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Direct from the Front

Walking the Line Between the Media and the Military

By Maggie Riechers | HUMANITIES, November/December 2003 | Volume 24, Number 6

The war corresondent is a romantic figure, the subject of books and movies, circling the globe, braving the thick of the fighting, sending back dispatches from the front. “War has a kind of mythic quality,” says Stephen Ives, director and producer of the documentary Reporting America at War. “War correspondents participate in that myth, yet it’s important they are there. A great deal of what we think about war we learn from them.”

Using archival photographs, newsreels, and other rare film footage, the NEH-supported film follows war correspondents from the Spanish-American War to the current conflict in Iraq, capturing much of the history of the last century. The film finds that while each war differs, correspondents continue to walk a narrow line between loyalty to their country and their responsibility to inform the public.

“There is a constant tension between the media and the military,” says Ives. “And the pendulum swings back and forth from a cycle of openness to a cycle of shutting down.” The film airs on public broadcasting stations in two parts on November 5 and 12.

Reporting America at War captures the personalities of some of the best-known war correspondents of the past century: from Richard Harding Davis, who watched Theodore Roosevelt charge up Kettle Hill in Cuba, and Ernie Pyle, who shared foxholes with GIs in World War II and died among them, to Walter Cronkite, who two decades later left his anchor desk to see the war in Vietnam firsthand.

Davis was a popular short story writer when the New York Herald hired him to cover the conflict between Cuba and Spain. “It was a game, it was a big adventure,” says historian Phillip Knightley. “People read Richard Harding Davis not just because of what he wrote--because it was Richard Harding Davis writing.”

For Cuba, Davis had outfitted himself with boots, a canvas shooting jacket, and a revolver, but when he got there, he found the military had banned him and the rest of the reporters from accompanying the forces. To cover the war at all, he needed to find a commander who would let him go along. That commander was Theodore Roosevelt.

After watching Roosevelt attack an enemy position, Davis wrote, “Roosevelt, mounted high on horseback, charging the rifle pits at a gallop . . . made you feel like you wanted to cheer.” It was a fortunate partnership; Roosevelt returned a national hero and Davis became the country’s No. 1 war correspondent.

Davis witnessed the change to the modern, mechanical destruction of the twentieth-century war. When war broke out in Europe in 1914, he was there, arriving in time to cover the Germans invading Brussels. “After three hours they had passed in one unbroken steel gray column and we were bored,” wrote Davis. “But when hour after hour passed and there was no halt, no breathing time, no open spaces in the ranks, the thing became uncanny, inhuman. . . . It held the mystery and menace of fog rolling toward you across the sea. . . . For three days and three nights a column of gray, like a river of steel, cut Brussels in two.”

“The brilliance of the description, the evocative nature of it,” Knightley reflects, conveys “the actual size of the German army and the problems that the allies were going to have in defeating it.” Soon none of the countries allowed reporters near the front lines, fearing that news from the battlefield would scare off volunteers. Even when Davis did get a story, censors held it back until its news value was lost. Disgruntled and disappointed, Davis came home. “No more front for me,” he said. “War correspondents can do nothing.”

The wars that followed would prove Davis wrong. The documentary takes a look at some of the American writers who covered the Spanish Civil War, among them Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. They wanted to publicize the Republican cause, and from Madrid they watched and reported on the ominous rise of fascism. In their dedication to that cause, they sometimes overlooked the facts, downplaying the strength of Franco’s forces and ignoring atrocities committed on the Republican side.

Hemingway’s companion, Martha Gellhorn, who did not consider herself a war correspondent, drove a station wagon carrying blood to a battalion aid station. At the urging of friends, she began sending dispatches home to Collier’s on the effects of war on civilians. “Never thought of writing anything until Herbert Matthews and Hemingway said to me, well, write about it,” says Gellhorn in a newly released interview from the 1970s. “I said what can I write? I don’t know anything about war and they said write about Madrid and I said well why, you know, it’s just daily life, and they said well it isn’t everybody’s daily life.” She adds, “The purpose of being someplace and seeing it and writing about it is that you hope to make people see it also, understand it, and feel something.”

