An Old Warrior's Moral Ambiguity

A book about Rick Rescorla, the ex-soldier who died a hero on September 11, ignores some deeper issues about military adventures

By Thane Peterson

Every once in a while, you pick up a magazine, start reading a long article, and you're so utterly entranced that the world stops for an hour. It was that way for me when I came across The Real Heroes Are Dead by the Pulitzer prize-winning reporter James B. Stewart in the Feb. 11 issue of The New Yorker.

Ever since reading that article, I've been eagerly awaiting the publication of Heart of a Soldier (Simon & Schuster, $24), the book by Stewart based on the article. It promised the most detailed account yet of the life and death of Rick Rescorla, the security director at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter who helped save thousands of people after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Alas, when I read the recently published book, I had a surprising sense of letdown.

I agree with Diane Brady, who griped in her review in the Sept. 16 edition of BusinessWeek that the book's tone "borders on hero worship" (see BW, 9/16/02, "Superman Treatment for a Real-Life Hero"). But for me, the problem also run deeper than that. In an oddly inadvertent fashion, the book underscores some of the more troubling aspects of the war on terrorism the U.S. is now launching around the world. Author Stewart -- whose recounting of Rescorla's role in evacuating the World Trade Center was so riveting in The New Yorker piece -- seems oblivious to the moral complexities of his larger tale.


  I'm not suggesting that you not buy the book or that it isn't a worthy read if you don't already know Rescorla's story, which was also laid out in an Oct. 28, 2001, article in The Washington Post and in a Dateline NBC segment last March. Just take it with several grains of salt. Let me explain.

A puffy, overweight man of 62 at the time of the attacks, for years Rescorla had been regarded as something of a crank by hotshot Morgan Stanley traders and brokers working in the World Trade Center because of his insistence on tight security measures and regular fire drills. But during the attacks, the seeming paranoia of the portly old guy in the pinstripe suit paid off. Out of some 2,700 employees working on 22 floors of the Trade Center's South Tower the day of the attacks, Morgan Stanley lost only six people. Rescorla and two other Morgan Stanley security officers who rushed back into the building to search for possible stragglers were among the dead.

As writers and journalists probed Rescorla's background, they discovered someone far more complex than the gruff security officer he seemed at first glance. He had a law degree but also had studied creative writing and could recite from the works of Shakespeare and Kipling by heart. He was overweight partly because he was battling prostate cancer, the treatments having caused him to retain fluids.


  His death also cut short a great, late-life love story. Rescorla had only recently met and married his second wife, Susan. His last words to her in a cell-phone call shortly before his death were, "You made my life."

Most of all, however, Rescorla was a born warrior. Born in Cornwall, England, he volunteered for the British Army at 17 and served in Cyprus. After a tour as a mercenary in Africa, he came to the U.S. (eventually becoming a citizen) mainly so he could fight in the Vietnam War, where he displayed extraordinary valor. In 1965, at the battle of the Ia Drang Valley, he and his men leaped from a helicopter into one of the bloodiest firefights of the war. He helped rally battered American forces on the ground who were in danger of being overrun by Vietcong. He won a Silver Cross, among other medals, for his courage.

It's in this history that I start to have qualms about Stewart's book. His tale intertwines the lives of three people -- Rescorla, his wife Susan, and Dan Hill, another ex-mercenary and Vietnam War hero who had been Rescorla's best friend for 40 years. Stewart acknowledges that he depended heavily on Hill, and he commends the ex-soldier for his "excellent memory" and efforts to be accurate.


  To me, the tales that come from this old soldier have an emotional brittleness and one-sidedness about them that you don't get in other descriptions of Rescorla, who is described by others as funny, sentimental, and self-deprecating. (Rescorla joked that the book, We Were Soldiers Once...and Young, which featured a photo of him on its cover as a muscled young combatant at Ia Drang, could be retitled We Were Soldiers Once...and Thin.)

His life under arms comes off strangely in Hill's retelling. These guys were hotshots who would do anything to get into battle. They met in the early 1960s in Africa, where they were fighting in the post-colonial wars that blocked the path to black nationhood -- hardly an admirable cause. Stewart styles all this as two young idealists battling what they saw as the spread of communism. But his descriptions -- which apparently come from Hill -- are almost comical in the way they gloss over the moral questions raised by these activities.

Here is how Stewart describes Rescorla's days as a police officer repressing the independence movement of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia):

"Thousands of Africans would attend rallies for one political faction or another, with speakers exhorting them to rise up against their white oppressors. Then tankers stocked with the local Chibuku beer would pull up, and people filled plastic bottles and passed them around. The combination of hotheaded political rhetoric and alcohol was often combustive. Rescorla and his colleagues would arrive in riot gear; rocks were thrown, arrests made."

Can Stewart seriously think that what was happening in Northern Rhodesia at the time was just a series of rowdy beer busts?


  At another point, Stewart recounts how Rescorla organized expeditions against camps set up in Rhodesia by the South African-based United National Independence Party and the African National Congress (Nelson Mandela's organization). Given the history of torture and political assassination involved in repressing those organizations, you expect a detailed discussion of Rescorla's role. But Stewart simply remarks that Rescorla's troops "disarmed and arrested" the insurgents and that there "had been casualties, though not among the British."

Was Rescorla sending these people to a repressive white regime for torture and imprisonment, or wasn't he? Stewart simply seems caught up in the adventure of it all.

Americans could learn lessons from warriors like Rescorla and Hill, especially as the U.S. moves against rogue regimes like Iraq. While working as a consultant for Rescorla, Hill says his friend predicted both the 1993 truck bombing of the WTC and the 2001 air attacks, according to Stewart. Rescorla's letters of warnings to the Port Authority went unheeded. Rescorla then recommended that Morgan Stanley move its people to a low-rise building in New Jersey -- and again was ignored, the author recounts.


  After the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Hill says he even tried to interest the FBI in backing a private mission to assassinate Osama bin Laden. This might be dismissed as the pipe dream of an old soldier past his prime (Hill is in his mid-sixties), but as a mercenary, the Chicago-born Hill fought with the Afghanis against the Soviets, came to speak fluent Arabic, and had forged deep ties among potential insurgents in Afghanistan. Alas, the FBI never signed on for his plan.

Learning lessons from these guys is one thing. Accepting their values as unquestioningly as Stewart does is another. Before the Cold War, Americans were deeply suspicious of professional soldiers and didn't keep a large standing army. With a citizens' army raised by military draft, the reasoning went, war would be taken deadly seriously because citizens' sons would be the ones to die. Now, to fight terrorism, it appears the nation will need a highly trained professional army of Special Forces-type soldiers like Rescorla and Hill. All I can say is that Americans better keep a close eye on them.

Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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