by David Friend

By now, we know the cold statistics. It was the bloodiest day in U.S. history. It was the result of a series of stunning assaults that claimed thousands of lives. It came on a crisp September morning, when men and women wept openly, when the very fate of the nation trembled. And much of it was captured on film by intrepid chroniclers with cameras.

I am referring, in fact, to September 17, 1862, the date of the Civil War's battle of Antietam, a battle that for 150 years had been our country's deadliest 24 hours. The one-day toll: 4,000 fatalities and some 24,000 casualties among Union and Confederacy ranks. The photographers who descended upon the scene to record the carnage, Alexander Gardner and James Gibson, were working under the auspices of Matthew Brady, President Lincoln's portraitist. The men carted their darkroom to the battlefield in a horse-drawn carriage, etching images of slaughter onto glass-plate negatives. Their pictures were eerily bucolic: next to farmhouses and alongside rural fences, soldier after fallen soldier appeared to grace fields like stoic boulders. The photographs of Antietam, made three decades after the medium's invention, were the first to show American war dead. They are still startling to the eye and marrow, a century and a half later.

Until recently, an American asked to single out the day that claimed the heaviest toll might have thought of Antietam. Or, more likely, he would have answered: Pearl Harbor (where 2,403 GI's perished) or D-Day (which resulted in 8,000 assault-force casualties). Such a response, in part, may be attributable to the power of imagery itself. Visual reenactments--especially recent Hollywood fare such as Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Pearl Harbor, and HBO's Band of Brothers - have reinforced the import of those two fateful days on the nation's psyche. But, in truth, it was the still photograph through which the American mind, over time, became ingrained with the battles' almost tactile impact. At Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), Navy cameramen responded to Japanese bombers by training lenses instead of guns. Their images, splashed across spreads of Life magazine, gave terror a face: a riot of fire and black cloud engulfing the U.S.S. Shaw, an Oahu-based seaman in white sprinting for cover past a pall of smoke, sailors and planes paralyzed under a looming fireball on the deck of the battleship Arizona. On D-Day (June 6, 1944), in the teeth of the German barrage, photojournalist Robert Capa managed to squeeze off four rolls of film, eleven frames of which survived. His depiction of a lone private (21-year-old Ed Regan, of Olyphant, Pa.) rushing ashore at Omaha Beach that morning became the emblem of the hellish blur of battle.

But now we are faced with a new brand of warfare, one that defies all sense and proportion. The horror of the incidents of September 11 transcends any body count. The assaults were so diabolic that we seem to need proof, irrefutable evidence, to convince ourselves that the unimaginable - the conflagration of the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon - could have actually happened. As a result, we are forced to rely again on pictures, and on the men and women who happened to be possessed of hands and minds steady enough to have taken them.

Time's Jim Nachtwey, for one, rushed to the frontline of the attack. He caught, among other ghastly moments, the sight of Tower One as it imploded, hailing gray debris upon a church's forlorn cross. "I've seen the destruction of Grozny and Beirut and Mostar and Bosnia," Nacthwey, a resident of lower Manhattan, told Matt Lauer on NBC's Today Show. "And coming home was always a refuge. It was always a place where I felt a sense of freedom and a sense of security. And now the dynamics that were happening in other parts of the world were suddenly--literally--in my own backyard."

Suzanne Plunkett, of the Associated Press, captured men in ties and terror dashing down a sidewalk to escape the towers' billows. Both Don Halaby, of the New York Post, and David Handschuh, of the Daily News, were thrown by the explosion (Halaby was badly shaken up; Handschuh broke his leg in two places), yet came away with arresting images of the trade center's collapse. And several photojournalists, including Thomas E. Franklin (of the Bergen Record), Contact's Lori Grinker and Westchester-based Rickey Flores, at great personal danger, were able to render three firemen, moments after the second tower fell. The moments they recorded on September 11 are reminiscent of Joe Rosenthal's classic 1945 image of six GI's hoisting Old Glory on Iwo Jima. "We got calls from people who want to [turn it into] a billboard," says Flores's boss, Hai Do, photo chief of the Journal News, of White Plains, New York. "We got calls from the Tulsa, Oklahoma Fire Department want[ing] to make a poster."

The world watched terror, first-hand, as the World Trade Center puffed and raged and disappeared. Within the compact span of only 16 acres, a thousand thousand tons of matter and steel collapsed in fire and physics. And in one titanic pyre, a galaxy of human life, as if a starfield of several thousand suns, was suddenly consumed.

In fact, as of this writing, the death toll from that clear September morning, eclipses that of distant Antietam. But if there is one thing to find heartening at all, in some corner of the soul - beyond the generosity and heroism of thousands, if not millions, of men and women the world over - it is the fact that photographers, as ever, had the poise and wherewithal to pick up cameras so that the world might witness, and respond.


On September 9, my 13-year-old son Sam and I watched the first two installments of H.B.O.'s Band of Brothers, with its graphic depiction of D-Day. When the show ended, Sam turned to me and asked, "Dad, will we ever go to war?"

"Not likely," I responded. "Let's hope not in your lifetime."

That was Sunday night. The war began on Tuesday morning, 33 hours later.

David Friend
Contributing Editor

David Friend is Vanity Fair's editor of creative development. Vanity Fair is publishing a 52-page special edition, devoted to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, which will go on sale October 10 (in New York) and October 16 (worldwide).

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