Garrett M. Graff Brings back the Tragedy
With every year, more and more people join the ranks of humanity without having witnessed the tragedy which occurred on September 11th, 2001, when hijacked planes crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Nevertheless, this event remains at the forefront of American history to this day, having drastically reshaped the country both in terms of its laws and the mentality of its people. As you might know, countless books, essays and dissertations have been written on the subject, ranging from purely factual accounts to conjectures of conspiracy. However, Garret M. Graff might be the first one to succeed in putting together a complete and panoramic view of the day itself and its consequences through the voices of the people who experienced it, in his book titled The Only Plane in the Sky.
The book doesn’t waste any time at all and opens on the day of the tragedy itself, as the ticket agents unknowingly allow terrorists to board several American planes. From there on out we go through the events of the day in chronological order, with Graff always trying to give as much detail as possible from as many different sources as he can manage about every single event which transpired. We follow the last hours of the planes and the people on-board, their families down below, and the chaos of the attack as seen from countless witnesses, first responders, survivors, friends, loved ones… basically, anyone and everyone who may have had something to say about it.
Graff also delves quite profoundly into the military aspect of the whole situation, how the generals made their decisions, the deliberations politicians had among themselves, the pact made by a few unarmed air force pilots in the air to crash into the airliners if necessary, and a whole lot more. Additionally, Graff extends his observations of 9/11 to the rest of the day and the aftermath it had on the rest of country, the prevailing atmosphere of fear, grief, hatred and paranoia which ushered in a new life for innumerable people.
The Power of Oral History
While I personally haven’t read too much literature in regards to 9/11, I do consider myself familiar enough with the event to appropriately appreciate the depth of the report provided in this book. I can safely say from my personal experience, this is without a doubt the most complete account of the event I have ever laid eyes upon, exceeding what I figured would be possible many years ago. The amount of accounts from different perspectives Graff managed to gather is simply unprecedented, and I believe the reason all of them acquire equal importance is due to the oral history structure the book has been written with.
For those not entirely familiar with it, the oral history format has been around for a while and essentially means the book is written like one long flowing conversation, with each paragraph being dedicated to a new person. As such, with Graff going through the chronological events of the day we are easily able to learn about different perspectives on the same event, sometimes on the diametrically opposite end of the spectrum. This format ensures no one’s voice is given any particular significance over anyone else’s, and in my opinion this is key in understanding the complete reality of what occurred on 9/11.
Another advantage of this format is the fact we keep walking back and forth on the spectrum between facts and emotions. In one paragraph, a military figure might give a purely factual and impartial account of the event, while the next one might bear the testimony of a grieving family member. There are some very heavy and emotionally-charged passages in this book, and I believe spacing them out in this way does a big favour to the reader.
The Big Information Collection
Taking a step to the side from what I mentioned above, there is one particular aspect about this book which I believe clearly raises it above its peers, and it’s simply the immense wealth of information Graff managed to unearth for his project. The book is relatively long at 512 pages, and is comprised of recently declassified documents, interviews (both archived and original), reports, transcripts, spoken and written testimonies, and possibly a few other things I might be forgetting. At the end of it, we have enough information to cover the perspectives of over five hundred people; I honestly don’t know of any other book which can live up to this amount of information.
From all this knowledge we are given in the book, it actually starts to become somewhat possible to really reconstruct how the day went down and perhaps make some kind of order in all the chaos which gripped the land. I think this is without a doubt a very important step, even if it might end up being a small one, to clear up the vast amount of vagueness, hypotheses and lies surrounding 9/11. Impartial facts ought to make up the base of any search for truth, and Graff establishes them like no one’s business.
I also enjoyed the fact Graff explored the consequences of the terrorist attack further in the day and took care to document the nation’s reaction in the face of nigh-unbelievable tragedy. Though there are certainly many dark notes in this part of the book as well, I would like to say there are some inspiring and encouraging portrayals of regular Americans standing up for themselves and each other, readying themselves to face a new and changing world, bound to bring the unexpected. In addition to being an account of tragedy, this book is also a testament to human courage and resilience.
The Final Verdict
If for some reason you were only allowed to read a single book in your life about 9/11, then in my opinion The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff should be your top choice. With more information collected than ever before and a grander scope of perspectives to study the event from, this book is one of the best written on the topic, if not the best. As you might imagine, I can only strongly recommend it for anyone even slightly interested in the events September 11th, 2001.
Garrett M. Graff
Garrett M. Graff is an American author and journalist, with the distinction of being the editor-in-chief of Washingtonian magazine as well as an instructor at Georgetown University in the Professional Studies Journalism and Public Relations Program. His notable works include The First Campaign, Raven Rock, and The Only Plane in the Sky.