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Friday, September 05, 2003

Book Reviews

Aftermath, Afterthoughts: Books on September 11

Books considered in this essay

September 11: An Oral History compiled by Dean E. Murphy. Doubleday, New York, 2002, 250 pages, $22.95 hardcover

Afterwords compiled by the editors of Washington Square Press, New York, 2002, 333 pages, $14 paperback

Report from Ground Zero by Dennis Smith. Plume, New York, 2002, 377 pages, $24.95 hardcover

American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center by William Langewiesche. North Point Press, New York, 2002, 205 pages, $22 hardcover

Granta 77: What We Think of America, spring 2002, $12.95 paperback

An Autumn of War: What America Learned from September 11 and the War on Terrorism by Victor Davis Hanson. Anchor Books, New York, 2002, 218 pages, $12 paperback

Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles by Anthony Swofford. Scribner, New York, 2003, 260 pages, $24 hardcover

To designate a hell is not, of course, to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell’s flames. Still, it seems a good in itself to acknowledge, to have enlarged, one’s sense of how much suffering caused by human wickedness there is in the world we share with others. Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.

No one after a certain age has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or amnesia.
— Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

A literary industry was born of September 11, some — but not all — of it intent upon designating a specific experience of hell that morning without, to paraphrase Susan Sontag, telling us much about how to extract meaning from its flames. The particular experience central to these books occurred, of course, in Manhattan, whose World Trade Center became a coopted symbol of grief across the country in ways that neither the attack on the Pentagon nor a crashed plane in a Pennsylvania field would. The experience happened in a place I always thought to be as unlike the rest of the States as possible, though after it occurred I realized I’d been delusional, for Manhattan seamlessly and complicitly became — though no one said this — the Oklahoma City the country had really wanted, the one without the sane, articulate, Gulf War veteran Tim McVeigh as perpetrator. All it took for Gotham to become the beloved icon of a country that by and large mostly held it in contempt was an act of destruction masterminded by foreigners and the nation’s willingness to sentimentalize and glorify its victims. Oklahoma City’s “littlest angels” were immediately replaced in our iconic memories with adult-sized heroes, and the McVeighs among us forgotten in the face of, in George W. Bush’s words, “cowardly” terrorists whose brilliantly coordinated attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were instantly, and simplistically, deemed “evil.” When Sontag took umbrage at the idea that the hijackers were cowardly — hers a voice of reason, I thought, crying out in a shallow emotional wilderness quickly overgrown with candlelight vigils, American flags, and symbols of the eagle rising Phoenix-like from the fiery towers — she was decried by New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers alike in the same unified and mortifyingly intolerant voice. The enemy was dehumanized, inhuman, and it was not us.

Oklahoma City came to my mind that morning, at the Y on 23rd Street, because D. was the first person I spoke to after hearing on my headset just after 9:00 am that there was a fire in one of the towers. For reasons I can’t explain, I simply tuned out and slipped off the exercise bicycle and went to the locker room, where I quickly showered and dressed and ran into D. We’d been casual friends since 1995, the year I’d returned to New York from almost three years in Athens and landed a job in a major advertising agency’s print production division, where I’d met D. a few weeks before McVeigh blew up the Federal Building. I took a lot of razzing when that happened — some of it not good-humored — for being unpatriotic enough to have lived abroad and for making no bones about preferring Greece (pro-Arab and terrorist-infested, thought my coworkers) to the States. Almost everyone at work, including D., also thought Arab terrorists had been responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing, despite the obvious and not coincidental fact it had taken place on the anniversary of the federal government’s Waco fiasco. Almost everyone had been wrong.

When I told D. what I’d heard on the radio, she shrugged and said: Probably Arab terrorists again. I thought of Oklahoma City and held my tongue, walked her to the Eighth Avenue subway, then turned around and headed east. We hadn’t been able to see downtown and nothing appeared amiss on the way to the subway, so we went our separate ways, to do what everyone who was already in the World Trade Center had done that morning: go to work.

By the time I got to the corner of Sixth Avenue, where the view opened onto downtown, a plane had just been flown into the Pentagon. Both World Trade Center towers were burning but still standing, and unbeknownst to us who stood on 23rd and Sixth, many people in them were making their way down myriad stairwells; astoundingly, two of the survivors in September 11: An Oral History — a collection of some 40 personal accounts from Manhattan and the Pentagon — managed to cheat death from as high as the 91st floor in the North Tower and 84th floor in the South. Despite fear and shock, fumes and fire, cascading water, darkness, debris, and bottlenecking, people remained, for the most part, orderly in their long journey down (it took approximately an hour to walk from the 72nd floor to ground level). Among the survivors in September 11: An Oral History, Michael Hingson, blind from birth, made it down from the 78th floor of the North Tower with his guide dog and David Frank, who wasn’t sure whether a terrorist act or an accident had occurred. After the plane’s impact, they got to the door of their offices, but then turned back to shut off the equipment until they realized they didn’t know where the main outlets were. Teresa Veliz, also in the North Tower but in a 47th-floor women’s room, had stepped off an elevator several seconds before its cables were severed by American Airlines Flight 11. She thought an earthquake had struck, heard the elevator fall (killing everyone within), and rushed to her company’s office to gather her coworkers; when she began to return to the women’s room to gather her things, she was discouraged from doing so and again went back to her office, thinking to take laptops and the like with her. Over and again in September 11: An Oral History, people recount their reluctance to leave their workplaces; even George Sleigh, at his desk on the 91st floor, who saw the plane fly into the North Tower (two floors above him), crawled back into the debris around his desk to grab his briefcase after initially leaving his office. Sleigh had been in the South Tower when the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993 and perhaps, he ruminated, this saved his life: “Based on that experience,” he remarked, “I expected we would be allowed to come back and get our stuff once everything settled down.”

