As a military veteran, and specifically as one who has served in one of the current wars, I have been asked several times over the past few days, how I feel about the death of Usama bin Laden. Each time I have found myself hesitant to answer; my heart baffled by mixed emotions and my mind perplexed by conflicting thoughts. Aside from conversations with my wife, I don’t think I’ve given anyone a full, straight answer yet. I’d like to attempt to do so now.
While many are expressing happiness, the sensation that washes over me is one of relief. Ten years of tension has at last been eased, and I wearily exhale, “Finally.” First, because he has been found. The great mystery of the past decade has been the location of Usama bin Laden. The world has not known where he was or if he was even alive, and it has been maddening and frightening that a person of such high profile could hide for so long from all the military and intelligence resources of the world. Never were we worried about what to do if he was found; rather we were solely obsessed by the fact that he could not be found. Therefore, it inspires a sense of accomplishment that this case has been closed. Once again there is a feeling that the United States military can accomplish anything; and that is crucially uplifting in an age of two decade-long wars. The most elusive fugitive in recent history has been found, and it just feels good to have our confidence restored.
Secondly, I feel relieved that the bin Laden story is over. Many will debate the pros and cons of killing verses capture. In my mind it is too late for that, and I do not have the stamina to participate in such a debate. For too long this man has consumed a nation’s nightmares, and I am simply relieved that we do not have to think about him anymore. He is dead, and although another will rise to take his place, bin Laden’s reign is over. We are now free to move on.
Still, my reaction to bin Laden’s death is far more complex than solely a feeling of relief. The sight of Americans rejoicing in the streets resonates strongly with me. The news elicits a surge of excitement over a mission accomplished. I realize that the War on Terror has not been won, but does that mean that each inch of ground gained is worthless until the whole is achieved? Terrorism will always exist, so will we not celebrate when Al Qaeda is finally destroyed? The finding and killing of Usama bin Laden is but one aspect of a larger war, yet it is a victory nonetheless and should be appreciated as such. I was on active duty when military forces captured Saddam Hussein and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (former leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq), both elusive targets, and although I was not part of those missions, I shared in the excitement of a mission accomplished. Those events inspired the perception that we were winning, and that was a critical boost to morale at a time when even I was beginning to question the worthiness of the cause.
As for his demise, I’m extremely satisfied that bin Laden was shot and not bombed. Whoever pulled that trigger inadvertently represented the entire US military and a large percentage of the nation. It is so gratifying to know that the man who built a terrorist network known for its suicide bombs and views on martyrdom died unarmed at the hands of a member of the United States military. It was personal, and it afforded him a chance to be scared, to know what was coming. I understand that perhaps his death was not as brutal as some would have liked, and I might even be inclined to agree. However, I am content that his death was no more merciful than it was.
Usama bin Laden will be remembered in the history books (the Western ones, at least) as one of the most notorious villains of the modern era. He was responsible for one of the most traumatic events in our nation’s history. He successfully placed Muslim extremism center stage and forever altered the way we attend to national security. For his crimes, I wish he could die a thousand times. I wish he had been strung up as the nation’s piñata – dangling in place for every grieving, angry soul to unleash his or her fury.
Call it brainwashing or call it clarity, but sixteen months at war molded that perspective. It was agonizing fighting a faceless enemy, and more often than not, we were denied the therapy of actually engaging our foe. Rather, we were engaged in a deadly game of tag, cautiously awaiting the next buried bomb to detonate. As time passed, my rage increased. The mission began to feel like a vicious cycle - we were there because of the violence, yet the violence persisted only because we were there. Naturally, we felt violated and toyed with. Consequently, I quit caring about intelligence value and humanitarian issues, and I subscribed wholeheartedly to the belief that the only solution was to just “kill them all!” In the exhaustion and frustration of war this was the mentality that surfaced as the most sensible; and although I have since recovered a more civilized attitude, the ghost of war still whispers convincingly in my ear.
In a world of 24-hour news and social networks, everyone has a voice, and those voices are understandably tempered by the context of personal experience. So I offer these thoughts as merely my point of view – not politically correct or spiritually sound – just my honest reaction.