WARTIME JOURNALISM ENTERS AN ABYSS
By Gordon Duff STAFF WRITER/Senior Editor
The best known and most famous war correspondent in US history is Ernie Pyle. Killed in combat on Okinawa in 1945, Pyle personified the perfect combat reporter. Pyle lived with the men in the field, lived as one of them and wrote of them in a way that honored them and made them human, made their lives real and brought war home to those who might not otherwise understand the reality of it. Pyle was the best of a crowd that included Edward R. Murrow who reported on the London blitz or Walter Cronkite, known for his stories from the North African campaign. Most journalists who we remember from the 50s through the 70s made their name as war correspondents.
To the journalists of today, the few that try to keep alive Ernie Pyle’s tradition, reporting can be lonely and dispiriting. As with Pyle, reporters suffer an even higher casualty rate than troops in the field, almost as though they were purposefully targeted. The United Nations tracks this and the numbers are shocking. Yet, even with such risks and efforts being made, there is no outlet for real war news. Media of old, radio, newspapers and magazines have been replaced by corporate controlled “entertainment,” simply another term for cheap propaganda. However, it started long before Fox News came along.
The Kennedy murders may have started us down the slippery slope. Both killings, and that of Martin Luther King, were clearly inside jobs. Almost nothing in either killing would hold up under the most minor scrutiny. Is that when our willingness to look away from the unthinkable made the unthinkable a tool that would be used against us time and time again?
Vietnam was where things started going wrong. DaNang and Saigon had their press corps, reporters who sauntered into the field on rare occasions for hand-fed stories. Eventually, dramatic combat operations, sending units by helicopter into enemy infested areas were planned for news value alone as domestic opinion against the war increased. Operation after operation killed thousands of Americans with with no impact on the war at all, other than to gain a few seconds on the evening news. This happened but it will never be told. It can’t be as there was no one honest enough to have told it.
Later, in what we can call Gulf War I, the military gained control much the same way our government had learned to stifle independent reporting. If you reported anything too independent or unfavorable, you would lose access. No access, no story. No story, no job. Blackmail. Lessons learned here in controlling the news for the sake of security would be used later in Gulf War 2 to control the news for reasons of deception, not of the enemy but of America itself.
By 2000, any story could be crushed, spun or invented. Everyone would jump on-board. No journalist could question anything without fear of losing access, “having an accident” or simply being fired. Independent journalists like Gary Webb or Steve Kanga and so many others were suicided or died of mysterious “street crimes.” Reporters who refused to stick to “party line” were considered as expendable as corporate whistle blowers. All you needed to kill off a reporter was another reporter willing to say, “He was troubled, a loner.” It became possible to kill anyone, kill any story and do anything. You could invade countries, rig elections or even put the government in the drug business on a massive scale as during the Reagan administration.
Then came 9/11. Blaming that on a small time former Mujaheddin leader, Osama bin Laden, slowly dying of kidney failure while under virtual house arrest in Afghanistan was a work of amazing chutzpah and imagination. Never has any story in American history fallen apart so many times with, literally hundreds of key players leaking enough information to blow the whole mess out of the water and yet, years and years later, though few take the cover story seriously, no power capable of pushing for real answers is able to overcome the corporate propaganda machine.
Controlling the press and manufacturing news is nothing new. We got into the Spanish American War based on falsified stories by the Hearst group, something taught to every American youngster. Spinning 9/11, an attack that could have originated from anywhere, least likely where we placed blame, was only a beginning for a new phase.
What is a pundit? Is it someone hired to speak out or is it someone hired to lie? What happens when our own government hires former military officers to misinform the public, misinform to such an extent as to cover massive misconduct leading to a pair of disastrous wars?
PENTAGON PUNDITS AND WAR CRIMES
On October 16, 1946, newsman and propagandist, Julius Streicher was hanged for crimes against humanity. His crime was the use of his news organization to justify persecution of Jews and aggressive war. War correspondent Howard K. Smith witnessed the hanging, reporting that Streicher”went down kicking” in a lengthy ordeal. The difference between Streicher’s crime of inciting persecution of Jews and supporting Hitler’s illegal wars shows many clear parallels with those serving our news organizations today. If intelligence was falsified to justify the invasion of Iraq, leading to the deaths of tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of civilians and new media took an active role in a conspiracy to misinform the public, sectors of our government and to attempt to justify an illegal and unjustified war then full responsibility must be taken.
Nuremberg set a standard for dealing with such issues, a standard that might be made applicable, not only for Iraq and Afghanistan but eventually for 9/11 as well.
HAS AMERICAN MEDIA MADE OUR WAR DISAPPEAR?