In the South Tower, people had to choose whether to evacuate or stay after the North Tower was hit. Stephen Miller, working on the 88th floor, joined people walking down the stairs after the initial crash until he reached the 55th floor, where the evacuation bottlenecked. He stepped into a deserted office to call his wife; a few minutes later an announcement over the tower’s intercom system “informed” people that the fire had been localized in the other tower and that it was safe for everyone to return to their offices. The elevators were working: four of the senior managers where Miller worked, along with a crush of others, got into them. “I don’t think you should go up,” Miller told a fellow worker, but she did, vanishing behind the closed elevator doors and perishing when United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the tower seconds later. Other survivor stories from the South Tower echo that same astonishing, if unintended, revelation from those in the North Tower; work — the place people went back to, even under attack or, to the best of anyone’s knowledge in those first moments, during a disaster — is obviously, for many Americans, tantamount to faith.

The description on the cover of September 11: An Oral History reads “Real Stories from Ordinary People,” setting the rather straightforward tone throughout the book, much to its credit. Its “ordinary people” survived or witnessed the most harrowing attacks ever on American soil; they recalled for Dean E. Murphy (September 11’s compiler) what they did and saw without trying to explain the inexplicable or embellishing the tragic. Brian Clark, for instance — one of about a dozen who survived the crash of UA Flight 175 below his floor — doesn’t know how he rescued a man named Stanley (whose first words were, “Do you know Jesus?”) from underneath the rubble on the 81st floor; he also doesn’t know why he could breathe easily in the smoke, find his way from one stairwell to another, or why he and Stanley made it out even after stopping on the 31st floor to dial 911 to report an injured man and a security guard on the 44th floor awaiting help. (He was put on hold three times but persisted; it was 9:45 am). A friend with a walkie-talkie on the 68th floor was walking up as Clark was coming down; that evening, the dead friend appeared to Clark at the foot of his bed. Clark noted:

It was the most real-life dream I’ve ever had. I wondered, was it a dream or a thing that happened to me? Whatever the truth, I took great comfort from it….Because for all the miraculous powers I seemed to possess that day, I had been unable to convince any of them [his fellow workers] to follow me. Even Ron, the only other one in my group to survive, went back up before changing his mind.

What makes September 11: An Oral History compelling is that the stories are by survivors and witnesses who recount without self-consciousness, and with an often painful honesty, what happened and what seemed to have happened to them and others inside the Twin Towers, outside them — in the Marriott, on the street, at Stuyvesant High School, in their cars — and at the Pentagon. Oddly enough, their incredulity during the crisis seemed hardly pricked, although a fire-academy instructor who was told to get to the 90th floor of the South Tower with Engine Company 58 admitted he was “a little stunned” by the order; a coworker managed to declare, “Nobody is walking to the 90th,” just as the North Tower came down. Rachel Landman, a senior at Stuyvesant, thought “it seemed wrong to go and do ballroom dancing when the World Trade Center was burning,” but went to gym class as instructed, where she and other students danced in a shade-drawn room to (irony of ironies) Burt Bacharach’s “Tower of Strength” before being sent back to their homerooms. At the Pentagon, personnel watched the scenes from New York on television, remained in their work areas, and coolly awaited the Pentagon’s crisis center to be activated, except for a major who commented to a lieutenant-colonel seconds before the Pentagon was attacked, “Hey, sir, you know, if they wanted to, we are as vulnerable as the towers. They could really strike us. Nobody would expect it.”

“We are as vulnerable…” is a remarkable aside, one of many in this remarkable book. Murphy, who makes it clear in his introduction that his approach “was not to worry about the manner in which the information was imparted” and that his task was not to “determine its content or dictate form,” compiled one of the finer works of witnessing to come from September 11. Among the worst — and there are many — are compilations of artists’ and writers’ personal responses to the tragedy.’s Afterwords falls somewhere in between, an uneven blend of survivor stories, rescue-worker tales, private reactions, ruminations on “the enemy,” reports from Afghanistan, reflections on the home front, and, according to Salon editor David Talbot, “impassioned essays that capture the millennial fever of 9/11 and the days that followed.”

Impassioned: heated, from the heart, fervent. Well, perhaps; but ardent argument also needs to be meaningful (or at least capable of engagement), it needs to be thoughtful or to provoke thought, and many of Afterwords’s essays fall short in every way. Those concerning personal stress disorders, old paranoias, drinking too much or doing too many drugs, having great “terror” sex, deciding never again to wear high heels, or learning to love the World Trade Center because it’s no longer there — along with a nasty, trite, fictionalized version of Osama bin Laden’s diary and a piece on bin Laden’s looks (“Fidel Castro crossed with Jesus Christ, with a little bit of Oprah thrown in. What a weirdo”) and charisma — seem better left to diaries, personal jottings of mostly unformed thoughts for the perusal of those individuals who have the sense to keep them private.

Some of Afterwords’s other essays, those that address issues, can be as strangely vacuous but interestingly quirky. Jeffrey Eugenides’s curious “Deciphering Suicide,” for example, is part embarrassing confession (“I read in the New York Times the other day that the concept of suicide bombing goes back to the eleventh century, having its origins with the Assassins”) and part unenlightened exercise in eccentricity and vanity. Eugenides — I’ve no idea how he came to be so privileged — claims to know the hijackers’ motivations, among them “self-glory” and wanting “to emerge from invisibility…and to prove their manhood by striking against a power that they believe to be a mad elephant loose in the world and trampling it.” He also knows that the terrorists couldn’t have killed themselves over an “abstraction like freedom” because Eugenides himself, he notes, can find no precedent (!) for such. His logical conclusion, which should make us all rest easy but confounds me instead, is: “If we are scared now — and we are — we should take comfort from the fact that the suicide bombers do not understand the power of suicide, and so cannot harness it. There is more to martyrdom than merely dying.”

