The Voice of the Prophet

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In November 1965, after what had thus far largely been a counterinsurgency against the guerrillas of the Viet Cong, US troops met North Vietnamese regulars in combat for the first time, amid the scrubby pines near a river in the Central Highlands of Pleiku Province. That place was the Ia Drang valley. In search of the enemy, an infantry battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) helicoptered into what turned out to be the basecamp of several regiments of the People’s Army of Vietnam, setting off a three day battle in which more than two hundred Americans and well over a thousand Vietnamese lost their lives. The high commands of both sides took away from this fight crucial lessons that guided their respective strategies for the remainder of the war. Sadly for the United States, Washington took away precisely the wrong lesson: that we could win a war of attrition. Ironically, Hanoi agreed and avoided exactly that kind of fight; recognizing that it could not go toe to toe with conventional US forces, for the remainder of the war they almost never did. Yet in April 1975 the North Vietnamese conquered Saigon.

None of which detracted from the bravery of the American soldiers who fought that battle (nor that of their PAVN foe, for that matter), as the valor of a fighting man is wholly distinct from the agenda of the politicians he serves.

WE WERE SOLDIERS

Twenty-seven years after the battle, Lieutenant General (Ret.) Harold Moore—who as a lieutenant colonel had been the American commander in the Ia Drang—and Joseph Galloway—who had been the only journalist present, celebrating his 24th birthday while on the battlefield—published We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, their meticulously researched, decades-in-the-making account of the fight. The book was released to great acclaim, including plaudits from the likes of David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, David Hackworth, and Norman Schwarzkopf, and became an instant classic of American military history. The mesmerizing photo on the book jacket was of a rifle platoon leader taken on the second morning of the battle, leading his men through the ghostly trees of the river valley. This being so early in the war—1965—he looked more like a GI from World War II than what we would come to picture as Vietnam. Unshaven, haggard from combat, chinstrap dangling, bearing a rifle with bayonet affixed—he could easily have been a statue at front gates of Ft. Bragg, NC—Iron Mike—or the Infantry School at Ft. Benning, GA, embodying its motto, “Follow Me.”

That platoon leader was Lieutenant Rick Rescorla.

In 1998 I filmed interviews with Joe Galloway and Rick Rescorla for a documentary my collaborator Richard Berge and I intended to make about the battle. A true Renaissance man, Rick was a soldier, a lawyer, a security expert, a poet, playwright, wit, raconteur, and bon vivant. Born and raised in Cornwall, England, where he had been outstanding schoolboy rugby player, he joined the British Parachute Regiment at the age of 17 and soon found himself in Cyprus, fighting the separatist insurgency there. He eventually made his way into the colonial police in what was then Northern Rhodesia, then returned to Britain and joined Scotland Yard’s famed Flying Squad of detectives. Upon emigrating to the United States he enlisted in the US Army, where he was quickly chosen for Officer Candidate School at Ft. Benning. After earning his commission he was deployed to Vietnam in 1965 as an infantry platoon leader in B Company, 2nd Battalion 7th Cavalry, which was attached to Hal Moore’s 1/7th Cav for the insertion into Landing Zone X-Ray during the Ia Drang operation. He was not yet a US citizen.

In the Ia Drang Rick’s rifle company bore the brunt of the enemy attack on the second night of the battle, turning the tide for the Americans. It was here that he demonstrated the courage and bravado that were to make him a battlefield legend, belting out Cornish songs in the midst of combat to keep up the morale of his men, and rallying them against odds that rightly terrified lesser mortals. General Moore subsequently called Rick the finest platoon leader he ever saw.

After leaving active duty in 1968 Rick continued to serve in the Army Reserve, eventually retiring as a full colonel. In his civilian life he earned a master’s degree in literature, a law degree, and became a professor of criminal justice at the University of South Carolina. He authored a textbook on criminal justice as well as screenplays on subjects ranging from colonial warfare in Africa to the life of Audie Murphy. He later began working as a security expert, eventually signing on with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter as vice president for corporate security.

Some time in the early ‘90s I had heard Rescorla speak at a reunion of Ia Drang vets. (My father had been the commander of C Company, 1st Battalion 7th Cavalry during the fight.) Big and beefy now in contrast to the wiry lieutenant of 1965, he had the booming voice and charismatic manner of a natural orator and a warrior poet. It was easy to see why he had been such a well-respected troop leader. Contemplating a documentary about the battle, I mentally filed him away as a must-have interview subject. Around 1997 I contacted him and he agreed to be filmed. We arranged to shoot his interview in the MSDW offices in the World Trade Center.

