The War Correspondent Romance Vs. Reality Propaganda Vs. Professionalism Secrecy Vs. The Story First Draft Vs. Final View
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The War Correspondent

History turned on the success of the invasion, but the scene on the beach was desperate. The ships could not get close enough to put the soldiers ashore. Hands full and weighed down by the heavy burden of their arms, the soldiers had to simultaneously jump from the ships, get a footing in chest-deep waves, and fight the enemy, who, standing unencumbered on dry and familiar ground, could so easily kill and maim the invaders.

The war correspondent reporting the scene in those terms observed: "These perils frightened our soldiers, who were quite unaccustomed to battles of this kind, with the result that they did not show the same alacrity and enthusiasm as they usually did on dry land."

The candor may strike an odd note. In the mythology of war, our men are never beset by elemental fear, still less paralyzed by it. The lexicon of defeat, if it has to be admitted, is of gallant retreats against overwhelming odds. But the war correspondent writing the story of the battle on that beach was uninhibited. He faced none of the frustrations and dilemmas of the modern war correspondent because he was taking part in the battle himself, as the commanding general of the invasion of Britain in the year 55 B.C.

Julius Caesar is one of a very long line of soldiers who reported their own campaigns firsthand. Thucydides was a military officer and his "History of the Peloponnesian War" was informed by his experience in command of the Greek fleet at Thasos in 424 B.C. and his defeat by the Spartan general Brasidas. The professional independent war correspondent, the unarmed civilian whose pen is supposed to be mightier than the sword, does not arrive on the scene until the Crimean War (1853-55) in the persons of William "Billy" Howard Russell of The Times of London, Edwin Lawrence Godkin of the London Daily News and G.L. Gruneisen of the Morning Post. So it is as well to acknowledge that our perennial appetite for news of war has been served by "amateurs" from time immemorial, in oral history, in poem and song, in legend and myth, in drawing and painting and tapestry.

We know how English axmen cut down the Norman armored knights at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and how King Harold died on Senlac Hill with an arrow in his eye, because it is all recorded on the Bayeux Tapestry. Mark Kellogg, a Western free-lance newspaper reporter, set out to tell us what happened on the morning of June 26, 1876, on a hill at Little Bighorn in Montana. "By the time this reaches you we will have met and fought the red devils with what result remains to be seen," he wrote from Rosebud Creek the day before. "I go with [Lt. Col. George] Custer and will be at the death." And indeed he did die with the dashing officer who had disobeyed orders and allowed the reporter to ride along with the 7th Cavalry. Our idea of how every man with Custer perished comes from individual oral accounts retold by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, father to son and grandson, vividly supplemented by 41 pictographs drawn by Red Horse, a Miniconjou Lakota chief at the battle. Only in 1999 were all the elements of this war story properly compiled in book form by Herman J. Viola ("Little Bighorn Remembered").

Whoever is the chronicler, there is an eternal and compelling curiosity about war, about wars in which our own survival is at stake, and wars long past. So much heroism; so much folly; so many brilliant moves; so many blunders; so many might-have-beens. In a current conflict, we fret about loved ones; but in all war reports we share vicariously in the terrible excitement of combat. We exult in victories; but we want to know whether the cause is just, the means proportionate to the end, and the execution honorable. We relish the drama of the front line, but we expect to be advised if a decent patriotism is being exploited. Do the Viet Cong represent a nationalist rebellion or aggression by international communism? Are there really vital national interests in sending 500,000 U.S. troops into battle to eject Iraq from Kuwait? And the arguments go on long after the battlefield has been cleared of its dead.

For the modern war correspondent, the imponderables are more numerous and the canvas broader than it was for battle participants like Caesar, who practiced war journalism before it was invented. The soldier-reporters were more exposed to risk than the professional correspondent, but in reporting they had a simpler task. They had access, by definition. They were their own censors. They had no worry that their messages and histories would inadvertently cost lives because communication was so slow and restricted. They could take their time in reporting; they had no competition and their eyewitness accounts were idiosyncratic.

Nobody could match Capt. Robert Blakeney's account of the battle of Nivelle in 1813, when the French were finally driven out of Spain. Rushing an enemy redoubt at the head of his regiment, his sword raised, he was struck by a shot that shattered two bones of his left leg. The regiment went on without him, but lying unmolested among the dead and the dying he had a unique view of the battlefield:

The awful events passing lay beneath my view; nor was there aught to interrupt my observation save a few bodily twitches, the pangs of prostrated ambition, and the shot and shells which burst close, or nearly cut the ground from under me.