Afterwords, however, belongs on everyone’s shelf because of Philip Robertson’s pitiless reporting from the Afghan front, where he was almost killed by the Northern Alliance and once caught in a Taliban ambush he survived as his driver ran over — Robertson screaming for him to stop and punching him the entire time — more than a half-dozen Northern Alliance fighters; Terry Golway’s moving essay on Staten Island’s September 11 losses (in a borough of 400,000, 200 were killed, including 81 firefighters); A. R. Torres’s chilling, bitter “Confessions of a 9/11 Widow,” in which donations — “America’s way of healing,” Torres writes, America being “the home of the quick fix” — kept arriving as she waited “for the time when our stories will grow stale and I am left alone to normalize my life”; and Daniel Harris’s confrontational, insightful “The Kitschification of September 11,” in which he grapples with his own pointed question: “Does an event as catastrophic as this one require the rhetoric of kitsch to make it less horrendous?”

Kitsch is a large part of the American way of life: American culture in part comprises commemorative quilts, candlelight vigils, en masse children’s drawings of their hopes and fears, human lines of tens of thousands that give the world its longest hand-holding chain or largest hug, yellow ribbons, smile T-shirts, fund-raising icons of afflicted children (Ryan White was “canonized as the patron saint of AIDS charities,” Harris notes, only after making headlines for being driven out of his hometown and despite the fact that AIDS affects many more adults than minors), etc., etc. The symbols that arose from the Twin Towers, long before the flames were put out, included flags (everywhere) and fire helmets, teddy bears, a sobbing Statue of Liberty, angels or the American eagle rising from the WTC inferno, and the towers themselves. The World Trade Center was transformed, Harris writes, from “a physical location into a turn of phrase”; and when that happened, reason gave way to “a realm of faith, of sacrament and graven images, and flags.”

Everyone in the nation, it seemed to me on September 11 and during the following days, felt they were under attack (they weren’t). The symbols that rose from the ashes helped ingrain a delusion that made people feel good: we, under attack, would rise to the occasion and defend our way of life, get back to normal (shop and spend money, Giuliani told us in New York), donate to the orphans’ or firefighters’ or victims’ funds. The attacks created an immediate sense of a nationwide community, something rare, for — in Harris’s words — extreme anomie rather than active citizenship is the norm in the States; the result was what Harris calls a bout of “pathological collectivity.” Buoyed by kitsch, politicians and celebrities and almost everyone else felt victimized, which allowed everyone to participate in “America Under Attack” and talk about the process of “healing,” which, as Harris points out, had “nothing to do with recuperation, but precisely the opposite: with wallowing, indulging in the unnecessary prolongation of our misery, in the drama of living in a state of high alert.”

Kitsch, to paraphrase Harris, numbed true sentiment — an authentically internal and hence private experience that needs no audience — with its icons of martyrs; and it bent toward, for lack of a better term, patriotic gore. When Harris went to the Internet’s bulletin boards post-September 11, for instance, he found contributors outdoing one another in expressing their feelings to victims who were dead and to victims’ families who were, I’d wager, hardly surfing the Web for mawkish messages from emotionally involved (to use a pop-psych phrase) strangers. “One unnerving thing [was] missing,” Harris writes, not without incisive irony, “from this soothing murmur of comforting words: the people being comforted.” Not that it mattered to the writers, who Harris likens to Puritans surpassing one another in demonstrations of piety, or to those I call Clip Art fundamentalists, who did their graphic utmost — using the same symbols (eagles, the Twin Towers, firemen, teddy bears, the inferno, the flag) — to denounce the terror and laud “American indomitability” (Harris’s words) in image after banal image. Kitsch’s darkest side, Harris argues, is that it stifles rational thought and discourse. He says (correctly, to my way of thinking) that the symbols born of September 11 anesthetized people by replacing the truly horrific images — severed body parts, people jumping from windows — with those of country, love, and hope, and that they whitewashed the context of the attacks as gratuitous and evil. Anyone reading Harris’s essay would be hard-pressed to disagree with his condemnation of kitsch as (these are my words) a tool of repression. The hue and cry over Sontag’s discounting of the terrorists as cowards, Bill Maher’s firing by ABC, the defense department’s creation of the Total Information Awareness (now the Terrorism Information Awareness) office, and the rollbacks (attempted and real) of our civil rights: none of these discrete but connected phenomena would have occurred so easily, I think, without September 11’s kitsch-laden, iconic backdrop. Not to mention the pedestal on which the New York Fire Department was put, and which kitsch created.


I don’t mean to disparage the firefighters. They were, like the New York City and Port Authority police who responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center, inarguably courageous. When the towers fell, it was the firefighters who immediately began to dig through the rubble — with their hands — and who organized (if that is the word, given the chaos) the beginning of the rescue effort. They were joined by other firefighters (on duty and off, retired, and from other communities), as well as by other uniformed services, EMS personnel, and civilians. But because the firefighters’ losses were so grievous, because of the authority they wielded, because they were and would remain for months working on what was in fact an enormous mass grave — indeed because they were the most visible (and photogenic) force on what became known as “the pile” — they became the immediate heroes of the disaster’s aftermath, and remained such. They did not choose to become our icons, of course, they just did. And their losses, as well as the haloed spotlight into which they were thrust, could not help but affect them as the area went from being the scene of a rescue operation to a search-and-recovery operation to, finally, a (de)construction site.

No one has more admiration for New York’s firefighters than Report from Ground Zero’s author, Dennis Smith, a writer and retired firefighter best known for his book, Report From Engine Co. 82, and now chair of a foundation that seeks to better the health and safety of firefighters. There are certainly few writers who have a better understanding of firefighters or what it means to be one. The NYFD is extraordinarily homogeneous (male except for some 50 females, predominantly white and Catholic); a good number of firefighters come from firefighting families; and they are, because of the conditions (a firehouse is a house, after all, and the firefighters assigned to them eat, sleep, and live together while on duty) and nature of their work (dangerous), extremely clannish. Firefighters call one another “brother,” and they mean it. They socialize among themselves; their families form long-lasting friendships that are not unlike kinship bonds. New York firefighters are mostly middle-class patriots whose views, Smith points out — not without irony, and while contemplating the fact that the firefighters have become “enshrined as America’s heroes” — are opposed to those he thinks are held by New York’s rich and powerful. “If you took a survey at Ground Zero,” Smith writes, “you would undoubtedly find that people felt that it is more important to invest in cruise missiles than Head Start programs….They would point out, too, that our future wars — just like our past wars — will be fought by the children of Ground Zero, the sons and daughters of firefighters, police officers, ironworkers and crane operators.”

