Monday, September 6, 2010

Heroes -- Alive in Our Hearts and Books

Wow, what a tough subject this week -- 9/11 and heroism.

I was a sports writer for a major American newspaper that September day in 2001, which gives me some insight most people don’t have. I had often wondered what reporters felt like on December the 7th and by the end of the 9/11 I knew the awful feeling.

I never really thought about where I was when it happened because it seemed so insignificant to the overall scheme of things. That I was waiting for a ride to Wal-Mart to get a new battery for my car might be as inconsequential to history as you can get.

That all changed when I got to work, though. I got my car battery and went into work at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Not much of a sports section that night. Instead, most of us helped cover the American reaction to 9/11, got quotes from sports fans and ordinary citizens and worked our asses off for the next week to get every angle possible, especially on the background of Osama Bin Laden and Al Queda. I tell you that “useless” information everyone said I had about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the CIA response in the form of the Mujahideen suddenly became extremely useful.

The only real downside was that I already had the images of the collapses of the north and south towers of the World Trade Center seared into my mind and I had to watch them over and over again that week.

To get through it, I hit the books. Literally. I couldn’t read anything about police officers or fire fighters because they would only remind me of the awful sacrifices made that unforgettable day.

Instead, I read war books. Real life stories about how America coped with past wars and how the men and women who fought them coped. I knew the American armed forces would be responding to the attack and I also knew the Taliban would be as stupid as Saddam Hussein was in Desert Storm.

The first book I read was Day of Infamy by Walter Lord, about the Japanese sneak attack on Dec. 7, 1941. That seemed most appropriate. I  followed it up  with Incredible Victory, also by Lord, about  how we won the Pacific War.

Other books about Americans triumphing over adversity soon  followed – The Great Escape (Paul Brickhill); The Short-Timers (Gustav Hasford; hint: was the basis for Stanley  Kubrick’s classic Full Metal Jacket); War Year (Joe Haldeman), and Pork Chop Hill (S.L.A. Marshall).

I also remember checking The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank, Otto Frank & Mirjam Pressler) out of the library. Talk about finding positive examples of surviving through incredible adversity.

I think I ignored all the larger-than-life stuff like the Mack Bolan series because I felt comfort in reading about the true exploits of real people. Because real people died on December 7th, just like on 9/11. Real, everyday Joes and Janes signed up to fight the Japanese. Just like Americans were torn from their norms and thrown in to a seemingly impossible situation, so, too were the young men who found themselves in Marine boot camp, being stripped down and made into brutal killers for Vietnam.

These were books about people who had already been through catastrophe, had rallied together and had triumphed or provided inspiration for others to continue to live. I like Anne Frank’s diary despite her ultimate fate. I still enjoy the original movie with Millie Perkins and the remake with Melissa Gilbert, if only to remind myself that while life might suck, it will go on.

It makes me wonder what books will be written about Afghanistan and Iraq. Those wars seem so politicized and sanitized now that we Americans (and our allies) go on with our daily lives and treat them like 30-second sound bites.

Maybe we need modern versions of Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers or G.F. Borden’s Seven Six One or Mark Bowden’s Blackhawk Down.

Then, we would definitely never forget that awful day in September.

Other recommended reading:

The Longest Day (Cornelius Ryan)

A Bridge Too Far (Cornelius Ryan)

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (Ted W. Lawson)

Flags of Our Fathers (James Bradley & Ron Powers)

Jarhead (Anthony Swofford)

The Bridges at Toko-Ri (James Michener)

The Cruel Sea (Nicholas Monsarrat)

The Bridge Over the River Kwai (Pierre Boulle)

The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane)

Diary of Alvin York (Alvin York, edited by Tom Skeyhill)

1968 (Joe Haldeman)

We Were Soldiers Once…and Young (Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore, ret. & Joseph Galloway)


  1. Yes. Good to remember that life goes on. What a perspective you had, working for a large news organization.

    I would add another couple of books to the excellent ones you mentioned: Warrior Elite: The Making of Class 228 by Dick Couch in 2003. He goes on a journey with the group of young men as they become the kinds of men of which much is asked, especially one seaman, Marcus Luttrel, one of I think 20 or so that graduated, and then became the Lone Survivor later, chronicled in his book in 2009. Those that know me, know I have a personal interest this this fine group of warriors.

    I wish that those who sent them had as much training, and were so carefully chosen, but these guys will do it anyway, which truly does make them heroes. They do it for all of us.

