Ten years ago, I developed a fascination with war. It began with the accounts of military women who deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and expanded to World War II, the Civil War, and the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. I learned that chow could be a place, a rack was something you slept in, boot camp was not the same as basic training, and moral injury was distinct from PTSD. I pored over history books while I waited in the halls of my sons’ preschools, and eventually pursued my research at the Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia, and in the Middle East.
I viewed this growing interest as an effort to contextualize my life: my parents had survived the Korean War before arriving in the U.S. for graduate school in the early 1960s. Like many Korean Americans, my siblings and I formed a link to our family’s past through stories and fraught silences. While we were growing up, my father reminded us about his five-mile walks to school and the virtues of our ancestral lineage. My mother, by contrast, was drawn to sentimental memories of her parents and the war. She often reminisced about her brilliant father, a civil servant in the colonial Korean government, and the songs and poems that he dedicated to her. I remember listening to story after story, rapt with emotion, waiting for the catch in her throat that signaled the end. In the silence that followed, I would think about the story she wasn’t telling us: one day, two agents from the North came to my mother’s house and escorted her beloved father into a car. And then he disappeared.
A few years ago, I became aware of another reason for my interest in war besides my family’s connection to it. I’d never talked much about 9/11, partly because it was, and still is, an uncomfortable subject for many people, and I was, and probably still am, overwhelmed by the magnitude of that day. Unlike several of my friends, I did not leave my job or find a deeper purpose in the aftermath of the attacks. Instead, I took shelter under a blanket of disquiet while I continued with my life. When my memory of 9/11 eventually returned, it revealed itself vividly and in slow motion, as traumatic events often do.
I was at the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001. I saw the cloudless sky that I would later read about in the newspapers—its beauty only became strange in retrospect. Despite a bizarre plane accident, I sensed nothing unusual when I arrived on a high, open floor of Tower Seven. Business suits milled around me in distracted, comforting patterns while ambient news played on a flat screen TV. After my client called to postpone our meeting, I noticed something that gave me pause: the image of two smoldering towers on the large screen was identical to what I saw through the enormous window. I closed my briefcase and took the elevator to the ground floor.
The air outside was crisp with shock. I joined the ashen crowds heading north and tried to call my mother. Unable to reach her on my cellphone, I stopped at a stationary taxi to listen to a radio. While I waited, the woman standing next to me pointed at the sky. A man and a woman were hovering over a ledge of the North Tower. I could make out their features, their smooth, formal clothes. They looked like dolls gazing across Manhattan. As a voice sputtered on the radio with a news update, the woman next to me screamed. My breath quickened; I did not look up again and kept walking.
I heard the North Tower collapse before I understood that could happen. There was a long, swaying creak and a pause before the massive structure of glass and steel began to buckle under its own weight. I remember glancing over my shoulder as I ran, trapped in a scene from a comic book. When the sound gathered itself again, the tower fell swiftly, in violent cascades of debris and dust, borne by its own momentum in a headlong descent to the ground, until nothing, not even the invincible idea of it, remained.
Afterward, a burning scent spread throughout New York City that made everything taste warm and metallic, like electricity.
There are things I understand now that I didn’t know then. I think I understand the elusive authority of the silence surrounding my family’s stories and 9/11. It is central to our experience of war and trauma, and it reminds us of our mysterious connection to other lives around the world and across time.
As I watch my sons grow taller than me, I sometimes wonder about my grandfather. For years, I urged my mother to find out what happened to him. Now, I no longer do. I see how the quiet protects her, like a layer of skin she may never shed. If I listen closely, maybe I will hear a song in her silence. Maybe that will be how the story ends.
Anne received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in New Jersey and is currently working on a novel.
Anne encourages you to check out veteranswriting.org and woundedwarriorproject.org.
*Author photo by Samuel Naughton, September 2020