Smith is, understandably, on the creationist side of hero worship, and “Testimony” — the first part of his book — is a collection of unnerving first-responder tales as critical to understanding what the uniformed forces encountered that morning as September 11: An Oral History is to understanding what survivors experienced. The narratives are interspersed with Smith’s competent personal account; together, they give coherence to the mayhem wreaked by the destruction and the response to the pandemonium.

There was, first of all, the matter of getting to lower Manhattan, of fighting one’s way, racing the while, through traffic; of navigating the debris onsite from the plane crash and dodging those people who, by the dozens, were leaping from the top floors (their fall as lethal to those below as to themselves); of assessing the damage, setting up command stations, and organizing rescue squads; and of getting people out and moving firefighters and other personnel into the towers. The respective WTC command posts were crippled the instant each tower was hit. After impact, there were no communication lines, no working elevators (each tower had 97 passenger and 6 freight elevators, which were all knocked out), no cellular lines, no landlines, no PA systems, and no way to get helicopters near the tower roofs because of the smoke and heat. There was a city to be shut down, bridges and tunnels closed, personnel to be moved around. The Office of Emergency Management’s command center, in WTC #7, was gone. No one knew exactly what was happening, or how many more planes might be heading for other potential targets: Smith recounts that Joe Dunne, first deputy police commissioner, found himself asking the FBI’s New York office director whether the city had air cover; by the time they ran into each other on the site, Dunne had already given the order to evacuate such places as the Empire State Building. Every fire company south of and including 125th Street had been dispatched to the World Trade Center. No one present had ever seen a disaster of this magnitude.

Curiously, however, Smith’s belief that first responders knew what they were getting into — and had “made a choice” to go in to help people get out, he implies, despite this — is hardly borne out by his telling. No one knew the towers would collapse, although collapse quickly became a concern. And there had been a short window of time, according to Deputy Fire Chief Pete Hayden, of “complete unaccountability,” as firefighters, including those who had been off-duty and had reached the site, had simply gone into the buildings with their “brothers” without so much as giving their names. There was nothing else to be done given the situation, or the fact that this was clearly the biggest event of their lives. As Jimmy Boyle, former president of the firefighters’ union, put it in Report from Ground Zero: “A plane crash in the World Trade Center? What firefighter would miss that job if he wasn’t off in Europe somewhere?”

The firefighters reached the 50th floor of the North Tower before the South collapsed; by the time it came down, a call — repeated for almost 25 minutes, according to Smith — had gone out for all firefighters to come down. Some fire companies heard it, others might have and didn’t heed it; but beyond a certain point, there was simply no communication. A half-hour or so later, the North Tower pancaked as well. Immediately after and for some hours following the second tower’s collapse, there was no command structure at all. It was understood, also immediately, that many firefighters had perished with the towers’ collapse. The FDNY lost more members than any other uniformed service: of 11,495 firefighters, 343 lost their lives, compared with 23 NYPD officers (out of a force of 40,000) and 37 Port Authority police officers.

That the combination of the FDNY’s losses and the heroic status to which the firefighters were instantly elevated eventually proved problematic on the site is barely touched upon in “Aftermath,” the second part of Report from Ground Zero. “Aftermath” covers the first 68 days after September 11, mostly on the pile and mostly through Dennis Smith’s eyes, and — despite the occasional backdrop of New York’s mayoralty campaign, Enduring Freedom’s Taliban rout in Afghanistan, outpourings of sympathy in front of fire stations, Union Square vigils, ruminations on what the World Trade Center had been, and concern for the firefighters’ families — always with the firefighters at center, to the exclusion of those who were there as well and hardly on the periphery. By giving the firefighters the entire stage, reflecting the fact that they indeed were given free rein on the pile for almost six weeks, Smith creates the false impression that the NYFD was in charge of it, which it was not (New York City’s department of design and construction was). Consequently, when he notes, after attending many funerals — and long after the bucket brigades were dismantled, the heavy clearing equipment was moved in, and it had become apparent that most of the victims, pulverized or burned to ash, would never be found — that Rudolph Giuliani had decided on October 31 to reduce the FDNY’s numbers on the pile and restrict their relatives’ access to it, the information seems incomprehensible. Smith never mentions the tensions on the pile between firefighters and police, or between firefighters and the construction operation (which had an ASAP timetable for clearing the site), or that some onsite had criticized the firefighters for seeming to be obsessed only with finding, and respectfully conveying, the FDNY’s dead. Because the FDNY’s losses are Smith’s (as a “brother”), he seems unwilling or incapable of putting things into perspective: that some firefighters began to believe heroism had made them untouchable, that others thought that their grief and loss were greater than anyone else’s, and that firefighters as a whole were not in control on the pile and didn’t control what would become of it. Many firefighters accepted the fact that they had to work with the DDC, some chafed at it, and others pretended it wasn’t true. Smith is among the latter, and his book is the less for it.

The pile, after all, was not about the firefighters: it was about an unprecedented collective undertaking. What began as a rescue operation remained that for some time (at least in the public’s eye and despite the fact that no one was pulled alive from the rubble after the first 27 hours), then became a search-and-recovery operation, but was finally, and in actuality almost from the very beginning, what it would remain for nine months and more: a clearing operation of stunning engineering complexity.


William Langewiesche was the only journalist given unrestricted access to the site for the entirety of the operation, and his American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center is — and not only by virtue of Langewiesche’s unique privilege of being “embedded”(to quote the flap copy) with those who worked on the pile — the most coherent rendition of the attack on the Twin Towers, their collapse, and the process of “unbuilding” the site. There was no precedent for what had to be done, and a great deal of brilliant improvisation. There were emotional human factors not normally associated with worksites — grief for one — and an ongoing need to recover the dead without doing further violence to them. There was also the rush to find survivors in the first days, which left the site out of control as volunteer bucket brigades (ineffectual, Langewiesche writes, not from lack of effort but because of the overwhelming amount of debris) formed to move the surface rubble by hand in the hope of finding anyone alive, although most victims — it later became known — perished instantly. There were interests to be balanced (the city’s, the firefighters’, those of the police and the families and friends of the dead, among others), the safety and efficacy of construction workers, ironworkers, and rescue squads to be considered, and an infrastructure put in place to move 1.5 million tons of debris as fires — which raged and flared for months — were extinguished.

