Losing Our Footing

Author’s Note: This story is a variation of one I revised and republished, proudly and defiantly, for 19 years. You can see last year’s version of the story here. As a result of recent events, that version, and the 18 published before it, are staggering reflections of my naiveté. This 20th version is sadly, soberly, and sickeningly aware. And all I keep saying, over and over again, is God damn it.

The events of September 11, 2001, taught us nothing. We’re a nation of pettiness and politics, of self-absorption and special interests, of short sight and superficiality. We threw our best and bravest in harm’s way for a promise we didn’t keep. We betrayed them, even as we betrayed the people we purported to help. We flaunted our cowardice and our duplicity with the entire world as our audience.

We let this man be maimed and disfigured for nothing. He managed to find strength and purpose again. In the 234 years since the Constitutional Convention, we’ve abandoned ours.

We let this man serve in the Marine Corp for 17 years. Then we fired him for telling the truth, even as his fellow Marines and his father praised him for his courage and his integrity.

We let this man have his own weekly television show for 18 years. Now he gets it. Bill Maher gets it. That needs to be stated again: Bill Maher gets it. Bill Maher, for God’s sake. But us? No. We don’t get it. We don’t want to get it. We have no desire to get it.

Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror. The sight of planes flying into buildings, fires burning, huge structures collapsing filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness, and a quiet, unyielding anger … These acts shattered steel, but they cannot dent the steel of America’s resolve. (George W. Bush)

President Bush was wrong. We don’t have the will to remember, let alone the resolve, the fortitude, the shared purpose, or the self-faith to be angry. It’s not nice to be angry. We’ll just coast along in our blithe complacency, thank you very much. What could go wrong?

It’s not possible to express the shame we should feel in abandoning this singular experiment in individual liberty to the contradictory and self-defeating pursuits of self-interest and dependence on the government — the same government that will serve itself without a thought of serving its soldiers or its citizens. It’s not possible to express how contemptibly craven that abandonment is. And it’s a hideous reminder of the fact that, if you’re given everything, you’ll fight for nothing.

The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” (Ronald Reagan)

We’re going to deserve everything that happens to us on our way down the tubes, kids.

Don’t look for someone to blame. We let it happen.

God damn it.


Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brien
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.

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  1. Apparently we hit the 10 response threshold and my response to your paradigm question didn’t post. I think I said: I’ll take a stab. Having read Black Rednecks and White Liberals, per your suggestion, I sense that you see that there are two groups in the US – those who want to work hard and take advantage of the opportunity that hard work provides and those that want to take advantage. I sense you worry that those on the democratic side of the fence are giving too much to the latter group which will make them even less inclined to work hard. And I sense you see the label of democrat, socialism and liberalism in that paradigm. What I also sense is that everything that anyone who supports those labels says is bad because it fits under that label. I sense that there is absolutely nothing that our current administration could do right, simply because they are labeled as liberal and socialist.

    • Hi, Carol. Thank you for hanging in there with me.

      I don’t recall having suggested Black Rednecks and White Liberals; although, I have read some of Thomas Sowell’s other works. I just added it to my Amazon list. One of the things I most do NOT want to be perceived as is a virtue signaler. But I’ll run the risk here and tell you this is one of my daughters-in-law, Lauren:

      These are two of my four grandchildren:

      And this young man has become another son to Anne and me:

      I’m comfortable saying this about my paradigm, as I’ve said to my sons all their lives: If you (I don’t care who you are) are willing to work at something, so do I (and I don’t care what I have to do to work at it with you).

      I have no issues with democracy, socialism, and liberalism. I do have issues with their being imposed on the United States. This isn’t a democracy. It’s a federal republic. That’s why we have an Electoral College. It’s an experiment in individual liberty and equal opportunity. I will happily and eagerly work for that equal opportunity on behalf of anyone. The converse, of course, is that I’ll think less favorably of those less inclined to earn what they get and/or to feel entitled or envious of things they’re not willing to work for. Socialism and liberalism, as they’re practiced in the United States, constitute pandering for votes.