Five months after the loyalist victory in Spain, Hitler’s army invaded Poland and World War II began. While the military banned reporters from the front during World War I, it welcomed them in World War II and considered the press part of the fighting force. “Correspondents have a job in war as essential as the military personnel,” General Dwight D. Eisenhower is quoted as saying in 1942. “Fundamentally, public opinion wins wars.”

The more graphic scenes of bloodshed never made it back to the home front. Every frame of newsreel, every radio broadcast, and every written dispatch from the battlefield was reviewed by official censors, and they held back anything they thought would damage morale.

“We were all Americans and we all wanted our side to win the war,” says Andy Rooney, at the time a reporter for Stars and Stripes. “So we did not want to do anything that could possibly damage our side.”

Reporting from the front was a risky business. Rooney, Cronkite, writing for United Press, and Robert Post, a correspondent for the New York Times, were all part of a group of reporters covering the air war at American bases in England. They dubbed themselves the “Writing 69th.”

“So many people we got to know were shot down, taken prisoner, or killed,” says Rooney. “We, on the other hand, went back to our flats in London and lived quite a comfortable life. So there was a certain feeling of guilt. . . . I don’t know who decided to do it, but we decided we better go on a raid--a bombing raid--ourselves.”

Rooney, Cronkite, and Post were the first reporters to ride shotgun on a mission into Germany. Rooney’s plane was hit but returned. Post’s plane was shot down. A few days later the military grounded the Writing 69th for good.

The line between soldier and journalist continued to blur. When the Allies stormed the beach at Normandy in 1944, the military selected twenty-eight writers and photographers as “assault correspondents.” Armed with three cameras and several rolls of film, photographer Robert Capa was with the first wave. Scrambling ashore, he turned his back to the German gunners and began taking pictures of the invaders. “It’s unsettling to look at some of his photographs and realize where Capa had to be,” says commentator Richard Whelan. Capa died on assignment for Life magazine in Indochina in 1954.

Another of the reporters at D-Day was Gellhorn, who after reporting on fascism in Spain, had a personal interest in witnessing the battles against the Nazis. She saw the invasion by stowing away aboard a hospital ship in defiance of a ban on female reporters. She was also at the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. “I was in Dachau when the German armies surrendered. It was a suitable place to be. For surely this war was made to abolish Dachau and all the other places like Dachau and everything that Dachau stands for. To abolish it forever. . . . We must know now that there can never be peace if there is cruelty like this in the world. And if ever again we tolerate such cruelty we have no right to peace.”

The man who would become the bestknown journalist of the war was Ernie Pyle, a columnist for Scripps-Howard who told the stories of the ordinary GIs--the “grunts” of World War II. The forty-three-year-old Pyle had tried to sign up with the navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but was rejected. He convinced his editors to send him overseas for a six-month stint. He stayed for three years, living among the soldiers, filling his column with the details of their lives at the front.

A May 1943 column comes from a unit under heavy attack for seventy-two hours: “Now to the infantry, the God-damned infantry, as they like to call themselves. 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.”

Biographer James Tobin says of Pyle, “He is able to transmit something of the experience of soldiers to their relatives back at home and their friends. At the same time he is able to help the soldiers feel that people at home understand something of what they’re going through.”

The closeness between the press and the military ended with the war in Korea. For the first six months reporters were given free rein, but the military imposed restrictions when reporters began questioning the U.S. role in the conflict. “This is not a place where the West can achieve victory,” wrote New York Times reporter Homer Bigart.

“What was happening out in the field was bitter and harsh and Homer wasn’t afraid to take on the military planners,” says Betsy Wade, editor of Bigart’s memoirs. “He honestly believed that the American people had a right to know if things were going badly.” Bigart’s voice would be just one among many reporters questioning the military’s decisions.

The war ended in an armed truce in 1953 with more than thirty thousand American soldiers killed in action. By then Bigart had gone home, earning a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Korea. Army officials denounced him for coverage that was “biased, prejudiced, and inaccurate.”

By the 1960s the United States was entrenched in conflict again, this time in the jungles of Vietnam. Reporters trickled their way to Saigon to cover what began with a small contingent of U.S. military advisers.” The reporters shared an office that included David Halberstam and Malcolm Browne, writing for the New York Times, and Peter Arnett of Associated Press. As in the early days of the Korean War, the military did not censor reporters’ copy.

