The View From Abroad

What it was like to be an American in France in the aftermath of 9/11


9 September 2011

I was in Paris, alone. My father was in Washington, D.C., with his parents. After seeing the images on television, my grandfather, already ill, collapsed. My memories of September 11 are bound up inextricably with my grandfather’s death.

My grandparents were musicians, refugees from the Nazis. They fled to Paris from their native Leipzig in 1933. From my grandfather’s memoirs:

Then came September 1, 1939, when I found myself in the uniform of the French Foreign Legion. The legion disregarded my skill as a pianist and composer and proceeded to train me to play the following instrument with more or less perfection: A Hotchkiss machine gun, model 1916. Of this instrument, one can say that one is expected to play it with deadly accuracy. And I always had some talent with instruments, musical or otherwise . . .

When we arrived in the United States in late 1941, the immigration officer looked at our documents, stamped with a dozen stamps bought with blood and tears, and said, “Welcome Home.”

My grandfather was one of the handful of survivors of his regiment. We have the official army records, yellow and weathered. In just a few days of action, the 12th Regiment went from 2,250 men to 225 men. The survivors were as a group awarded the Légion d’honneur. The Regiment still flies the emblem of the Légion d’honneur on its standard. The Hotchkiss fired something like eight rounds a minute: German machine guns fired ten times as many rounds in the same period of time. Or so he wrote.

I don’t think I’ve reviewed the e-mail I sent to friends in the wake of the attack even once in the past ten years. It occurred to me to do so while thinking about this anniversary. I wanted to know if my memories of my reaction were true. I was surprised by what I found. This is what I was really thinking, not what I remember thinking. I’ve only omitted the names and a detail or two that might identify the friends to whom I wrote.

My grandfather is at Sibley Hospital, which my father says is strangely empty—I guess all the casualties were taken to other hospitals, or maybe there are no casualties, because they’re all dead.

Paris is not quite under martial law, but it’s close, the city is on the highest possible anti-terrorist alert. There are soldiers with automatic weapons on the streets.

French people are coming up to me in the street with tears in their eyes and telling me that they love America.


It’s 4:24 in the morning here, and I can’t sleep. . . . I don’t know why it didn’t dawn on any of us before that crazed and demonic people might long to plough a human payload of terrified souls into a building in the heart of New York City.


Note from Paris: New Yorkers may have been taken aback by Chirac’s use of the word “drama” to describe the attacks and their aftermath. He probably didn’t realize the connotations of this word in English. I doubt he meant to suggest that the events were theatrical; in French the word drame means tragedy. It’s one of those faux amis they warn you about. He’s not actually a completely insensitive, inappropriate moron. I know this because after nearly going out of my mind with rage at French newscasters for calling this a drame, I finally looked it up.


M—, basically I agree with you, and I think Bush will handle this fine. He’s calm, he’s in control, and he’s surrounded by the right people. I don’t think we’re leaderless, as S— said. But I also agree with S— that words and oratory count at a moment like this. It is simply grotesque to describe the perpetrators as “folks,” even if it is an unstaged first reaction, or to describe this as a “tragedy,” as if someone had been bitten by a shark. S— is right; the word he needed was “evil.” He used it, later. The word he needed was “murder,” not tragedy. Thousands of innocent men, women and children were murdered by men of unfathomable evil; no one succumbed to “tragedy” at the hands of “folks.”

Thanks everyone for the kind thoughts about my grandfather; we’re still not sure what’s wrong.


My phone has been ringing non-stop; all of my French friends are grief-stricken and appalled and overwhelmed, and they all wanted to talk to me because I’m American and they wanted to tell me that they love America, would enlist today if they could to avenge these murders. Today all of Europe shut down for three minutes of silence; 200,000 Germans stood outside the Brandenburg Gate; thousands stood silent in the streets of Paris, Toulouse, Rome, Warsaw . . . then the French and British leadership sang the U.S. national anthem, which was eerie and profoundly moving. Le Monde ran an editorial that said “Today we are all Americans,” and “France owes America its liberty”—two phrases I never thought I’d see in Le Monde in my lifetime. All trace of subtle anti-American sentiment seems to have disappeared. Of course, 200 French people are missing in the rubble, too.


What I haven’t seen in the press, what I’d like to see, is a specific discussion of the details of various military options. I’d like to see a detailed statement of our war aims, for a start: “Ridding the world of evil” is great, but it won’t happen in our lifetimes. Neither, for that matter, will “whipping terrorism”—are we going to go after the IRA, the Basque separatists, while we’re at it? I want to see a clear, intelligible formulation of plausible objectives. I cannot find one anywhere in the press.

Then I’d like to see a detailed analysis of the various military options we might employ: What would it take to occupy, say, Kabul, Baghdad and every terrorist training camp or military facility related to this attack, all facilities for the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Sudan? How many carrier groups, what kind of aircraft, artillery, missiles would we need, how many ground troops, how long would it take to effectuate this kind of campaign, what kind of casualties would we take; do we have what it takes now or will we have to enter a prolonged phase of military production first? How many men do we currently have under arms, what weapons are battle ready, what would the numbers be if the whole of the NATO alliance is involved; a full-fledged international coalition? How should the battle be waged, geographically and strategically? There would be a sustained air campaign first, obviously, followed by a ground campaign—but of what kind? Where should forces be concentrated? What kind of civilian casualties would we inflict? What scenarios are more and less likely to lead to a wider Mideast war, a nuclear holocaust involving India and Pakistan?

I hear, “level Kabul,” but there’s nothing in Kabul but a few cripples and a pathetic one-eyed lion in the Kabul Zoo. We can’t bomb Kabul back to the Stone Age because it’s already there. So does it make sense to waste time, money and life eviscerating Kabul, when there are so many more targets of real strategic significance?

If you’ve seen any intelligent analysis of these questions, tell me where. The media are full of stirring calls to war and animadversions that this time, we must mean business, and God knows I agree, I just want to know exactly how we’re going to do it.


Things aren’t so good here; my grandfather did have a heart attack and it looks unlikely that he will live very long. I want to fly to Washington to be with him, but he and my grandmother have demanded I not get on a plane (for obvious reasons). He was 91 and in fragile health before this happened.

They’ve been side by side for 70 years. How will she cope?

My grandfather rallied briefly, then died. I did not see him. I have wished many times in the past decade that I could speak to him about what happened and what has happened since. No one I have ever known has had instincts about politics, war, and its conduct that I trust so deeply. I know what I know from reading books. He knew from experience. Ten years later, I have still not seen an answer to the questions I asked that week about our strategy.

My father told me that though my grandfather was very ill, he was quite lucid in reacting to the news of that day; he understood at once that it was a major atrocity. “They must pay for it with a city,” he said. I wish I knew exactly what he meant.

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