Foreword to the Mammoth Book of War Correspondents

By Alex Kershaw

Pyle on 18 March 1944, Anzio beachhead. Pyle was killed in 1945 by a Japanese machine gunner.

Pyle on 18 March 1944, Anzio beachhead. Pyle was killed in 1945 by a Japanese machine gunner.

Honest war reporters have never had it easy. From the earliest days of their trade to the present, cheerleaders rather than skeptics have been the most successful. The London Times’ William Howard Russell, who covered the Crimea War to great acclaim, would discover just five years later how picking the wrong side could backfire when his predictions of a Confederate victory in the American Civil War scandalized his readers and led to his resignation. He was not, as he claimed, the “first and greatest” of war correspondents but he was indeed one of the “miserable” parents of a “luckless tribe” that has dared to ask the wrong questions of the odds-on-favorites and paid for their insolence ever since, often with their lives.

The Civil War was perhaps the first war whose horror was revealed in heart-rending detail by at least some correspondents, for what could be glorious about a fratricide in which more Americans died than in WWII? Samuel Wilkeson of The New York Times, for example, reported on the slaughter at Gettysburg with great power and poignancy, delivering his dispatch having just learned that his own son had died.

It was the first great celebrity reporter, Richard Harding Davis, working for William Randolph Hearst’s “yellow press”, who delivered perhaps the most impactful newspaper report in history, in the run up to the Spanish-American War in 1898. “The Death of Rodriguez”, the story of the public execution of a rebel, whom Davis watched die, “the blood from his breast sinking into the soil he had tried to free,” changed public opinion in America like no other report before or since. Desperate to increase circulation, Hearst was delighted with Davis’s breathless propaganda. Davis was not a flat-out liar, however, and lesser figures had to be employed to guarantee Hearst the circulation-boosting conflict he so desired.

Davis was again in the thick of the action during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, the first time a Western power was humiliated by an Asian nation. The Japanese were so strict in their censorship that Davis’ celebrity grew not through his derring-do on the battlefield but because he managed to save Jack London, a fellow correspondent and world famous author of The Call of the Wild, from incarceration. London had struck a Japanese in frustration, having stewed with the rest of the press corps in Tokyo, barred from the front.

“The first casualty, when war comes, is truth.” So declared American Senator Hiram Johnson at the height of the first great bloodbath of the last century: a war to end all wars in which the best and brightest in Europe were mowed down in Flanders for four long years. Throughout the First World War, censorship was even stricter than that suffered by Jack London at the hands of the Japanese. Even jingoists like Rudyard Kipling – “There are human beings and Germans” – confronted a military whose leaders feared and therefore despised war correspondence.

Britain’s Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, was chief among the detractors, describing the press as “drunken swabs”. Rare was the sober report throughout the war, even when young men were falling in the tens of thousands each week on the Somme and at Verdun for just a few yards of barbed wire and mud. It is doubtful that America’s entry into the conflict, shamefully managed throughout with horrendous and callous loss of life, would have occurred had it not been for the hysterical reporting of much of the American press.

The truth of war was still hard to find between the two world wars, whether in Russia or Spain, where ideologies violently divided nations. As Europe teetered on the brink yet again, George Orwell wrote from the Spanish Civil War, trying to warn of the horrors of fascism. Yet he left the conflict disillusioned by all sides, disgusted by the bias of left and right: “I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie.”

The Second World War was, by contrast, perhaps a golden age of frontline prose, starring such humanistic scribblers as Ernie Pyle whose sparse and heart-felt reports on ordinary GIs were adored by his subjects and readers alike. To this day, historians of that conflict – a “crazy hysterical mess” as John Steinbeck called it – swoon over Pyle’s elegiac account of the death of a captain called Waskow in Italy. Unlike Hemingway’s self-regarding reports, Pyle’s beautifully-crafted story of young men mourning their young leader still evokes the immense sadness of a war in which Pyle saw many “swell kids having their heads blown off”.

Pyle was in fact so nauseated by what he had seen that he eventually “lost track of the whole point of the war.” But it did have a point. Although it entailed the death in Europe of over 130,000 mostly working class Americans, with a final butcher’s bill of over fifty million lives around the globe, the fighting in WWII was without doubt necessary if barbarism was to be defeated. The concentration camps visited by Richard Dimbleby and others in 1945 were all the evidence one needed of why the sacrifice was so important, if no less palatable. Tragically, Pyle was one of 53 US-accredited reporters to lose their lives covering the war, killed only days from the end by a Japanese sniper in the Pacific.

During the Korean War in the early 1950s, reporting restrictions continued but a more critical tone began to emerge in the press as a whole. It was also marked by the extraordinary bravery of Marguerite Higgins, ambitious, blonde, the first woman to enter Dachau in 1945, and the first to win a Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting thanks to her work in Korea. She did not plan to marry, she quipped, until she found a man who was as exciting as war. For all her bravado, however, she had to fight sexist generals as much as she did the elements and censorship in order to get her stories from the battlefront.

