Honoring the Dead

What happened on September 11?

Only time will give us the words and images that evoke September 11, in the way that Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage evokes the Civil War or the photo of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima evokes World War II. Though nothing yet achieves that status, billions of words, artful and artless, are preparing the first draft of history. Here are some.

The 343 firefighters who died in the collapse of the Twin Towers have had outsized attention-with good reason. Their rush to the World Trade Center embodies the sacrificial act to which we all aspire but hope never to suffer. David Halberstam and Dennis Smith have written masterful, but very different, chronicles of this heroism.

Halberstam, a journalist and political writer, lives around the corner from Engine 40 and Ladder Company 35 on Manhattan’s West Side. Twelve of the thirteen firefighters who answered the alarm on September 11 never returned. Halberstam’s Firehouse is a moving and concise story, a stark contrast to his recent behemoth War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals-and for good reason. Far from the leaks and spin doctors of Washington, Halberstam encounters a contained ethos on West 66th Street: firefighters, their families, the firehouse’s tribal customs, and their intense loyalty to one another. Detail by detail drawn from colleagues and families, he weaves together the stories of the twelve: where they were when...

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About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.