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Books: Bearing witness

September 11: War and remembrance

September 11: War and remembrance

To pursue the path of healing for our nation, we need to remember what we have endured," said Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1998. Tutu was talking about South Africa's need to confront the legacy of apartheid, but his words hold meaning for the U.S. as it approaches the first anniversary of September 11.

Heroism defined that day. Scenes of simple human virtues -- courage, selflessness -- eclipsed the images of success and wealth that had dominated the American imagination for years. The greatness of everyday heroes eased America's sense of helplessness as it tried to grapple with the unimaginable.

Americans have traveled a long way in a short time. Until September 11 the country's heroes were still powerful CEOs and young, rich entrepreneurs (the technology stock rout notwithstanding). After 9/11 a different breed of hero emerged: men like Richard Rescorla, the chief of security at Morgan Stanley, who sang Cornish folk songs to the firm's employees as he evacuated them (disregarding the ill-advised instructions of the Port Authority to stay put) and died making sure everyone was out; heroes like the 343 firefighters who perished, as then­New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani has said, running into the flames when everyone else was running out; heroes like the passengers on United Flight 93.

Evoking the awfulness of that day, as well as the awe-inspiring acts of so many, some 150 books will make their way to stores this fall. Reading them will be difficult; confronting a loss of innocence is always a painful process. Some of the books will recall the chaos and terror; others will focus on the historical forces that made 9/11 possible. In the American spirit many will celebrate the heroes.

Out of the Blue: The Story of September 11, 2001, from Jihad to Ground Zero, by New York Times book critic Richard Bernstein and the staff of the Times, is an eloquent, almost magisterial narrative of the day. Bernstein elicits the pathos of the random deaths; he recounts the history of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and explores the political debate about how best to confront terrorism in America.

"It had been history's most devastating kamikaze attack," Bernstein writes. "Unlike Antietam, it had been completely unexpected. People one instant had been drinking coffee from a paper cup and reading their e-mail, and the next instant they were dead or dying."

Bernstein and the staff of the Times seek to make sense of 9/11 through a variety of perspectives -- personal, historical, political. By contrast, former Wall Street Journal reporter James Stewart tries to make sense of the tragedy by capturing the essence of an everyday hero. Stewart's Heart of a Soldier: A
Story of Love, Heroism, and September 11th
is an exceptional achievement. The author's patient, thorough reporting and novelist's grace produce a moving tale of an ordinary man -- Morgan Stanley's Rescorla -- who acted throughout his life in extraordinary ways.

A decorated Vietnam War hero, he was a writer, dancer and singer. While battling prostate cancer, he fell in love with Susan Greer, who became his second wife. On September 11 he refused to leave the South Tower until all Morgan Stanley employees were out; as they left the building, he urged them to be "proud to be an American."

The depth of Stewart's book is mirrored in different ways in Terry Golway's extensively researched history of the New York City Fire Department, So Others Might Live: A History of New York's Bravest: The FDNY from 1700 to the Present. The son, son-in-law and godson of retired New York firefighters, Golway makes clear that for these men September 11 was a shock but not an aberration: They confronted the specter of death every day of their working lives. "Firefighters lived in a world consumed with fame but were content to live obscure lives in unfashionable neighborhoods," writes Golway, a columnist at the New York Observer. "They were surrounded by a culture of irony and self-indulgence, but they were prepared to risk injury and death to save a stranger."

Personal testimonies can speak with a powerful voice. In September 11: An Oral History, by New York Times reporter Dean Murphy, the panic and horror of Ground Zero is conveyed by the men and women who were there. But the words that linger are Murphy's own, written in the Times a few days after 9/11: "To be in Manhattan last week was to know the aching at the center of your being. It was a week of solemn solidarity and of frightening loneliness, of yearning to carry on and of not having the power to do so."

Heart of a Soldier: A Story of Love, Heroism, and September 11thBy James B. Stewart (Simon & Schuster,New York; 307 pages; $24)

Out of the Blue: The Story of September 11, 2001, from Jihad to Ground ZeroBy Richard Bernstein and the staff of
the New York Times (Times Books, New York; 320 pages; $25)

September 11: An Oral HistoryBy Dean E. Murphy
(Doubleday, New York; 272 pages; $22.95)

So Others Might Live: A History of New York's Bravest: The FDNY from 1700 to the PresentBy Terry Golway
(Basic Books, New York; 336 pages; $27.50)