It was necessary to understand, as much as possible, how the towers had fallen in order to guess at how best to tackle the pile. Langewiesche’s first essay (the book is a compilation of three), “The Inner World,” is an impressively comprehensive examination, not only of the towers’ construction but of their collapse. Interestingly, videos and firsthand accounts of this collapse were extremely important for understanding the pile’s structure, since “even the inspections of the steel that had been sorted at the New Jersey scrapyards proved to be an inefficient means of gathering evidence.” What happened at the South Tower was better understood than the events at the North, and even the motivations of the hijackers were speculated upon, given the way the towers were struck (the hijackings are covered in American Ground’s second essay, “The Rush to Recover,” which begins as the two flights move through air traffic control). Frank Lombardi, the Port Authority’s chief engineer, thought that AA Flight 11’s pilot intended to knock the North Tower over, which explained (for him) the direct, centered hit; he also believed that when UA Flight 175’s hijacker saw that the tower was still standing, he chose to hit the South Tower lower, on one side, and at an angle to trigger a collapse. (Langewiesche disagrees in one of his curious asides that pepper the book, some of which — the worst that can be said of them — are haughty: “Lombardi, I thought, was sometimes still thinking like a defeated man, investing too much confidence in his enemies.”)

Both “The Inner World” and the “The Rush to Recover” are, however, primarily about the pile and the individuals — named and unnamed — who confronted the monumental problem of dismantling it. Spread across 17 acres, with six levels of 10 acres each within the foundation hole and skeletal walls rising 150 feet above ground level, the site presented challenges never before imagined. No one knew for two months whether the main chiller plant, holding up to 168,000 pounds of Freon gas under pressure, was intact; if it were (it wasn’t), any leak would have meant suffocation for hundreds of workers or, if the gas came into contact with flames, an airborne spume of hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acids as well as phosgene gas drifting across New York. The slurry wall began to crack and shift three weeks after September 11; the decision to use backfill to prop it — which no one knew would work — stopped the movement five days later, after it had drifted 12 inches without, to everyone’s amazement, failing. There was also the possibility of the PATH train lines flooding: these had to be plugged. There was the general instability of the pile as well, of course, and the logistics of attacking it, and — after the first month, when 28 days had passed without a single victim being found alive — the problem of persuading people that the search effort would reveal only the dead, most of whom would never be found. (The majority of those who were found were not intact, but identified from 19,000+ body parts in what Langewiesche describes as “the most ambitious program of DNA matching ever attempted in the United States.)

The largest problem on the pile, however, was to reconcile search-and-recovery efforts with the fact that the department of design and construction’s mandate was to clear what had become a construction site. This reconciliation was never quite effected, and, in his third essay, “The Dance of the Dinosaurs,” Langewiesche examines in great detail the tensions that arose. On November 2, fighting broke out when firefighters attacked the police. It came as no surprise: “Resentments and jealousies among the various groups had been mounting for weeks, as the initial rush to find survivors had transmuted into a grim search for the dead, and as territoriality and the embrace of tragedy had crept in,” Langewiesche writes. When Giuliani decided to “rein in” the firefighters, who had become the public’s heroes and had “enjoyed unaccustomed influence and unlimited access to the site” for two months, and declared that they would now have to participate in a joint command (with the New York and Port Authority police and the DDC’s managers), have limited access to the pile, have their numbers on it reduced, and follow new procedures imposed on the pile, a small bit of hell broke loose. It was, Langewiesche maintains, understandable:

Though their attitude was sometimes offensive to others working on the pile, it was not difficult to understand: the firemen were straightforward guys, initiates in a closed and fraternal society who lived and ate together at the station houses, and shared the drama of responding to emergencies. Some had lost family when the Trade Center fell, and nearly all had lost friends. Their bereavement was real. Still, for nearly two months they had let their collective emotions run unchecked, and they had been indulged and encouraged in this by society at large — the presumption being something like, “It helps to cry.” The effect had turned out to be quite the opposite: rather than serving a cathartic purpose, the emotionalism seemed to have heightened the firemen’s sense of righteousness and loss.

The firemen wanted to reclaim their dead, and they were not, in the words of one, ready to turn the pile into a construction site. It was already that, however, for under the direction of the DDC, the construction companies on site “were pursuing the most aggressive possible schedule of demolition and debris removal.” But if some of the firefighters resented this, and they did, they had also rubbed others the wrong way. Some construction workers didn’t like the way the firefighters treated the civilian dead, differently from their own; the firefighters would shut down the operation for up to three days at a time, sparing no effort to recover their dead intact, then — to some, callously — suggest extracting other victims by cutting away limbs if that were the quickest way. There were the “moralistic airs” and “hero stuff” that grated on the nerves of other workers, many of whom, especially the ironworkers, faced danger every day on the pile with as much equanimity as anyone. And then there was the discovery of a firetruck’s hulk underneath the rubble, containing not bodies but dozens of new pairs of jeans from The Gap, in what was once the World Trade Center’s mall. That’s all it took for some construction workers to jeer, and feel justified in their growing contempt for and impatience with, America’s bravest.


“It was hard,” Langewiesche writes, “to avoid the conclusion that the looting had begun even before the first tower fell, and that while hundreds of doomed firemen had climbed through the buildings, this particular crew had been engaged in something else entirely, of course without the slightest suspicion that the South Tower was about to hammer down.” Despite the fact that more than 3,000 workers — including engineers, managers, architects, and uniformed personnel — worked within its perimeter for the most part in tandem and with great pride to rid New York City of the remains of what was seen as an act of war, the site would continue to be a place of emotional divisions until the very end. But the excavation proceeded, for the most part, with astounding speed and efficiency, which could not have happened without great cooperation among those who lived, breathed, and committed their lives over those nine months to clearing the pile, which is to say without people putting aside their differences.