      Does Lauren face challenges in her work as a wedding planner? Yes. Are those challenges justifiable on the basis of her skin color? Emphatically, no. Will I tolerate those challenges, rather than working to help her overcome them? No. Ditto all that for Stephen Campbell. But, to their credit, neither of them was handed anything, nor are they willing to settle for anything.

      As for the current administration, I judge them by what they do and what they don’t do. It has nothing to do with labels.

      Thank you again for this conversation.

    • Hmmm. Could have sworn it was you because as I read it, I was wondering about the stereotype of the raucous Irish who came to the US and set us on the course of the “behavior and attitudes of ghetto gangs today, who kill over a look or a word, or any action that can be construed as ‘dissing’ them.” Not sure why I would have drawn that paralle if it hadn’t come from you, unless I’m making a bad assumption about the Irish part.

      Thank you for sharing your family. I wish that I had someone close to me that I could talk with about some of this. I don’t. I’ve lived a pretty un-diverse life. But please notice, I never indicated race when I described the two sides I sense from you. I don’t think it is necessarily about race. But I do, with all my hear, believe that some don’t have an equal opportunity, and I used that term intentionally. Adam Kinzinger uses the terrm, equal opportunity, not equal outcome. I suspect he’s not the first to use it. Having spent much of my life trying very hard to gain respect that could only be gained in the locker room, there is a club of people that have power, know how to use that power, use it for their own benefit and don’t care about others.

      Oh, and I am neither liberal nor socialist. I believe in our capital system. It is what makes equal opportunity possible. I’m not alll that excited about a race of Eloi who have everything given to them.

      But that’s not what I rail against. Our capital system advantages the powerful. That’s wrong.

      I could probably go on, but I sense the conversation is over. I’m having a hard time saying thank you. While you have responded, you have deflected rather than answered.

    • I have not watched Loki. I thought was explaining, rather than deflecting. And the conversation is over only if you’d like it to be. I’m grateful for it, nevertheless.

  2. Carol, since the system only allows for 10 nested comments, we have to pick up our thread again. Your last comment was this: “Define ‘wake up.’ As in, ‘Wake up and agree with me?’”

    I was thinking more along the lines of wake up and make our activities in the voting booth constitute something other than popularity contests, based on promises candidates make. Elect people capable of acting responsibly, thinking responsibly, spending responsibly, protecting our interests and our citizens, and holding them accountable for doing those things.

    Do we disagree on that?

    • And I realized as I walked away that I didn’t answer your question. I don’t disagree. As much as I think your plan for advocacy sounds fine, I don’t believe it will accomplish anything. Why? Because we no longer have common interests. We have special interests, individual interests and media-induced campaigns that make us think we’re in different camps. Not to sound like a broken record, but until we stop pointing the finger at those making decisions simply because we don’t like their interests, nothing will change. Your article was angry. My responses were equally angry. But your article raised my defenses because you made it clear that you think what happened was wrong. Again, not to sound like a broken record but neither you nor I know enough to judge.

    • We positively agree on this: “We no longer have common interests. We have special interests, individual interests and media-induced campaigns that make us think we’re in different camps.”

      On the other hand, I do think what happened was wrong. And I know this to be true: “Neither you nor I know ….” It’s the “enough to judge” part I get stuck on. Can you imagine any circumstances under which we might justify conducting the withdrawal from Afghanistan so recklessly? Can you imagine any circumstances under which we might justify leaving so many American military personnel and private citizens, sympathetic Afghanis, and others in harm’s way? Can you imagine any circumstances under which something like this could even be possible?

      I can’t. I tried.

