September 12, 2012

Staff Picks: 500 Days, Eleven Years Later

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 2:35 PM – Filed under: Current Events & Public Affairs, Leadership & Strategy

It's the morning after 9/11, eleven years later.

As I sat down to write this post yesterday, I began typing up a description of four commercial airplanes hijacked by religious zealots and flown into the heart of the American establishment: two hitting a set of twin towers in the middle of the country's financial district, which when built were the tallest on Earth; another crashing into a five-sided office building—still the largest on Earth by sheer floor area—that housed the nerve center of the mightiest military the world has ever known; and one that was brought down in a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania before it could reach it's final target, believed to be either the White House or the U.S. Capitol Building, to strike at the political leadership of a 235-year-old experiment in self-government that constructed a system from scratch that built those buildings and the civilian infrastructure that each of them housed.

As I was writing that description, two things struck me. First, that everyone already knows that story and can conjure up images of each horrific scene just by hearing the words nine and eleven placed next to each other. And, second, if we hadn't lived through it, it would sound unbelievable—it would sound like a scene from a second-rate thriller or science fiction film. But, as they say, truth is stranger than fiction. What isn't mentioned is that it's also more brutal, and the only way we get along at all or get through the day is that we don't dwell on how close we are to the precipice of potential chaos that exists in every moment.

But as many somber ceremonies reminded us yesterday, it wasn't science fiction. It really did happen, and the country that those planes flew above and then smashed into has altered drastically since. Some of the biggest changes are chronicled in Kurt Eichenwald's excellent new book, 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars. The 500 Days ("554 to be exact") the title refers to are the eighteen months after 9/11 in which the judgements that "every aspect of the terror wars flowed from" were made.

He writes in his brief introduction to the book that "Readers looking in these pages for my view of these events will no doubt be disappointed. I have little faith in opinion, even my own. Instead, this book is meant to be a dispassionate history of this crucial time."

I have little faith in opinion, as well (especially my own) but I found Eichenwald to be a very passionate, though non-partisan, reporter. He writes with an immediacy and an intimacy with his subjects that is rare in nonfiction.

Originally intended to be a book about the Bush Administration's response to 9/11, the author quickly realized that the scope of the story was much, much larger and his approach was off-base, writing:

I found that the strategy cobbled together in those initial days was not the creation of a single group of politicians or even a single government. The Bush Administration was important, but America did not hold a monopoly on shaping the multipronged assault on terrorists.

So, I changed directions. By concentrating my research on the rush of events over those 554 days, I would be able to lay bare the essence of a trauma that haunts the world to this day. I later decided that the full story could not be understood simply from depictions of events in the corridors of power; this history was also shaped by the experiences of the powerless. Extraordinary rendition was not simply a policy adopted in government conference rooms—it played out in real ways on real people's lives, as did decisions about the application of the Geneva Conventions, the use of secret prisons, and the like. These experiences, sometimes horrendous, helped shape directions of international policies in profound and often unseen ways. I would be remiss in ignoring those individual consequences.

So instead of a book solely about one administration, this book is a complex quilt of human stories, and Eichenwald pulls at each thread to unwind and then reconstruct the entire picture. Beginning twelve months before 9/11 on a ranch in Crawford, Texas with soon-to-be-president George Bush, and ending aboard the USS Carl Vinson as the body of Osama Bin Laden "sank silently to the bottom of the sea," the author tells the story of our times with the individual stories of people wrapped up in each decision and every moment.

Fans of Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big to Fail will recognize a similar narrative approach in Eichenwald's 500 Days, and will find that the pages turn just as fast. That's good, because like Too Big to Fail it is a big book. The cast of characters he lists at the front of the book alone reaches eleven pages (Sorkin's was eight), and the way the author reconstructs their stories makes you feel as if you were in the room when it all went down. If you remember the scene at the beginning of Too Big to Fail in which the leaders of Lehman Brothers, Dick Fuld and Joseph Gregory, are making their way to Wall Street (in a chauffeured Mercedes and private helicopter, respectively) as the financial world is collapsing around them, you'll be equally transfixed by the scene in which secretary of transportation Norm Mineta is driving up the White House as an exodus of staffers heads the other way on the morning of 9/11—and 500 Days is filled with such stories.

The buildings hit on 9/11 were symbols of our financial and military might. The terrorists didn't succeed that day, but within a decade we had done much of their work for them from within, with those on Wall Street bringing the financial system to its knees, and those in the Pentagon and offices of government chipping away at individual liberties in the name of security. When historians look back at the beginning of what I hope will be a second "American century," they will look at the events chronicled in 500 Days and Too Big to Fail—the Great Crash and Pearl Harbor of our generation—and find two excellent narratives that bring the two crises back to life.

They will study these two catastrophic events and our responses to them, and be either amazed that—despite some initial missteps—we overcame them and got it right in the end, or they will see the beginning of the end of American ascendancy. The choice really is that dramatic, and it really is up to us. It doesn't have to do as much with political party as it does with pragmatic principles and problem-solving, and like the challenges our grandparents confronted in the middle of the last century, ours aren't confined within our borders. We emerged from a Great Depression and a two World Wars in the last century as an engine of growth the likes of which the world had never seen, helped rebuild a continent abroad and stand it up against the rise of political and economic totalitarianism—totalitarianism we defeated without firing a single shot. That say that truth is stranger than fiction, but it can also more spectacular.

9/11 will forever be a day to look back, to remember the dead, and to honor our soldiers and first responders with moments of silence and ceremony. It's now the morning after 9/11, eleven years later. It's time to look forward again, to get back to building our future, and the next 500 days will be critical.