The next Ernie Pyle probably isn’t out with troops in Afghanistan. He or she may be in Kabul, fighting for access, for a chance but is just as likely to have an “accident.” War has never been perfect. We always had bad commanders, defective equipment, fraud and corruption, bungled operations, none of this is new. The “Fog of War” has always required censorship and feeding a certain amount of fiction to the folks back home. We accept this.
Hollywood turned out shamefully patriotic movies. Some, like Sergeant York, were excellent, that and 30 Seconds Over Tokyo. I never tire of watching them. America had her back against the wall, the entire world did. The downside has been that we may have learned to cover up too much, so much that we have spent 60 years declassifying a history that we have found, in places, total fiction. Almost immediately after WW2, many Americans began considering the war a mistake. Another movie, The Best Years of Our Lives presents this and other controversies and, having done so, disappeared from view for decades though one of the finest movies ever made.
We still get the movies. Mel Gibson wins the Battle of Na Trang in We Were Soldiers and a war movie, Hurt Locker won best picture. I enjoyed it. However, I don’t know if it was real. If Ernie Pyle had been around to “tell it like it is” I might know. You could show me anything about Iraq, and I have been there, and I wouldn’t know. You could show me the war in Vietnam only 30 miles away and it would be like another planet. I was that close to My Lai. I couldn’t begin to understand what I am told happened there. The Best Years of Our Lives talks about that too.
Another day I turn on the news and nobody as died. Is that because it is a phony war, all pretend, all drug dealing and troops eating steak dinners and riding around in air-conditioned limousines? This is how the military likes to tell it, but if that’s true, why are so many of our kids coming home in such bad shape? Is the military trying to get us to blame them for failing us or being weak? I hope not, that would make me very angry.
Can we get the truth back? We don’t need to know how much some lobbyist paid a Congressman or who was involved in what plot. We get this all day every day. Sometimes I am afraid to open email. I would like to read a page, just one page telling me what a Marine lance corporal with a rifle squad did today, who he talked to, what he ate and how he is doing. As a citizen of a country meant to be a democracy, not a republic, I demand it. If an American dies or is wounded, I want to feel it to, I want everyone to. If we are doing things right, then let me hear it straight, not from a publicist or paid pundit/liar. Get me Ernie Pyle. Our troops need Ernie Pyle, they need him in spades.
The God-Damned Infantry
IN THE FRONT LINES BEFORE MATEUR, NORTHERN TUNISIA, May 2, 1943 – We’re now with an infantry outfit that has battled ceaselessly for four days and nights.
This northern warfare has been in the mountains. You don’t ride much anymore. It is walking and climbing and crawling country. The mountains aren’t big, but they are constant. They are largely treeless. They are easy to defend and bitter to take. But we are taking them.
The Germans lie on the back slope of every ridge, deeply dug into foxholes. In front of them the fields and pastures are hideous with thousands of hidden mines. The forward slopes are left open, untenanted, and if the Americans tried to scale these slopes they would be murdered wholesale in an inferno of machine-gun crossfire plus mortars and grenades.
Consequently we don’t do it that way. We have fallen back to the old warfare of first pulverizing the enemy with artillery, then sweeping around the ends of the hill with infantry and taking them from the sides and behind.
* * *
I’ve written before how the big guns crack and roar almost constantly throughout the day and night. They lay a screen ahead of our troops. By magnificent shooting they drop shells on the back slopes. By means of shells timed to burst in the air a few feet from the ground, they get the Germans even in their foxholes. Our troops have found that the Germans dig foxholes down and then under, trying to get cover from the shell bursts that shower death from above. Our artillery has really been sensational. For once we have enough of something and at the right time. Officers tell me they actually have more guns than they know what to do with. All the guns in any one sector can be centered to shoot at one spot. And when we lay the whole business on a German hill the whole slope seems to erupt. It becomes an unbelievable cauldron of fire and smoke and dirt. Veteran German soldiers say they have never been through anything like it.
* * *
Now to the infantry — the God-damned infantry, as they like to call themselves.
I love the infantry because they are the underdogs. They are the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end they are the guys that wars can’t be won without.
I wish you could see just one of the ineradicable pictures I have in my mind today. In this particular picture I am sitting among clumps of sword-grass on a steep and rocky hillside that we have just taken. We are looking out over a vast rolling country to the rear.
A narrow path comes like a ribbon over a hill miles away, down a long slope, across a creek, up a slope and over another hill.
All along the length of this ribbon there is now a thin line of men. For four days and nights they have fought hard, eaten little, washed none, and slept hardly at all. Their nights have been violent with attack, fright, butchery, and their days sleepless and miserable with the crash of artillery.