In my view, the birth and maturation of the unarmed professional war correspondent had four midwives: Democracy. Time. Scale. Speed.

Democracy, nurtured by nearly universal suffrage and popular education, meant governments had more and more to justify the blood, tears, toil and sweat of going to war. And the advent of total war widened the risks beyond the fighting men to every man, woman and child in the nation. Newspapers naturally played on the notion that only independent reporting would satisfy the popular appetite. The fact that war stories sold more newspapers than anything else only demonstrates that high-mindedness and commercial gain are not always in conflict. Governments, for their part, became willing to provide battlefield access for reporters because they presumed the journalists would wave the flag.

Timeliness was the second midwife, first recognized by The Times in London. The newspaper abandoned the traditional practice of relying on letters from junior officers at the battlefront when its readers clamored to know what was happening day by day in the Crimean peninsula, where England, with France and the Ottoman Turks, was fighting the Russians. Lt. Charles Naysmith of the East India Company's Bombay Artillery was covering the fighting for The Times, but he was thought to have no sense of urgency; perhaps his first priority was staying alive. The frustrated Times manager rebuked the foreign editor: "I wish you would impress upon Naysmith with all your eloquence the absolute necessity of writing as often as he can and sending letters without delay." The letters took more than a week to arrive anyway, coming by horse and steamer. The appointment of a stocky Irishman, William Howard Russell, was the trailblazing result, and the term "war correspondent" was apt, for the editor of The Times, John Delane, asked Russell to write him letters. Delane decided what he would take from them, for use in his news and opinion columns. When Russell saw the scandals in the Crimea, he asked, "Am I to tell these things or hold my tongue?" Delane urged Russell to report all he saw, then withheld from publication any material he deemed too sensitive. But the information he kept from the public he made certain to circulate among government ministers.

The third midwife was Scale. Bigger, longer and more far-flung wars required more trained observers, more coordination of their efforts.

Speed. Finally, communication speeded up and with it competition between publishers and editors to have reporters cunning in the means of transmission and the evasion of bureaucracy. Curiously, in the 21st century communication is so transformed that we are at the dawn of a new era where the war correspondent yields ground to the ordinary citizen. Today, people may speak directly to others by e-mail and the Internet, reporting their own experiences — unfiltered by journalist, editor or censor.

During the 1999 Kosovo war, a Web site organized by The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (www.iwpr.net) attracted contributions from ordinary citizens. One described what it was like to be caught up in ethnic cleansing in Pristina.

Armed men wearing black masks and blue police helmets just came and said, ‘You have to leave.' I watched the people flee from their homes through my window. They left all their possessions behind — they weren't even allowed to take their identification cards. All they had was the sadness in their eyes.

Later, when Kosovo was occupied by NATO, the same nonpartisan Web site was open to Serbs reporting attacks on them by returning Kosovars. Web site and e-mail reports like this will enrich the coverage of war, but they have the weakness of their openness: they can easily be manipulated. I don't believe they will ever supplant the professional correspondent and the authority of a recognized news organization in the way the reporter supplanted the literate soldier.

The real explosion of professional coverage came with the U.S. Civil War. As in all things, America went in for mass production. Newspapers in the South still relied heavily on telegrams and letters from serving officers, but at least 500 reporters covered the war for the North — after a fashion. In the summary of Phillip Knightley, author of the seminal history of war reporting, "The First Casualty," the adjectives that could be pinned on the reporters' chests were ignorant, dishonest, unethical, inaccurate, partisan and inflammatory.

The nonprofessionals had a better record than that. In the Napoleonic Wars, brilliant firsthand accounts of the battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo come to us from soldiers and sailors. Caesar had as good an eye for a story as any tabloid reporter. This is how he related what happened to the Roman legionnaires skulking in their ships rather than face the Anglo-Saxon javelins:

The man who carried the eagle of the tenth legion, after praying to the gods that his action might bring good luck to the legion, cried in a loud voice, ‘Jump down, comrades, unless you want to surrender our eagle to the enemy; I, at any rate, mean to do my duty to my country and my general.' With these words he leapt out of the ship and advanced toward the enemy with the eagle in his hands. At this the soldiers, exhorting each other not to submit to such a disgrace, jumped with one accord from the ship, and the men from the next ships, when they saw them, followed them and advanced against the enemy.