      The government works for us. It’s up to us to fix it and to hold our ostensible leaders accountable. Right and wrong are not the same things. There still are objective differences between right and wrong … for now. If there weren’t, no accountability would be required for anything. But if we buy into the relative scale peddled to us by the special interests, the individual interests, and the media-induced campaigns you cite, the remaining objective differences will vanish even more quickly than they’re already vanishing. They’ll be gone in a haze of subjective one-upmanship.

      We have to try. The consequences of not trying are too horrible to contemplate.

    • And yes, the government works for all of us. Every one. You want to turn a blind eye to those who cannot pull themselves up by the bootstraps because of systemic racism. Just how horrible is that to contemplate? But here’s the real question…is there even a 10% chance that I may have a point? 10% is a pretty small number. Of 100 people who could pull themselves up by the bootstraps, 10 of them are handcuffed by systemic bias? Hmmm….

    • And I’m not saying that the pull out was executed well. It was not. I’m saying neither of us know enough to judge an imperfect situation that was perpetuated for 20 years. Your absoluteness is what I am arguing against. With everyone taking our absolute stand, we have no hope of ever doing better by using the situation to learn. It is dangerous to admit there may have been mistakes made in an imperfect situation. All that gets you is being hammered down and stomped on. Stomp away, Mark. Keep on stomping without any real understanding except a paradigm that fashions every thought you have.

  3. Having grown up in a border town in the 50s and 60s I spent a lot of time in America, and as I grew older, kept and eye on it. Over those years I have come to understand what I think is the nature of the country which is a combination of capitalist and imperialist.
    What I failed to understand with Vietnam, with the War on drug and with the wars on terror is the length that both democrat and republican governments went to only to bang their heads against a massive brick wall. Spending millions of dollars a day that could have gone to making the country a better place for its people. The current state of your country is one that is deeply divided in a number of ways, but the most critical division of all, in my opinion, the the gap between the rich and everybody else. And the unwillingness of either the left or the right to do anything to correct this. America is choking on its ability to really take care of its own house, while proving to be not so good at taking care of the world either. The trajectory is heading downward. The question is can it actually be changed if half the people are brainwashed into believing that violent revolution is t he only solution.

    • Thank you for your comments, Jim. I perceive the US to have been proudly and successfully capitalist. The pride and success have diminished in the face of popular narratives about the “evils” of capitalism and profits. Those narratives are popular, of course, with those who have neither the ambition nor the creativity to use capital to be successful or profitable. Imperialist? Not so much. Misguided? On occasion. Lacking the political will to finish things it’s started? Beginning with Korea, most definitely.

      The gap between the rich and everybody else is a symptom of disastrous social and economic policies. In just one brilliant move among many, the government chose to subsidize fatherlessness. At the same time, it put a bullseye on the backs of the wealthy on which the government depended for the funds it needed to subsidize fatherlessness. The wealthy, of course, had the means to leave. After the government put targets on their backs, they also had the incentive to leave. That was a refusal to think logically (in the interest of gaining votes) equalled only by a refusal to do math.

      I’m not sure where the part about brainwashing for violent revolution comes from. But we’re surely in need of a wake-up call … now.

    • If we screw up our country, the responsibility will sit squarely on the shoulders of those who stand by and spout an ideology without understanding what is really happening, or what is at stake. Not any particular ideology – every ideology. Because we should be better than any one ideology. But we can’t see beyond our blinders to have an honest conversation. Will we screw up our country for our grandchildren? You betcha!

    • I agree wholeheartedly, Carol. As a country, is there an ideology by which we should abide the needless loss of life, the sacrifice of our service people, the abandonment of our countrymen, the betrayal of those who depended on us to protect them from fundamentalist militants, and do so in silence? If so what is really happening and what is at stake?

    • For the past 20 years, the US has played political ping pong with Afghanistan. We’re here to help. We’re here to train. We’re leaving. We can’t win. Those folks never wanted us, wanted democracy or wanted to change.

      As a Marine officer, I learned the benefit of completing an after-action review. They taught us that in OCS. The concept: war is f*cking messy and we are gonna screw up. There is only one thing that matters – learning for the future.

