Move On

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

Sep 11, 2002 at 4:00 am
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.

And it doesn't soften the shock, anger and fear millions of Americans felt while watching endless reruns of those jetliners hitting the twin towers or looking at news photos of trapped office workers who decided to jump to certain death rather than wait for flames and smoke to take life from them.

But for millions of other Americans -- those who don't have a friend or loved one serving in Afghanistan; those who didn't lose somebody in the twin towers; those who don't even have a friend of a friend who was directly touched by the horror of this attack -- 9/11 has become a late unpleasantness they either ignore or deal with in a way that short-circuits deeper thought or a true confrontation with the fear and anxiety it has caused.

Far easier to stick a flag decal on the bumper sticker, keep rooting for the Cards and pull the family deeper into that suburban cocoon than it is to figure out why you don't feel as safe as you once did.

"That gnawing sense of insecurity -- that's what we're going to have to deal with," says the Reverend Scott Lohse, pastor of the Mount Zion United Methodist Church in West County. "We're going to have to deal with this for a long time to come, and we don't really want to unless we're forced to. It's almost like a family who has lost a relative but doesn't get to view the body before burial. You don't want to believe it unless you're forced to deal with it."

Like many church leaders in the St. Louis area, Lohse is planning a special noontime service for today. He's also scheduled a series of Sunday-night airings of Bill Moyers' On Our Own Terms, a PBS program about dealing with grief. He thinks most Americans are still stuck in the first stages of the grieving process -- shock, anger and denial -- and don't know how to get to the next level -- acceptance -- and truly get on with their lives.

"The anger stage of our national grief causes us to be more accepting of racism, hatred and violence than we were before," he says. "We're more willing to engage in this because we're afraid, we're scared. When you're angry and you don't know who to be mad at -- that has to be dealt with."

But this is a busy land of plenty with a famously short attention span and a national refusal to engage with the outside world that sometimes crosses the line into xenophobia. Americans tend to forgive and forget -- Germany and Japan were mortal enemies almost 60 years ago; they're valued allies and trading partners now. Carrying a centuries-old blood grudge like the hatred between Bosnians and Serbs or the abiding memory of Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks is foreign to most Americans -- even though it took the South a long time to ever like a Yankee again.

It is both a curse and a strength, says Christopher Gustave, an artist who created "September Cross" in the wake of 9/11, a collage of stylized e-mail and newspaper text surrounding a cross made of scraps of machined brass. So is our concern with safety, he says.

"We're living in a country where security is the utmost concern," he says. "It's a rational reaction, but it's not really living. Life was never safe. Reacting to this as if you're shocked it could happen here is just silly."

That's Dunham's point. The old vet is clear-eyed about the nonsense he sees, from talk about war with Iraq, which he opposes, to chest-thumping patriotism, which causes him to snort in disgust.

"I'm not a big flag-waver myself," he says. "Just because you wave a flag doesn't make you a patriot. An imposter can fly a flag just as well as anybody else."

Move on, he says.