9/11 and the lessons of Three Wise Men

by Matt Gallagher

I slept through 9/11.

When people hear or read that statement, they tend to think I’m speaking metaphorically. “Ahh,” they say. “Weren’t we all?” While I do appreciate my words being consumed as literary insight, and there’s certainly a great deal of truth to that particular interpretation, I mean that as literally as possible. As in, I was drooling on my pillow after staying up too late playing video games during my first week of college when my roommate, a native New Yorker, woke me up in time to watch the South Tower collapse.  

He struggled to reach his parents on the phone. Thankfully, they were both fine. Meanwhile, my eyes stayed fixed on the flames on the television screen. I’d signed Army ROTC contract papers the week before, and my imagination burned with possibility.

A lot of people wrote a lot of things about 9/11 in the days and weeks after, just as a lot of people are writing a lot of things about the 9/11 anniversary right now. Back then, I was particularly drawn to anything that used the term “generational calling,” the thinking that 9/11 could be a sort of postmodern Pearl Harbor for a nation not so sleepy anymore. In the rashness of youth, I truly believed that we were experiencing, seeing, and feeling something that no one else ever had in the annals of time. I had not yet figured out that tragedy shadows existence permanently.

Of all the various opinion pieces and essays I read during that crystallizing autumn, one stuck out and lingered for years after. It was … different. It wasn’t vengeful, or melancholy, or horrified, which I found surprising, because the author of the piece was Hunter S. Thompson, famous for emotional highs and lows. Instead, Fear & Loathing in America, which he authored only a day after the 9/11 attacks, was cautionary, and more than a little Orwellian. “Make no mistake about it,” Thompson wrote. “We are At War now – with somebody – and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives.”

I certainly didn’t like the sound of that, but no one goes to war forever, I reasoned. No American war had lasted longer than what, six, seven years? If our grandparents could whip the Nazis and Imperial Japan in less than four years, we could ferret out some jihadists from their mountain caves in the same timeframe. Further, having witnessed history, I now felt compelled to participate in it. We were at a unique point in American affairs, if not human affairs, and I was at the unique point of existence where I could serve as a participant rather than as a spectator. So I held firm to my ROTC commitment, joining the armored cavalry as an officer four years later, a decision that still fills me with great pride to this day.

I’m still not exactly sure how the war I joined up for became Iraq, but if I’ve learned one thing over the past decade, it’s that history is rarely as cogent and lucid as the history books like to pretend it is. Over the course of those fifteen months in the desert from 2007-09, between the sun, the sweat, and THE MISSION, I picked up David Foster Wallace’s classic novel, Infinite Jest, recommended to me by friends back home. (Admittedly, it took me more than a few times to pick it up and stick with it).  This, in turn, led me to Wallace’s 2007 piece for The Atlantic, “Just Asking.” “Are some things still worth dying for?” Wallace opened. I looked around at the men that made up my scout platoon and nodded. They had taught me that there were. Wallace pressed on in an essay made up entirely of questions. “What if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea?” He posed deep, probing questions, and I for one didn’t have many answers. I wondered if the college freshman I’d been in 2001 would’ve had more; it seemed likely that he would have.

After leaving the Army in 2009, I moved to New York City for a girl and with romantic, foggy notions of becoming a writer. Having felt disconnected and detached in that dorm room from the events of 9/11, it now seemed important to better understand just what it was my adopted city had been through some eight years before. I visited the pit at Ground Zero, talked to first responders about their experiences, and read just about anything I could get my hands on about the subject. And so I stumbled across this short piece in The New Yorker by John Updike, in which he shared his experience watching the horror of the towers’ collapse from a Brooklyn rooftop. Some two weeks after 9/11, Updike somehow snapped out of the daze that has enraptured much of our nation for the better part of this decade, as evidenced by his determination that “with all its failings, this is a country worth fighting for. Freedom, reflected in the street’s diversity and daily ease, felt palpable. It is mankind’s elixir, even if a few turn it to poison.”

Thompson, Wallace, and Updike are no longer with us, of course, casualties of the human condition rather than a terrorist act. The first two killed themselves, the last died of cancer. But their words and wisdoms remain, and any man able to find clarity in the aftermath of tragedy the way they did deserves to have the rest of us spread and share that clarity. Instead of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they’ve left us with the Gonzo, and the Wry, and the Hysterical – and the acumen to understand that there is nothing more unwise than believing in the new and unprecedented.

We all slept through 9/11, true enough. Some of us woke up. Some of us still haven’t. That’s the beauty of time, though – there’s still more of it. After 9/11, Three Wise Men attempted to convey to their countrymen that the best way to go forward is found in the dust of the past. It’s not too late to heed their words.


Matt Gallagher is the senior writing manager of the nonprofit organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and spent 15 months in Iraq with the U.S. Army as an armored cavalry officer. He is the author of the war memoir Kaboom.