      Because of the political rhetoric, the blame, the jumping on any and every word and turning it around, we no longer have the capacity to learn.

      I am sad. I am worried for all those in harm’s way. We did a poor job of getting out. There are political reasons behind it all, so why should we expect anything less messy?

      But the bottom line is – we are Americans. We should own our country’s actions – all of us. Because we are a county. By splitting us down the middle into partisan camps, all we will ever accomplish is imploding our country.

      Stop it with the blame, Mark. The blame goes on all our shoulders for perpetuating the anger and vitriol at “the other side.”

      I hate that lives were lost. I hate the sacrifice made where there is little to show for it. But Kyle Carpenter doesn’t need you defending him. He said it eloquently – look at what good came out. If that’s the best we can do, let’s do that.

      Neither you nor I know enough details to judge. And neither you nor I will budge an inch because we both know the other will grab onto it and claim victory.

      You love our capitalist state? I do too. But right now, it sucks. You talk about subsidizing fatherlessness? Go take a tour of the projects that we shoved people into to “take care of them.” You wonder why there is violence?

      Our former President unleashed an anger that had been stewing for decades and many fell into step behind him, looking for a history that never existed except in some people’s minds. You want to preserve that “special place in our history?” You better start producing a whole lot more grandchildren, because it won’t be long before we’re all outnumbered.

      I don’t want a one-sided country. But if we keep heading down this road, one side will win, and one will lose. I don’t know which. But I do know that the side that loses will keep on fighting….silently at first, then louder, then perhaps more violently. That’s what the Confederates have done over the last 200+ years.

      Let’s keep going this route. Let’s keep being righteously indignant about how badly we screwed up Afghanistan. Easy peasy, sitting in Connecticut and Florida.

    • Carol, I’m not at all happy that both of us are so angry. But I’m compelled to speak out, if for no other reason than to hope people will look at the mess we’ve made and care enough to do something about it, other than retreat into protected (for now) complacency. Given where we’re headed and what we’ve blithely given up over the course of a thousand cuts, that protection will be gone soon.

  4. Mark, as you might have guessed I moved out to the country to get away for the crazy world. I seldom watch the new and I rarely go to town. I have found a life that is like the one I had growing up on a farm. I still have those values and I totally support you and how you feel. The most I will say is this is not the America I grew up in. Be bold my friend

    • Thank you, Larry. I know sand is supposed to be malleable. But I just can’t get my head to fit in it. This may seem crazy to say, but you and I are on the back nine and won’t be here to see the worst of what’s coming. But Anne and I have four grandchildren. I worry for the future we’re letting be created for them.

      For the record, I never watch the news. But I catch wind of what’s going on somehow. Bold is all I know to be.

      Keep the faith, my friend.

      P.S. Yvonne A. Jones, who’s in a writing group with me, thinks the world of you. She has very good judgment.

  5. You are missing a key point in your vindication of Scheller. His final words in his Sunday video: “Follow me and we will bring the whole fucking system down. We’re just getting started.” Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, to which he is obligated, that is called sedition.

    You say, “For victory not tasted,” Really? You think victory was possible? After 20 years? With a government that didn’t want what we were selling? Come on….

    You say, “The loss of unity that once defined our power.” Really? You think our country has ever experienced unity? Let’s get real. Read your history.

    Mark, you have the right to make these statements. But until we all start questioning our own paradigms, we will never find unity.

    Until you have made decisions that impact lives and livelihoods, just stop second guessing. I thought long and hard about this response. I tried to talk myself out of it. I couldn’t.

    One thing I agree with: “We’re a nation of pettiness and politics, of self-absorption and special interests, of short sight and superficiality.” This is a perfect example.

    • Carol, I respect your right to express yourself. And I respect you for doing it so directly.

      As Grandpa O’Brien loved to say, “That’s what makes horse racing.”

      Thank you.