The wound caused by Langewiesche’s accusation that some firefighters had looted the Gap store, however, did not heal. That the jeans might have (and, I think, probably had) been blown into the truck from the force of the towers’ collapse — not an unreasonable possibility — was, curiously, never addressed by Langewiesche when his essays, originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, became a book, although I assume that both he and his editors at Farrar, Straus and Giroux had ample opportunity to do so. For this refusal, if that is what it was, Langewiesche has suffered the detailed refutation of several other writers and, worse, the jeers of firefighters, who have disrupted his public appearances in New York. He certainly could not have expected less. Hostilities, as everyone learned once again after September 11 (as if they had ever forgotten), have a way of erupting when people are, or perceive themselves to be, under attack.


Americans — I use the term not without acknowledging Canadians and Latin Americans who, rightly, abhor our appropriation of this identity — bristled at some of the responses September 11 elicited. As Bush’s world of whoever-isn’t-with-us-is-with-the-terrorists became (and remained) reality, reasoned argument as to what the attacks signified or why they happened were not only shunted aside, but decried as heretical. Americans preferred to believe that jealousy formed the hijackers’ motivation, that cowardice underlay their acts. To argue that the hijackers were hardly spineless, to intimate that some felt that America had only now really joined the rest of the world, to maintain that the last 50 years of US foreign policy had hardly occurred in a vacuum, to state that Americans were by and large as abhorred (or feared) as loved by non-Americans, and so on and so forth, incited wrath instead of reflection. “Liberating” Afghanistan (as the Taliban slowly reestablishes itself) and, now, Iraq (where we’re still searching for weapons of mass destruction) seems hardly to have appeased what most Americans call our need for retaliation and national security, but what others see as aggression and empire.

Two years after the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, Americans are as reluctant as they were on September 12, 2001, to admit to the possibility that one can criticize the US and its policies (from within or outside) without hating the country, and certainly without belonging to or supporting any “axis of evil.” The spring 2002 issue of the British literary journal, Granta, included 24 essays from around the world by writers whose lives have been affected by the States, and whose sympathy for the victims of the attacks does not cloud their judgment on the attacks themselves. Indeed, their approach to the attacks is the same as their approach to America: complex and reflective. The essays, and their angles of vision, are as varied as the contributors, but all have in common the experience of being influenced, moved, and astonished by the contradictions that make America perhaps the weirdest, and often the most alluring, country on the face of the earth. It’s a secular nation in which 59 percent of its citizens believe in the Rapture. It’s a place where the individual and individualism are held in reverential esteem, but consensus is the rule and dissent barely tolerated (indeed, the majority of “individuals” in the country seem to have no problem with a Patriot Act that undermines their constitutional right to individuation). America is a democratic and law-abiding country whose prison population is, but for that of the “people’s republic” of China, the largest in the world, and whose murder rate is the highest in the West. Americans are as renowned for stopping to help a stranger whose car has broken down as they are for shooting one another in murderous incidents of “road rage.” Most Americans believe that cigarette smoking should be restricted because of health reasons but that gun ownership is a right. They are as enamored of societies and organizations for the protection of animals as they are of the death penalty for their fellow human beings. They mostly clean their own homes, wash their own cars, and carry their own bags as part of their commitment to a classless society, while the division between rich and middle class (forget the poor) is now at a historic degree of separation. And most Americans seem as unaware of their penchant for double standards as they are of the rest of the world, which they tend to ignore until it intrudes upon them — as it did on September 11.

America has been many things to many people, but I think it’s safe to say that in the last 50 years it has been something to just about everyone. To Hans Magnus Enzensberger (Germany), America’s contradictions — despite their lethalness — have made the US “more exotic than ever,” a place that became less familiar the more he knew it and a country that “will always be something else, a world unto itself, a Western Heavenly Empire, a China of our imagination, a place to admire, to be grateful to, and to be baffled by forever.” Hanan al-Shaykh (Lebanon) found America a bit grittier, for it was the place in which she witnessed her sister’s family’s homelessness and broken immigrant dreams. Ian Buruma (Germany/Holland/Britain), too, found America exotic, especially its spawn, Los Angeles and Disneyland, where — younger then, and tripping his brains out — he listened to the “living ghost of Abraham Lincoln speaking the Gettysburg Address into my ear” (it was a fine thing, too). Aleksa Djilas (Serbia), like many, had his childhood informed by the Cold War: his father, Milovan, spent nine years in Tito’s prisons as Yugoslavia’s most famous dissident after having been part of the ruling party’s elite; as a child, Aleksa idolized America — which in 1999 would bomb his homeland. One afternoon, America became for Ariel Dorfman (Chile) the unbearable American brat who disturbed everyone around a swimming pool in Jahuel as his mother sunbathed, heedless of her son; the kid brought to Dorfman’s mind everything that was most irritating about Americans (“their blind innocence, their inability to grasp how their intrusive bodies and loud mouths and naive incomprehension grated on the world”) and about himself when he’d been an American brat as well, “just as unconscious and insensitive in my own day.” When the child falls into the pool, sinks to the bottom, and begins to drown, Dorfman hesitates, lapsing momentarily into a “murderous passivity” before saving the child. What comes back to him, Dorfman writes,

is the pang of indifference I felt at the sight — that it was none of my business, that in some perverse sense the kid had it coming to him, as had his mother….I can’t be sure that this is what I felt, because I may be associating later events with what happened that day. The CIA had still to engineer a coup against the democratic government of Chile; Washington had still to arm the Contras in Nicaragua, and train the death squads in El Salvador. Still, my paralysis must have been born of a deep turmoil of grievance and resentment — maybe it was time to experience what we experience, maybe they shouldn’t presume that when their kids fall in the pool we will rescue them. My anger was on behalf of millions of unfortunate others; it wasn’t because my own affluent self had suffered. But that mysteriously made it all the more intense; it was easier to blame the Americans for all the misery that surrounded me than to really do something about it myself.

