Scholar Searches for Answers to 9-11 Questions

“I was there. That day was a huge wakeup call not just for the nation,” says Ph.D. student and retired Brigadier General John Adams, “but for me, too.” Photo credit: Jeff Smith
August 23, 2011

Brigadier General John Adams retired from the US Army in September 2007. Today, he is an independent defense consultant as well as a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona. In 2010, he served as an adjunct instructor in political science at the University of Arizona South, teaching a course in National Security Policy.

He was also working in the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the day when the United States experienced the worst ever attack on our soil.

“I was there. That day was a huge wakeup call not just for the nation,” he says, “but for me, too.”

As the United States moves towards commemorating this tenth anniversary, the University of Arizona’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences is participating in kind, holding a weeklong program entitled 9-11: How We’ve Changed. Filled with lectures and panel discussions covering terrorism, borders and security, politics, the media and historical analysis, the week proves to be a time when the University and Tucson community will come together to reflect, discuss and learn.

When it comes to the lessons we can glean from that day, Adams comes with a uniquely personal motivation to extract whatever lessons he can from the experience, and pass those lessons on for a better future.

At that time, Adams was serving as the Deputy Director for European Policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia. On that day, he happened to be in a meeting in the office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense. They had just watched the first attacks occur on CNN.

“I remember the senior US military officer in the room said, ‘We need to get some fighter combat air patrol up,’ and he was right,” he says. “Less than a minute later, we felt a shudder and everyone knew that something had hit the building.”

That day, 25,000 people were working at the Pentagon. Many on the other side of the building didn’t even know anything had happened since they didn’t feel the impact. Adams and his co-workers, on the other hand, were in a room a short 100 meters from the impact site.

Through the smoke and debris, Adams and those around him went to work – from generals to privates – putting together IV bottles, setting up tents, getting stretchers and collecting water bottles. Others helped carry out the 125 casualties from the building and 59 from the American Airlines flight 77 that hijackers had crashed into the building.

“It was remarkable. Everyone conducted themselves courageously, with a readiness to do whatever was necessary,” he recalls. “I saw no one run from duty. Some courageously ran into the smoke. But at the same time, we were relatively poorly prepared for the resulting chaos. We learned that day that, not just as individual communities and offices but as a nation, that things would have been much better had we been trained and prepared for such a disaster.”

For Adams, that day, along with the following years, have brought up countless questions.

“I ask myself, did the US follow through on our response? Did we effectively take advantage of other NATO nations’ willingness to help? Were offers from other nations respected and used? Why did it all happen in the first place?”

And as for Iraq, Adams describes the US involvement there as a distraction and a disaster for the United States. “It was a misuse of our country’s willingness, readiness and enthusiasm,” he says. “Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11, and yet we mobilized all our armed forces to invade the country and take it down, at least partially under the pretext that we were acting against those who attacked us.”

Questions like these have brought this retired military man back to the classroom where he continues to pursue answers.

“It’s important to me to find out how our and other nations’ political processes work and figure out how we can get it right the next time. That’s why I’m here.”

Adams will take part in a discussion with a panel of other academic experts entitled, “What Does It Mean to Be Post-9/11? Politics, War and Security.” The conversation will take place at 6:00 PM on Wednesday, September 7 at the University of Arizona in the Education Building, Room 211.

Learn more about the weeklong 9-11: How We’ve Changed program sponsored by the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and view a complete schedule of community events.