  2. Very powerful post here Greg. I was still in High School when 9/11 happened and I remember clearly what I was doing, only because it was all I had to hold on to. My Dad was in the Army, full active duty at the time. We lived in a Military city and all the kids knew that our parents were going to be overseas because of the tragedy. The school didn't allow us to go home and we slogged through the rest of the day in tears over the huge loss of innocent life and our own fear about our parents being sent to war - to die too. In the end, my Dad was not sent over seas and he retired after 20 years of service in 2002. I will always be proud of him as an American, not just his daugther, for the sacrifices he made to protect our country. I feel the same about all soldiers in the Military - and they definitely should not be forgotten. I reveled and replayed the songs that came out during that time talking about the soldiers and the sacrifice they were making - and cried every time. I couldn't wait until I graduated so that I could join the service too. It never worked out for me to join though and to this day, I still wish I could. I guess it's just part of my blood.

    One good military book I read was called "The Forgotten Soldier". It's about a regular German army soldier during WWII. Guy Sajer has amazing detail as he retells what happened to him and some of his buddies. I know some might not think reading about the German side of things during that war is the right thing to do - but I'm sure everyone here knows there is a difference between the Nazis and the regular German army. Eitherway, it's an emotional read about a soldier that survived the gruesome war but was never famous or hugely decorated for his sacrifice.

    A great movie (not sure if it's a book or not) is "A Midnight Clear". Again about WWII but this time following a small recon group of American soldiers and their interaction with the German army. This movie has dark humor and some great emotional scenes in it.

    "We Were Soldiers" - GREAT movie. I watched it with my Dad and half way through I turned to him, with tears, and said "Is war really like that?" He looked at me very seriously and said "It's worse". I cried for two days after that I think!

    Military movies, songs, and books ALWAYS make me cry - and yet I read them over and over again. Thanks for the new list - I will definitely have to check those out.

  3. Thanks, Sharon. I remember how hushed and tense it was as we waited for the Shock & Awe campaign to start in Iraq but it couldn't hold a candle to 9/11. We journalists often wish for that one big scoop -- and then we regret getting what we wished for.

  4. "We Were Soldiers" was based on "We Were Soldiers Once...and Young."

    Another good book about the horrors of war is "Das Boot."

    Thanks for the comments, Anastasia. Be glad you're dad did his time and came home safely. Even in the light-casualty environment of Desert Storm, not everyone made it back. My ship came back one short and we never thought we'd lose anyone because Iraq didn't have a navy.

  5. Yes, I am very glad he came back okay. The problem with Desert Storm I discovered was not the bullets - it was the fear. My Dad spent a year and a half staring at the other side of a foxhole dreaming about home -waiting for something to happen. That wears on a man emotionally, psychologically. Dad came home and stared at a blank TV for two months. I think that's the hardest part for soldier to deal with - the mental and emotional termoil. Bullets are predictable within reason and soldiers are trained how to deal with them. But no amount of training can prepare you for fear. That's the hard reality of war - even light casualty - cuz you still really don't come home after.

  6. A tough subject indeed, Greg. But I reckon you've done it justice! I like the recap on classic heroism in the books you list.

  7. Very true, Anastasia. Oddly, it reminds me of the final scenes of "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" when Frodo says "How do you pick up the threads of an old life?"

  8. What an amazing thing we are doing this week, reliving and discussing this topic. I cry every time I watch the end of Saving Private Ryan. When he turns to his wife and asks whether he has been a good man, I just lose it.
    I did a post this year for Memorial Day and came to a conclusion that I should refrain from playfully saluting my friends and coworkers on occasion. I haven't been perfect with this, but I hope to be. I never served my country and think it should be saved for those who did and do.
    Perhaps it's just me...

  9. You know, I wish I would have handled it like you, by doing something useful like reading good books like that.

    All I did was stay in front of the television (even sleeping with it on.) for at least a week.

    The first thing after that, my companion and I (whom previously agreed cell phones were a frivolous thing and we would never get caught up in such) - suddenly seemed to have a sudden urge to jump on the band wagon of portable telephones. We went out and bought four. After all, if we were attacked again, we wanted my two teenagers to be able to have a way to contact either of us.

    After that, we became obsessed with all our Y2K survival guides and started re-stocking our much depleted stash of water, fuel, ammo and food.

    If there was gonna be another attack - we were gonna be ready.