The contributors to this issue of Granta are (in addition to the writers mentioned above) Canadian, British, Turkish, Malaysian, South African, Indian, Chinese, Lebanese, American/Israeli, French, Czech, Australian, Irish, Palestinian, Egyptian, and Hawaiian (the distinction is the writer’s). Their thoughts on America range from reminiscences of playing cowboys and Indians in Bombay, to coveting marbles from an American PX abroad, to the consideration of terms such as “humanitarian intervention” and “collateral damage” that become as hateful as the bombs that are dropped in the name of the former, to the discrepancy between American policies and the individual Americans these writers know and have as friends. Theirs is an eyes-wide-open, often magnanimous and mostly agonized, sometimes sentimental, frequently admiring, at times edgy and at times opaque look at a country that less and less seems willing to examine itself at all, not to mention place itself — even for a moment — in any other nation’s shoes. That would only invite schizophrenia, as it did during Vietnam when dissent, it was charged, “divided” the nation (it wasn’t dissent, of course, that divided the nation, it was the war).

Dissent is not looked upon as a “good thing” in American society, and Americans, if polls mean anything, seem to be in consensus. In the name of September 11 and the subsequent war on terrorism, that might be the case for a while. The “grip of patriotic fever” that swept over America after the attacks — which reminded Granta contributor Doris Lessing (Britain) of the Second World War — has certainly not diminished as the war on terrorism has evolved: Americans are more willing to clamp their hands over their ears and clamp down on dissident voices than at any other time I remember, which means over the last 50-odd years. If September 11 was meant to be a “lesson” — as so many of those who celebrated or welcomed the attacks thought — it seems that hardly anything was learned.


Victor Davis Hanson would disagree. September 11 woke the US from what he calls, in An Autumn of War, its moral slumber; it made the country realize it was at war the moment it suffered what he considers, strangely, a “great defeat” (ostensibly because the surprise attacks were successful and subsequently cost the US billions of dollars), “not because we were intrinsically weak, but rather because we, like the Greeks on the eve of Thermopylae, were naive and unprepared.” A classicist and military historian (and professor and farmer), Hanson leans heavily on the Greek past to explain the American present, argues the brilliance of General Sherman’s campaigns in the hopes the remembrance might steel Americans to do what must be done, disparages the academics he knows so well (and who disagree with him), and celebrates the working people of the American middle class — cops and firefighters, carpenters and mechanics, truck drivers and farmers — for their patriotism, willingness to sacrifice, and support of the war against terrorism. Hanson deserves to be read, not only because of his breadth (he’s as comfortable on a classical battlefield as he is with Sherman’s march, and as knowledgeable of Thucydides as he is familiar with Churchill or FDR) but also the reach of his arguments, which need to be understood if the Bush administration is also to be understood — and refuted.

The problem is, Hanson’s mindset is so over the top (to use a phrase born in battle), so much of the time, that he’s sometimes difficult to take seriously. He refuses to contemplate the whys or wherefores of September 11 because, “In the Hellenic view, the wrong questions to ask in this present conflict are ‘Why is there war?’ ‘Why do they hate us?’ or ‘What did we do to them?’” He admires the Greeks because they understood that war “is terrible and innate to civilization — and not always unjust or amoral if it is waged for good causes to destroy evil and save the innocent.” He likens George W. Bush’s reaction on September 11 to Pericles’ rebuke of the Athenians for their defeatist attitude before they engaged the Spartans (he does not mention that Dubya was nowhere to be seen for almost 12 hours after the first plane hit). He compares Bush with Churchill (predicting Germany’s destruction as London was being bombed), and the American middle class, which stands steadfastly behind the mess that has become Afghanistan and the war in/occupation of Iraq, with classical Athens’s mesoi, the (male) yeoman farmers who in their majority made up the polis’s backbone. The problem is, these comparisons are truly hollow, and therefore prove nothing: the glorious past, Hanson’s strength and muse, becomes his undoing as he attempts to transpose it onto what he sees as America’s great present. I am not a classicist, but I still find Hanson’s historicity more than a little bogus. Americans are not classical Athenians; Bush is not Churchill, let alone Pericles; and the American middle class (which, no matter how I stretch my imagination, bears no resemblance to the little I know about the Athenian mesoi) is quite capable of being mistaken and misled (as, by the way, I assume the Athenian mesoi were).

If the wrong questions to ask are the whys and wherefores, there seem no questions left to ask at all (although Hanson does conduct an “interview” with…Thucydides, with selected quotes from the latter’s work as “responses” in an exasperatingly sophomoric exercise). America is at war, period. It must be, as far is Hanson is concerned, for it could not have responded to the attacks in any other way, just as it had to declare war in the wake of Pearl Harbor, whose infamy Hanson links to September 11 but slots as second to the attacks that day (despite the real devastation in 1941 to the US navy — and therefore to our armed forces — in what was to prove a real war). More people died in the September violence, and this makes all the difference to Hanson, who repeatedly decries the killing of “our” women and children (a total of three children — airline passengers all — died), although they were no more ours or defenseless than the men who lost their lives. December 7, September 11: twice the US was caught unawares, and both times the country would rise to victory and defeat its enemies.

What America learned from September 11 is, for Hanson, something it already knew: that it is the mightiest military power on the face of the globe, that there is good, that there is evil. What the world learned from September 11 is, in his view, that the US would no longer hesitate to use that might. Hanson is at his best when he seems prescient — the essays that constitute this collection were written between September 2001 and January 2002 — although he is, in actuality, not as prescient as he is in tune with those in the Bush administration who turned away from their “victory” in Afghanistan to the “unfinished business” in Iraq, which Hanson — and a majority of the American public eventually — called for.

