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)