The men are walking. They are fifty feet apart, for dispersal. Their walk is slow, for they are dead weary, as you can tell even when looking at them from behind. Every line and sag of their bodies speaks their inhuman exhaustion.
On their shoulders and backs they carry heavy steel tripods, machine-gun barrels, leaden boxes of ammunition. Their feet seem to sink into the ground from the overload they are bearing.
They don’t slouch. It is the terrible deliberation of each step that spells out their appalling tiredness. Their faces are black and unshaven. They are young men, but the grime and whiskers and exhaustion make them look middle-aged.
In their eyes as they pass is not hatred, not excitement, not despair, not the tonic of their victory — there is just the simple expression of being here as though they had been here doing this forever, and nothing else.
The line moves on, but it never ends. All afternoon men keep coming round the hill and vanishing eventually over the horizon. It is one long tired line of antlike men.
* * *
There is an agony in your heart and you almost feel ashamed to look at them. They are just guys from Broadway and Main Street, but you wouldn’t remember them. They are too far away now. They are too tired. Their world can never be known to you, but if you could see them just once, just for an instant, you would know that no matter how hard people work back home they are not keeping pace with these infantrymen in Tunisia.
The Death of Captain Waskow
AT THE FRONT LINES IN ITALY, January 10, 1944 – In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them. But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Capt. Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas.
Capt. Waskow was a company commander in the 36th Division. He had led his company since long before it left the States. He was very young, only in his middle twenties, but he carried in him a sincerity and gentleness that made people want to be guided by him.
“After my own father, he came next,” a sergeant told me.
“He always looked after us,” a soldier said. “He’d go to bat for us every time.”
“I’ve never knowed him to do anything unfair,” another one said.
I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Capt. Waskow’s body down. The moon was nearly full at the time, and you could see far up the trail, and even part way across the valley below. Soldiers made shadows in the moonlight as they walked.
Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules. They came lying belly-down across the wooden pack-saddles, their heads hanging down on the left side of the mule, their stiffened legs sticking out awkwardly from the other side, bobbing up and down as the mule walked.
The Italian mule-skinners were afraid to walk beside dead men, so Americans had to lead the mules down that night. Even the Americans were reluctant to unlash and lift off the bodies at the bottom, so an officer had to do it himself, and ask others to help.
The first one came early in the morning. They slid him down from the mule and stood him on his feet for a moment, while they got a new grip. In the half light he might have been merely a sick man standing there, leaning on the others. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the low stone wall alongside the road.
I don’t know who that first one was. You feel small in the presence of dead men, and ashamed at being alive, and you don’t ask silly questions.
We left him there beside the road, that first one, and we all went back into the cowshed and sat on water cans or lay on the straw, waiting for the next batch of mules.
Somebody said the dead soldier had been dead for four days, and then nobody said anything more about it. We talked soldier talk for an hour or more. The dead man lay all alone outside in the shadow of the low stone wall.
Then a soldier came into the cowshed and said there were some more bodies outside. We went out into the road. Four mules stood there, in the moonlight, in the road where the trail came down off the mountain. The soldiers who led them stood there waiting. “This one is Captain Waskow,” one of them said quietly.
Two men unlashed his body from the mule and lifted it off and laid it in the shadow beside the low stone wall. Other men took the other bodies off. Finally there were five lying end to end in a long row, alongside the road. You don’t cover up dead men in the combat zone. They just lie there in the shadows until somebody else comes after them.
The unburdened mules moved off to their olive orchard. The men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around, and gradually one by one I could sense them moving close to Capt. Waskow’s body. Not so much to look, I think, as to say something in finality to him, and to themselves. I stood close by and I could hear.
One soldier came and looked down, and he said out loud, “God damn it.” That’s all he said, and then he walked away. Another one came. He said, “God damn it to hell anyway.” He looked down for a few last moments, and then he turned and left.
Another man came; I think he was an officer. It was hard to tell officers from men in the half light, for all were bearded and grimy dirty. The man looked down into the dead captain’s face, and then he spoke directly to him, as though he were alive. He said: “I’m sorry, old man.”
Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer, and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tenderly, and he said:
“I sure am sorry, sir.”
Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the dead hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes, holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face, and he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there.
And finally he put the hand down, and then reached up and gently straightened the points of the captain’s shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound. And then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone.
After that the rest of us went back into the cowshed, leaving the five dead men lying in a line, end to end, in the shadow of the low stone wall. We lay down on the straw in the cowshed, and pretty soon we were all asleep.
Reprinted with permission of the Scripps Howard Foundation.
Reprinted with permission of the Scripps Howard Foundation.