Hanson argues for the use of ground troops (and massive air power) in confronting terrorist enclaves and organizations, terrorist states, and states “harboring” terrorists (mentioning the administration’s next possible foray, Syria). He also argues against allowing terrorist organizations to participate in postwar governments. (But has he ever heard of the Irgun or Stern gang? Does he know that Hezbollah is a political party in Lebanon, and sits in parliament?) While he cogently points out that the Bush administration is not only very different from those in the past, but that it also governs a “changed citizenry,” he is also convinced that sacrifice (meaning battle casualties) might be necessary to accomplish America’s aims (he doesn’t mention budget deficits or quagmires), and that “terrorists and their sympathizers” (not to mention many of us) had no idea what September 11 had unleashed. America’s ultimate victory, according to Hanson (who, curiously for a classical scholar, never considers the Pyrrhic), will depend as much upon moral might as military clout (the right’s favorite blend):

If an army has the moral edge, and its soldiers, as Sherman proclaimed, are imbued with a “soul” that assures them they are the agents of righteous retribution and democratic justice, then Westerners can make war like no other people in the history of civilization. In the present conflict, if we adhere to our moral values, employ the unchecked power of our culture with confidence and without apology to achieve victory quickly and with a minimum of casualties, and seek to make the instigators of war pay dearly and personally for their folly, then General Sherman would assure us that our ultimate victory will never be in doubt.

These are all big ifs, considering Anthony Swofford’s moving, no-nonsense, lyrical Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles. The armed forces (marines) he portrays are more familiar with personal nihilism than with Hanson’s “moral edge,” and readers would be hard-pressed to confuse the grunts who haunt the pages of Swofford’s memoir with “agents of righteous retribution and democratic justice.” But they might just recognize those Devo-looking US ground troops in Iraq, with their wraparound sunglasses and headsets and flak vests and Star Wars-like headgear, as the nervous, cool, scared, brave, sickeningly trigger-happy and stranger-in-a-strange-land invaders they’ve proven themselves to be.

Swofford saw action in the Gulf War as part of a Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon, a platoon of scout/snipers. The air war by and large destroyed Saddam’s forces, leaving ground troops (mostly) to mop up. Swofford and others saw a great deal of death in the form of rotting Iraqi corpses, one of which was defiled day after day (and photographed) by an irate troop; and there were many American soldiers who felt they hadn’t had a chance to kill enough “ragheads.” A volunteer army is no less murderous than a conscripted army; if anything, it might be more so.

Who goes into the army and why is part of Swofford’s tale. It’s probably safe to say that almost no one joins because of moral values; people take these into uniform with them, but they’re hardly the reason they put a uniform on, especially at the age of 17, 18, 19. Some join because they always wanted to, others are from military families, others choose the military over a jail sentence, some just need to get away from home and don’t know how else to do it, while others need a job — and everyone understands that the (US) military is a killing machine. (US soldiers in Iraq who have been asked want no part of peacekeeping; it is not, they point out, what they’ve trained for, and, to all appearances, not what they’re good at.) Grunts in Jarhead drink until stuporous (if possible), brawl, get laid or dream of getting laid, watch war films (mostly about Vietnam), and read porno, then drink until stuporous (if possible), brawl, get laid or dream of getting laid, watch some more war films, and read some more porno: they’re not stupid. They know that their lives are not their own, that they can be used for photo-ops and interviews (but not allowed to say anything that doesn’t toe the military’s line), that they’re dispensable. Some of them break down (Swofford once comes close, perhaps, to suicide, and once comes very close to killing a comrade for no discernible reason but for many imperceptible, complex ones). Some excel. Some suffer post-traumatic disorders, some don’t. Theirs is a love/hate relationship with the military, and with themselves. No one pretends to be a harbinger of morals; no one pretends morals have anything to do with it. Just about everyone on the ground during the Gulf War in Jarhead wants to go home, as do, I imagine, the grunts on the ground in Iraq now, who never thought they’d be there for as long as they have, and who are beginning to realize they might be there much longer than anyone imagined, as they brush daily against the harsh reality of not only not having been welcomed as liberators, but — worse, and more deadly — not being wanted there at all.

The grunts in Jarhead lost what was left of their innocence, if that is what it was, in Operation Desert Storm; the grunts in Operation Iraqi Freedom have surely lost theirs, if they had it to lose. I watch the occupation of Iraq, as I did the war, on television in the small Greek village where I’ve lived all but five months since leaving New York 12 days after September 11. Amnesia is, as Sontag states, nothing anyone over a certain age has a right to. I do not forget, even at this distance, what human beings can and will do to other human beings, not only because I saw it for myself on that Tuesday two years ago, but also because history does not allow it. (Neither does the literature of September 11, for no matter their shortcomings, these books disallow innocence, which is less insidious but oftentimes as damaging as ignorance.) What is being done in the name of September 11 — in domestic and foreign policy, at Guantánamo Bay, in Baghdad, Kabul, and in the US congress — is incomprehensible if we don’t understand what September 11 meant and means (with its twists and turns) to Americans. What is being done will also be unstoppable if we don’t come to grips with what September 11, and America, meant and means (with or without the twists and turns) to the rest of the world. Even from my vantage-point, in front of the television and with these and other books at hand, it has become more and more pressing to ask the questions, many of them old, that September 11 only began to address, more and more important to formulate the answers that September 11, in its way and in the way it’s been used, began to give.

D. asked me, a few days before I left New York in mid-March, after a four-month stay, what I would do if war broke out with Iraq while I was in Greece. My being here and the war were both, at that point, inevitable. I remember being nonplussed by the question; another friend comically asked if I were going to “sit it out” on the European sidelines. I didn’t answer D., and I sat it out on the sidelines, where 94 percent of the Greek spectators on the sidelines with me rooted for no war at all. There wasn’t much consolation in this, but there was some: no one felt disillusioned (only angry) or incredulous (only angry) when the American bombs began to fall. I was among a whole lot of people who had, in Sontag’s words, reached moral and psychological adulthood.

Melanie Wallace is a novelist and frequent contributor to Her latest novel, The Housekeeper, was published by MacAdam/Cage in April.
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