Caesar's report is eerily reminiscent of the scene at Omaha Beach on D-Day when the men of the 1st Division and 29th Division, supported by the 2nd Ranger Battalion, tried to get ashore. Men carrying 66 pounds of equipment had to jump into water that not only was deep but laced with booby traps and mines; many drowned. Those who made it to the beach — mostly to the wrong sectors, for which they had not been trained — curled up in the sand behind the seawall, pinned down by intense machine-gun, rifle, mortar and artillery fire from the sheer cliffs above. Gen. Omar Bradley's beachhead, like Caesar's, would have been lost but for inspired leadership — in a richer idiom. "Get the hell off this damn beach and go kill some Germans," screamed Col. Charles Canham at an officer taking refuge in a pillbox. "Get your ass out of there and show some leadership." Col. George Taylor famously yelled, "Two kinds of people are staying on this beach: the dead and those who are going to die. Now let's get the hell out of here."

We owe these scenes to postwar writers who have made an attempt to reconstruct Omaha Beach. At the time, the reality of the landing, its full horror, its blunders and the awesome nature of its heroism did not come through. There were 558 accredited print and radio correspondents for the five Normandy landings, but the arena was vast and chaotic. The reporters were restricted by censorship as well as by German soldiers doing their damnedest to nail anything that moved. Censors went on the beaches with the reporters, checking that none of them wrote or radioed dispatches that would help the enemy or dismay people at home.

The correspondents filed 700,000 words on the first day. Columnist Ernie Pyle, arriving on the second day, sent three dispatches from Omaha Beach, and Martha Gellhorn reported from one of the hospital ships after getting ashore as a stretcher-bearer. Radio transmitted into living rooms the sound of gunfire and men's cheers and ship's whistles and planes. The reports were all very exciting, but readers and listeners were not encouraged to imagine men in a funk, or told that infantry were landing with weapons inferior to the Germans' in every category, except artillery, or that the U.S. Navy launched assault craft so far out that most of the amphibious tanks and guns were swamped and sank in heavy seas, or that among the 2,500 Americans dead at the end of the first day were 40 percent of the combat engineers. The much-loved Pyle, who footslogged with the grunts in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and the Pacific, was laconic: "Our men were pinned down for a while, but finally they stood up and went through, and so we took that beach and accomplished our landing."

The cryptic reticence is explicable, but the consequence of the way the landing was covered at the time was well summed up by Max Hastings in his 1984 reconstruction of D-Day ("Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy"): "Few Europeans and Americans of the postwar generation have grasped just how intense were the early [Normandy] battles." The folk memory is of an effort of fearless superiority. Steven Spielberg's epic film "Saving Private Ryan" has finally done something to redress this notion. The film is a work of singular imagination. Spielberg was not even born when the Americans went ashore. He does not attempt to suggest what went wrong. His portrayal of the landings is impressionistic, but it is a masterpiece of cinematic art. It evokes the ordeal of the men on the beach; it makes their achievement all the more memorable. "Saving Private Ryan" is very like Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage." Crane had not seen military action anywhere when he published his novel in 1895. Spielberg was unconcerned with the larger picture or the logistics, with the essential pith of war reporting, and Crane was unconcerned with "Stonewall" Jackson's tactics in the woods at Chancellorsville where his soldier-coward had his epiphany.

But works of such artistic imagination give us a sense of the emotions and chaos of the battlefield. And there are many: Virginia Cowles in the middle of the panic-stricken flight from Paris in June 1940; John Hersey in the jungle on Guadalcanal in 1942; Tom Wolfe on the aircraft carrier Coral Sea in 1967, recreating life-and-death minutes in the day of a Navy pilot on missions over North Vietnam; Michael Herr a year later evoking the spirit of the besieged Marines at Khe Sanh. They are answers to the questions Walt Whitman posed so poetically:

What history, I say, can ever give — for who can know — the mad, determin'd tussle of the armies, in all their separate large and small squads — as this — each steep'd from crown to toe in desperate, mortal purports? Who know the conflict, hand-to-hand — the many conflicts in the dark, those shadowy-tangled, flashing moon beam'd woods — the writhing groups and squads — the cries, the din, the cracking guns and pistols — the distant cannon — the cheers and calls and threats and awful music of the oaths — the indescribable mix — the officers' orders, persuasions, encouragements — the devils fully roused in human hearts — the strong shout, Charge, men charge — the flash of naked sword, and rolling flame and smoke?

Who are the writers and photographers and artists who have dared to answer Whitman's cry, risking all in the cannon's mouth for the elusive words or pictures that in the wild dark might light up a fragment of truth?