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