The impact of the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned of in 1961, which has since embroiled America in seemingly endless combat around the globe, has imbued war reporting since Korea with a far darker, nihilistic tinge. As the next major war dragged on in Vietnam, for more and more reporters so much of what they were witnessing no longer had any moral foundation. The sacrifice was seemingly in vain, as was the gross expenditure and the destruction.

At the height of the Vietnam War, half of Americans had no idea what the war was about. Today, far more still don’t. What would become “the longest running front-page story in history”, wreaking untold environmental damage and killing at least half a million Vietnamese civilians, began in earnest in 1962 and lasted more than a decade. For year after year, the war escalated with hundreds of reporters noting the daily body counts. Only when Walter Cronkite raised doubts from a US television studio in 1968, thousands of miles from Saigon and Khe Sanh, did many Americans first begin to wonder if all the blood and sacrifice was worth it.

The war couldn’t last long enough for some of those actually covering it. To many of the male correspondents, noted the perceptive Nora Ephron, “the war is not hell. It is fun.” Perhaps the most skilled of the stalwarts was New Zealander Peter Arnett, who spent more time covering the war than any other reporter. “As hard-boiled as a Chinese thousand-year-old egg,” according to another astute female observer, Marina Warner, Arnett was notable for his emotional detachment, at least in his reporting. Many others were far less objective, providing visceral, unforgettable images of the Green Machine sinking further into the South East Asian quagmire of hubris and bullshit that led to the US’s humiliating withdrawal in 1975. Amid all the madness and hallucinatory scenes, young writers such as Michael Herr managed to transcend the confines and clichés of deadline reporting, producing prose of lasting eloquence about young Americans performing for nightly news broadcasts, “doing little guts and glory Leatherneck dances under fire, getting their pimples shot off for the networks.”
The Vietnam War was, on reflection, arguably covered better than any in history, certainly by more journalists from more countries for longer than any other conflict. “But that is not saying a lot,” the Australian journalist Phillip Knightley has observed in his classic book, The First Casualty, an eviscerating examination of the war correspondent as “hero and myth maker”. “With a million-dollar corps of correspondents in Vietnam the war in Cambodia was kept hidden for a year.”
Barely a generation later, determined not to allow the press to lose them another war, the politicians who planned the invasion of Iraq in 2003 made sure things would be done right. They had their usual way with the eager to please military, which proudly introduced to primetime audiences “Shock and Awe”’s most potent weapon, far more effective than a SCUD missile – the “embedded reporter”. Every hack knew the only option was to get in bed with the military’s public relations corps in the hope of a ride with a bunch of grunts. The resulting exclusives usually entailed sweating in a flack jacket in a Bradley fighting vehicle while dodging IEDs. Other than the reporters’ egos, little was revealed. The fog of war got only thicker the closer most got to the grunts they were covering.

August sections of the media had built the case for the war in Iraq. Short and victorious conflicts are always great for circulation and ratings. It was expected to be both. And indeed much of the coverage in the first heady weeks after invasion was predictably gung-ho, the kind of “yellow journalism” that would have made Hearst proud. The Lebanese-American reporter Anthony Shadid was one exception. His March 2003 report on the burial of Iraqi civilians – the first collateral damage of the war – raised questions that few cared to answer back in Washington where post 9-11 hysteria had been shamelessly whipped up to aggrandize men who had ducked out of service in Vietnam: “If the Americans are intent on liberation, why are innocent people dying? If they want to attack the government, why do bombs fall on civilians? How can they have such formidable technology and make such tragic mistakes?”

Ten years later, Shadid is sadly no longer with us, dead on assignment covering Assad’s atrocities in Syria. But the question civilians ask – how they, not the men in uniform, do most of the dying – is still a familiar lament as drones, not Hueys or B-52s, strike suspected militants, terrorists as well as innocents, on an almost daily basis. Indeed, there is no end in sight to the suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan despite a decade of countless reporters’ questions.

It is not the reporters’ fault that so few lessons have been learnt from so many conflicts. The fact is we are a destructive species. To pretend otherwise is to be ignorant of history or in denial. War gives men meaning. It is addictive – to combatants, megalomaniacs and journalists, male and female as the reporting in recent years of Janine di Giovianni and Christina Lamb, to name but two gutsy women, has shown.

Any writer worth their salt will tell you little comes close to the adrenaline high of bullets cracking over one’s head as you fumble for a notebook. As many of the brave reporters included in this anthology would attest, there’s nothing quite as effective as a stiff shot of combat when it comes to sharpening your prose. Thankfully, at least every war produces its fair share of great writing, even when censorship is at its most stringent and suffocating.