Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close details three historical instances of tragic violence, each of which resulted in mass casualties. Since Foer's focus is mostly on the nature of private grief (as opposed to the public conversation of the tragedies), it is useful to understand the context of the history involved to best understand the references.
The following is a brief yet factual account of each of the above mentioned attacks as they pertain to the novel
The September 11, 2001 attacks
Commonly referred to as 09/11, this incident is central to the novel. The death of Thomas Schell Jr. in the World Trade Center affects every major character, and provides Oskar's largest internal conflict as he endeavors to make peace with the tragedy.
On September 11, 2001, the terrorist group al-Qaeda orchestrated four attacks on national landmarks, as a direct assault on the United States of America. Osama bin Laden, the attack's chief architect, cited U.S. support of the sanctions against Iraq, among other reasons, as his specific motivation.
On that day, 19 highjackers took control of four commercial flights. They were: American Airlines Flight 11; United Airlines Flight 175; American Airlines Flight 77; and United Airlines Flight 93. Simultaneously, terrorists on each flight overpowered the respective crews and rerouted the flights toward their intended targets, which included the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon and Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46am. The media quickly picked up the story, believing the crash an accident. The nation watched as a second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, crashed into the South Tower at 9:03am. From that moment, when the country realized that it had been attacked, American history was significantly changed.
Meanwhile, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 am. Passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 attempted to overtake the high-jackers on their plane, as a result causing a crash landing near Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 10:03am. This final plane was the only one that failed.
As Oskar imagines his father's death in the World Trade Center, he employs certain details to construct his theories. For instance, he heard broken glass in the background and saw photos of people jumping from the building. Some of the most resonant images of the tragedy are in fact of people who either jumped or fell from the World Trade Center before it collapsed. The structural damage was such that many people in the building were unable to escape after the crash. According to witnesses, a steady stream of approximately 200 individuals “jumped” from the buildings.
The image of the “falling man” in Oskar’s scrapbook is credited to Lyle Owerko, a photographer who took a series of photographs of the attacks on 09/11. The identity of Owerko’s falling man remains unconfirmed.
In total, 2,996 people were killed in the attacks, including the high-jackers. The ramifications of that day, both culturally and emotionally, are still being absorbed.
The fire-bombings of Dresden, Germany
In the same way 09/11 altered Oskar's worldview, the 1945 bombings of Dresden, Germany altered the lives of both Thomas Schell Sr. and Grandma. Thomas in particular cannot transcend the horrific things he saw that day.
Located in Eastern Germany, Dresden was once one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Known for its art and architecture, it was the cultural center of modern art until the early 1930s.
During World War II, Dresden became a haven for people escaping Russia’s forces, also known as “the Red Army,” as they advanced through Germany and toward Berlin. The city was left relatively unharmed during the war, until February 1945, when the city was leveled by repeated bombings, carried out by Allied forces.
The bombings began on February 13th, and lasted for two days. The number of casualties is estimated to be between 35,000 and 135,000. The large range results from incomplete records of the number of refugees housed in the city.
Several reasons for the bombing have been given over the years. Allied forces (Britain and the U.S.) claim to have targeted Dresden for its military significance - it housed many factories employed in producing wartime supplies. Others claim the Allies bombed the city, as Hitler once bombed London, simply to destroy the morale of the Germany people so as to end the war sooner. A third reason concerns fear of Joseph Stalin, whose Russian forces where advancing quickly West. Both the primary Allied leaders, Roosevelt and Churchill, foresaw the difficulties of dealing with that dictator after the war, and might have chosen Dresden to indicate the power of the U.S. and Britain.
The United States Army Air Forces and the British Royal Air Force dropped approximately 3,900 tons of heavy explosives and incendiary devices on Dresden. The resulting firestorm burned 90% of the city to the ground. Many who sought safety in underground shelters died of either asphyxiation or severe exposure to heat. Others were burned alive in the streets as the city fell around them.
Thomas Sr.'s colorful descriptions might have some basic in factual events. The description of a lake full of bodies may refer to an incident in which the final Allied Planes targeted the Elbe River, where nurses and hospital personnel had gathered patients and survivors. The incident when Thomas kills the escaped animals refers to a true story, but is exaggerated for dramatic effect in the plot. The Dresden zoo was actually hit on the first day, though only the elephant enclosure was destroyed. The animals who survived the first wave of bombings escaped on the second day, only to be gunned down by Allied forces. Otto Sailer-Jackson, who ran the popular zoo, was under direct military command to shoot the carnivores in the event of a wartime attack, but he was unable to do so. Eyewitnesses recall seeing the zoo's vultures feasting on the dead of Dresden, as Foer describes in the novel.
The bombing of Hiroshima
Though only briefly mentioned in the novel, in Oskar's school presentation, the bombing of Hiroshima nevertheless reinforces several themes, and in fact is arguably the archetypal image of contemporary wartime atrocity, since it constitutes the first and only use of a nuclear bomb by a major world power.
The Europe side of WWII ended in April 1945, yet the Japanese continued to fight Allied forces in the Pacific, refusing to surrender despite warnings of “utter destruction.” After much debate with his advisors, President Harry S. Truman ordered an atomic bomb to be dropped on Japan, in the hopes of swiftly ending the war and ensuring the U.S.'s power in the impending postwar world.
Hiroshima, located 500 miles from Tokyo and home to 350,000 people in 1945, was a key shipping center for wartime supplies, and the headquarters of the Japanese 2nd General Army. On August 6, 1945, at 8:15am, Colonel Paul Tibbets and crew dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Called “Little Boy,” the bomb destroyed five square miles of the city, and killed an estimated 80,000 on impact. Roughly 70% of the city’s buildings were destroyed. Over the next several days, thousands more died of burns and radiation poisoning. Since 1945, 90,000-160,000 men, women, and children have died as a direct result of the bombing, most succumbing to acute radiation syndrome, cancer, and other diseases.
A second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, three days later. Eventually, this gamble proved beneficial for Truman, as Japan surrendered on August 15. Oskar does not mention Nagasaki in the novel.
In the text, Oskar plays a taped interview of Kinue Tomoyasu, who tells the story of that horrific day and of her daughter's death. In 1986, the Hiroshima Peace and Culture Foundation recorded testimonies of 100 survivors from Hiroshima, including Tomoyasu. Why Foer specifically chose Tomoyasu’s interview is unknown.
The official transcript of Tomoyasu’s interview differs from what is related in Extremely Loud and Incredible Close, however. For example her daughter’s name is not Masako, but Yatchan. The events surrounding Yatchan’s death (the peeling skin, maggots in the wound, and general location) remain the same. Foer also changes the tone of Tomoyasu’s final words, from a personal grievance against the war (which took two of her children) into a public statement to end all war.
Why Foer chose to alter these details is unclear, though the it is interesting to note that the name “Masako” means “proper child of justice.” Perhaps Oskar is not the only pacifist speaking through this story.