THE LOOMING TOWER

Early on the morning of July 28, 1998, my team of Ferne Pearlstein, Justin Schein, and I pulled up to the WTC in a rented white van full of 16mm motion picture equipment. I was startled at how perfunctory the security was. In the underground garage beneath the towers, we were made to get out of the van and have our photographs taken for visitors’ badges, but that was about it. No one inspected our vehicle, which was packed to the gills with hard shipping crates. Those crates were full of camera gear, but might very well have been full of C4. If there were dogs or chemical sensors to detect explosives, I saw no evidence of them. Not five years before, the very building we were standing beneath had been bombed by terrorists. Yes, there was such a thing as closing the barn door after the cow had escaped….and then there was not even bothering to close the door at all.

We unloaded the van and hauled our gear up to the 44th floor of the South Tower, where Rick’s office was.

I knew that Rick would be a great interview and he did not disappoint. He discussed his background, his role in the Ia Drang, and his views on the nature of warfare in general. Speaking with the impeccable credentials of a bemedaled warrior whose patriotism was beyond reproach, he derided the 1991 Gulf war as an anomaly and a poor model for future conflicts, given the months we had to put forces in place, not to mention terrain tailor-made for big tank battles that played to American strengths. Turning to the broader geopolitical picture, he criticized the American reliance on high technology at the expense of old-fashioned infantry operations, and suggested that US foreign policy had been hampered by ill-considered actions by politicians with little understanding of military affairs or the limits of force as a tool of national interests. He also displayed a searing insight into how anti-American hatred incubates, and how the United States—with the chance to serve as a beacon of liberty and democracy for the rest of the world, or to squander the same—could pre-empt such opposition in the future. Of Vietnam, he said:

I don’t think we should have been deployed there. I don’t agree with the reason we were there, and if we went in, we probably should have gone in on Giap’s side. That’s the way I feel. That nation had no hope of being united under anybody but Vo Nguyen Giap. He was the man who lead the triumph over the French, he was the most honored man, and by us opposing him and thinking we could take puppet generals and back them up with our own American force was the utmost conceit, and it failed miserably. Although we won on the battlefield, (it) was not about the battlefield. It was about the national will. And Giap knew his national will, he was fighting for his homeland. We didn’t know our national will, and quite rightly, the American people—when they got to see for a long period of time that we weren’t going to win the war—said, “Get out.”

It was a remarkably critical, clear-eyed monologue bereft of even a trace of flag-waving. At the end of the interview Rick gave Ferne, our cinematographer, a framed black-and-white photo of the Twin Towers and autographed it on the back.

We packed up and I flew back home to California that same day. The night before, Ferne and I had had our first impromptu “date” and soon began a cross-country romance. A few months later I moved to New York and turned my attention to other projects. The Ia Drang documentary was never finished, as other outlets (including ABC’s “Day One” news magazine) told the story and beat me to the punch. The footage of Rick’s interview went on the shelf where it stayed for the next three years.

FALL IN NEW YORK

Ferne and I moved in together and got engaged, with the wedding set for the end of September 2001. Halfway across the world—in Hamburg and Riyadh—other people had other ideas.

On the morning of September 11th, Ferne and I sat in our Chinatown apartment, reeling at the collapse of the Twin Towers less than a mile away. Thinking of who we knew who might have been caught inside, our minds went to Rick. Over the next several days we learned what had happened, a tale which remains one of the most poignant stories in a day filled with them.

Morgan Stanley was the largest single tenant of the World Trade Center, with over 2700 employees on thirty floors of the South Tower and another thousand in an adjacent building across the plaza. Rick had been its head of security when Islamic militants bombed the WTC in 1993, and was credited with saving the lives of hundreds of employees that day by calmly leading them to safety. (Displaying the same unflappable cool as in Vietnam, he reportedly got the attention of the panicked crowd by jumping up on a desk and threatening to drop his pants.) Characteristically, he was the last man out of the building.

Afterward, he told his bosses that there would be similar attacks in the future, and insisted that the company institute an emergency plan. His superiors had reason to believe him: even before the 1993 bombing Rick had told them—and the Port Authority—that the Twin Towers were woefully lax in security and a ripe target for terrorist attack. He had even identified a truck bombing of the underground garage as the primary threat. So, with the blessing of the Morgan Stanley brass, for the next eight years Rick forced his co-workers to carry out regular evacuation drills. He even wrote to friends that he suspected that the next attack would be by air, probably a cargo plane loaded with chemical or biological weapons. Predictably, the brokers grumbled about their work being interrupted, about the money-making minutes lost, and about the indignity of being treated like schoolchildren. But on the morning of September 11th those drills arguably saved their lives.

Rick Rescorla was not even supposed to be at work that morning, but he had delayed a vacation in order to accommodate one of his deputies. That afternoon, in fact, he was scheduled to testify in a lawsuit that Morgan Stanley had filed against the Port Authority over inadequate security measures surrounding the ‘93 bombing. The following day he was supposed to fly to Italy for his stepdaughter’s wedding.