“Censorship wasn’t really practical for a couple of reasons,” says scholar Daniel Hallin. “The U.S. was formally a guest of the South Vietnamese and you’d have to have given the South Vietnamese control over the censorship.

“The other reason is that the administration wanted to deny that there was a real war here, and to impose censorship is one of those signs that the country is really going to war.”

Journalists discovered, however, as the war escalated, that military reports were contradictory. The correspondents went out to the field and covered firefights and talked to soldiers.

One of the most controversial of these reports came from CBS correspondent Morley Safer in 1965. Safer and his television crew were invited to go along with a unit on a “search and destroy” operation of a suspected Vietcong stronghold in Cam Ne.

With the camera running, Safer and his crew showed the world a group of American soldiers torching every house in the village.

“I think what makes the story in a certain way most significant was that it was happening on television, uncensored, either in picture or commentary. This wouldn’t have happened in World War II,” says Safer. Soon after, the military issued new rules regarding Vietnamese civilian safety.

By then most Americans got their war coverage from television. But while the briefings in Saigon described an improving situation in 1968, an offensive on the Vietnamese holiday of Tet provided Americans a disturbing picture: the enemy in Vietnam was more formidable than they had been told.

At the time, public opinion polls regarded CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite as “the most trusted man in America.” Soon after the Tet offensive, Cronkite went to film in Vietnam and did something unprecedented. He delivered a personal commentary on television, urging the country’s leaders to stop the fighting and negotiate for peace.

“Lyndon Johnson looked at Walter’s report and said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country,’” says journalist Ward Just. “Lyndon Johnson was no fool, politically. . . . Cronkite expressed what most Americans felt. But he expressed it better.”

“There is a myth that the media lost the war in Vietnam,” says Ives. “The coverage was very traditional for a long time. Only when demonstrations began at home did that coverage change.

“The perception is that the press is leading public opinion,” he continues. “It is just the opposite. The press is conservative, it’s a business, not interested in making public opinion but in following it.”

The military placed tight restrictions on reporters during subsequent conflicts in Grenada and Panama and the first Gulf War. Journalists were not allowed on the island of Grenada when U.S. forces invaded there. In Panama correspondents were detained at a military base outside Panama City until the operation was over. In the Gulf War, information was funneled through a daily televised press briefing by General Norman Schwartzkopf.

“We have no independent film of the Persian Gulf War, none,” says Walter Cronkite, “because our film crews were not permitted to go out on the front with the troops. They should have been. Then their tape they shot should’ve been sent back to censorship. If it couldn’t be released immediately, at least it would be held for eventual release and history. We don’t have that history now.”

The documentary concludes with an epilogue on the current Iraq conflict. The military has, to use its own words, “embedded” the press--assigning journalists to specific fighting units. “Embedding is not new,” says Ives. “Reporters in World War II were embedded, but they had more freedom of movement. Ernie Pyle could go from one unit to another.”

It was with such a unit that Pyle lost his life. After witnessing the Normandy invasion and the liberation of Paris, Ernie Pyle went to the Pacific sector to tell the same kind of stories he had written from Europe. He was with the infantry until the end. In April of 1945, he was killed by a Japanese gunner at Ie Shima, 119 days before the Japanese surrender. Found among his personal effects was a final column, written as the war ended in Europe and was drawing to a close. He had put it away to look at later:

And so it is over. The catastrophe on one side of the world has run its course. The day that had so long seemed would never come has come at last. . . . (I)n the joyousness of high spirits it is easy for us to forget the dead. . . . Dead men by mass production--in one country after another--month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer. Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous. Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them.

These are the things that you at home need not even try to understand. To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and just didn’t come back. You didn’t see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France. We saw him.

Saw him by the multiple thousands. That’s the difference. Scripps-Howard never published the column. Tobin explains, “It tells a truth about war that people at home were not really used to.”

“The great war reporter makes a narrative out of the thing that can’t be told,” says Bill Buford, editor for the New Yorker. “There’s a very complicated mission that a war reporter’s got--to write something a reader wants to read and to write something which actually describes the ugliness of war.”

About the Author

Maggie Riechers is a freelance writer in Potomac, Maryland.

Funding Information

WETA received $380,000 from NEH to produce Reporting America at War with Insignia Films. The film airs in two parts on PBS on November 5 and 12.