you can and deal with it the best you can, but you move on."

Move on -- a mantra for Dunham's rapidly disappearing generation, one reminiscent of the Vietnam-era vet's "drive on -- it don't mean nothin'." Hard to say whether this is another version of American denial and refusal to think deep about a wrenching event or the wisdom of someone who has earned the long view.

But in a way he probably doesn't mean, Dunham's catchphrase does touch on recent findings by the Gallup Poll that show that most of the country is treating 9/11 as a harder, scarier version of reality television -- something to tune in to and get cranked up about in a superficial way but not something you change your life over.

True, Americans were mightily pissed off in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. They grabbed their flags and wanted to kick al-Qaida ass. True, they got behind President George W. Bush and boosted his approval ratings to around 90 percent -- the same level his daddy attained shortly after the Persian Gulf War. They showed historic levels of trust in government and seemed willing to trade civil rights for an increased sense of security, ignoring Ben Franklin's warning that he who trades liberty for safety deserves neither.

Along the way, there was mounting concern that those twin bugaboos of the American psyche -- racism and intolerance -- were again on the rise, a historically unsurprising development. Jingoism, flag-waving, racism and intolerance always seem to go hand in hand.

But much of this quickly faded away in a summer of corporate scandal and a narrowly averted baseball strike -- support for Bush dipped into the 60 percent range, and support for a war against Iraq dropped from 70 percent to a thinner majority of 58 percent against the backdrop of bickering between hawks in the Bush administration and senior honchos from Daddy Bush's reign.

Saber-rattling by the Bush administration has not increased support for a war against Iraq. Fear is down, even though Americans still expect another terrorist attack. Classic benchmarks of the American psyche, such as attitudes about guns and religion, remain unchanged.

"It's not accurate to say 9/11 is a watershed event that changes the way Americans live or view life," said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. "It's hard to say there's been fundamental changes. It's business as usual, as far as Americans are concerned."

This doesn't mean that thousands of Americans weren't touched by the grievous loss of friends or loved ones. It doesn't lessen the lingering pain of a New York firefighter's widow or a cop's suddenly fatherless son. It doesn't cheapen the sincerity of the pro-football player who quit a promising career to join the Army.

Next Page »