When the first plane hit the North Tower next door, Rick immediately began evacuating his company’s employees, exactly as they had practiced. He led by example, just as he had done in ’93, and in the Ia Drang valley before that, inspiring confidence with his booming voice and magnetic personality, singing Cornish folk songs to keep spirits up and distract his co-workers from the dangers at hand. When an announcement was made that their building was not at risk and that everyone should return to their offices, Rick prudently ignored the directive and insisted that they continue the evacuation. He then made his way as high as the 72nd floor, accosting dallying workers and other stragglers and hustling them out.

When the second plane hit the South Tower at approximately 9:07 am, most of Morgan Stanley’s employees were already on their way to safety thanks to Rick. He could easily have joined them, as his superiors at corporate headquarters pleaded. Instead he headed back into the building, believing that his job demanded that he continue to help rescue others. Realizing that this decision would likely cost him his life, he phoned his wife Susan to tell her that he loved her. He was last seen in a 10th floor stairwell, calmly but firmly directing the evacuation of those who remained. A photograph snapped by someone on the way out shows Rick wielding a bullhorn, exhorting the employees to keep moving toward the exits, assuring them that “Today is a day to be proud to be an American,” and “Tomorrow the whole world will be talking about you!” That photograph was the last picture of him ever taken, a bookend to the iconic photo of him in the Ia Drang.

It is impossible to know just how many survivors of the September 11th tragedy owe their survival to Rick’s selflessness, foresight, and leadership, but a simple statistic suffices. Of some 3700 Morgan Stanley employees who worked in the World Trade Center complex, all but six escaped the collapse of the buildings. Rick was one of those six. He and two of his deputies were still inside the building looking for stragglers when the tower collapsed. No remains of any of the three were ever located in the massive pulverization of casualties and debris that resulted.

CASSANDRA IN A BUSINESS SUIT

When we interviewed him three years earlier, we did not know that Rick had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, which had gone into remission following treatment. Indeed, he was due to retire just three months after September 11, and planned to devote himself to writing full time. But believing that he might not be long for this earth, he had begun making preparations for his death, a mindset that served him well on that terrible morning. It was a bitter irony that a man who had survived three wars, cancer, and the 1993 bombing should meet his end in this way, but no one who knew Rick was surprised by the heroic actions of the last hours of his life.

When we learned about Rick’s death, I dug out the 16mm rushes of his interview and watched them again. I was astonished. He is dressed in a business suit and sits in someone’s borrowed office on the 44th floor of the South Tower, the better to give us a good background for the shot, facing uptown. Through the large plate glass window behind him we can see the Manhattan skyline, and prominent within it, the city’s second tallest skyscraper, the Empire State Building. He speaks into the camera with confidence and passion. While the first part of the interview covered his personal history and his experience in Vietnam, I had largely forgotten his comments in the second half, which concerned the future of warfare. They now sounded eerily prescient:

When you’re talking about the future wars, we’re talking about engaging in Los Angeles. We’re talking about terrorist actions. Combat in cities, hunting down terrorists—this will be the nature of war in the future, not great battlefields, not great tanks rolling.

Now, they may well be Americans, as we saw in the Oklahoma City bombing. We’re talking about no specific groups, no specific religions. For example, people have blamed the Muslims. The Muslims are honorable people. It’s just small segments of fanatics and terrorists….They can hit us at our weakest point because they choose the time and the place. Terrorist forces can tie up conventional forces; they can bring them to their knees. A good example was in Beirut, the Beirut bombing, and the more recent Saudi bombings. One individual, one fanatic, one man willing to give his life for what he believes….

Watching this interview in mid September 2001, with the smoking hole of Ground Zero still spewing noxious ash into the air of my neighborhood, a chill ran down my spine. Rick even mentioned the possibility of anthrax attacks.

He went on to describe the context in which such terrorism would arise, recalling Eisenhower’s indictment of the military-industrial complex and criticizing American foreign policy for being more about economic self-interest than the values of freedom, democracy, and self-determination to which the United States was supposed to be devoted. Again he indicted the Gulf war for being all about oil, and condemned US involvement in Nicaragua and other places where we were “backing the wrong people” and propping up dictators for the benefit of corporate interests. He further argued that if the US did live up to its professed values, the rest of the world would applaud and follow suit, eliminating much of the anti-Americanism that motivated problematic US military interventions overseas in the first place—a perfect (and perfectly elegant) solution.

For a man with Rick’s history, from Cyprus to Rhodesia to Vietnam to Morgan Stanley, it was a remarkably left-of-center declaration, as well as a prophetic one.

He concluded with these words:

Finally I would say that the residue of hatred this is creating in these foreign countries where we’re doing these things and we don’t think there are any repercussions, those people should think about the World Trade Center bombing and things of this nature. Things will come home to roost—and they may be twenty years later—of cavalier actions that we’re taking now out there. And who is directing these cavalier actions? People in command and control who have never seen a shot fired in anger in their life.…

“THE REAL HEROES ARE DEAD”

As Rick’s story emerged over the days and weeks that followed, it became one of the most repeated tales of that tragic day. (Sometimes it was confused with the similar story of FBI agent John O’Neill, who also predicted a terrorist attack.) Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Stewart published a long profile of Rick in The New Yorker titled “The Real Heroes Are Dead,” taking its name from a remark Rick modestly made about his service in Vietnam. Stewart later expanded the article into a well-received full-length biography called Heart of a Soldier, which itself inspired an opera by the same name—a fittingly dramatic medium for a man whose life and death were so epic in scope. (Another detailed account of Rick’s actions on September 11th is to be found in Out of the Blue by Richard Bernstein of the New York Times.) Further tributes and honors were to follow over the  years, including a scholarship in Rick’s honor sponsored by Morgan Stanley, tributes in his Cornish homeland, and a full-length documentary on British television.

Not long after 9/11, I went to hear General Hal Moore honor Rick at a ceremony at an outdoor amphitheater in northern New Jersey. His speech was majestic, recounting Rick’s life, career, and his heroism in Vietnam as well as on 9/11. “Statues have been erected to lesser men,” Moore marveled, thundering like an Old Testament prophet himself.

From his mouth to God’s ears. Someone noticed that the iconic photograph of Rick on the cover of We Were Soldiers Once….and Young truly did look like a statue waiting to happen, and one modeled upon it was duly commissioned, and installed in front of the Office Candidate School at Ft. Benning, of which Rick now ranked among the foremost graduates.

My 1998 interview with Rick also became part of his legacy. The footage was so jaw-dropping that shortly after 9/11 I cut together an eight-minute short consisting simply of Rick addressing the camera, in jump cuts, with no B-roll or other footage and no editorial comment except a couple of simple cards at the beginning and end. The film, which I called The Voice of the Prophet, quickly found an audience and began a wide run on the film festival circuit, starting with Sundance, Toronto, DoubleTake, Human Rights Watch, and many others. It was shown at the Smithsonian Institution/National Museum of American History and excerpted on CNN, NBC, CBS, and international television around the world. In November 2001 Ferne and I went down to Virginia to attend another reunion of Ia Drang veterans, and showed The Voice of the Prophet at their annual dinner. For his fellow Skytroopers, many of whom hadn’t seen him in years, Rick’s image and voice must have been like a visitation from beyond the grave, to say nothing of his widow Susan, who was also in attendance, and whom we would get to know in the coming years.

Rick’s remarks were met with wide acclaim, although the comment about “things coming home to roost” raised a few hackles at the time. Of course, Rick had made those remarks three years before the attack; he might well have avoided such a loaded phrase in the immediate aftermath. I can safely say that he never would have blamed the United States for 9/11, any more than one would blame the US for Pearl Harbor, or Israel for the 1972 Munich massacre, or loyalist Spain for Guernica. In any case, Rick Rescorla’s patriotism could never ever be in question.

But his point remains valid. Almost two decades later, the “roosting” remark seems less inflammatory than undeniable. It is hardly “blaming the victim” to understand and acknowledge that misbegotten US foreign policy contributed in part to the rise of the violent anti-Americanism from which the 9/11 attackers sprung. That understanding in no way excuses or forgives or justifies their actions, nor eliminates other contributing factors. But it does help us understand those actions, which is crucial if we hope to prevent such enmity and such attacks in the future. To do otherwise is willful ignorance: stubborn, arrogant, head-in-the-sand self-destructiveness that is almost juvenile in nature. Sadly, it is that mentality, rather than Rick’s wiser one born of hard-earned first-person experience, that is currently ascendant. To me, the short film is at once a memorial to the man, a record of his startling foresight, and an eerie call to his countrymen from the beyond the grave, demanding sober self-examination and even-tempered statesmanship in place of arrogant chauvinism.

For those who seek a true understanding of September 11th in hopes of preventing such horrors in the future, few speak with the moral weight of a man whose ashes now lay at Ground Zero. We throw the word “hero” around very loosely in our culture, but it does not rightly belong to professional athletes, entertainers, or hedge fund billionaires. It does belong to Rick Rescorla. Hal Moore was right—statues have been erected to far lesser men.

And Rick was right too. The real heroes are dead.

Photo credits: top left, Ferne Pearlstein; top right, Joseph Galloway

Rick Rescorla Memorial website: http://rickrescorla.com/

 

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