by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
March 14, 2003
THE ESSENCE OF WAR IS DEATH
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- "War today is smells ... smells of chemicals being dropped from the sky to set houses on fire. Smells from burning oil dumps. Smells of roasting human flesh.
"War today is noises. War is the noise the bomb makes when it drops. Thick, heavy noise. Then the noise when the glass breaks and the walls crumble. Then the noise of silence. That silence which holds all eternity in its grasp for a split second, and then lets go, quickly.
"More than anything else war today is the noise people make. Hopeless, scared, soul-seared people. When the split second of silence is over they scream and moan, or just whimper.
"You can forget what you see. And what you smell. But you can never forget noises. ... You think you know about noises? Wait until you hear the noises of war, then you'll believe what I tell you. The noises war makes may soon drive the world mad."
When Robert St. John wrote those words in the opening of his 1942 book, "From the Land of Silent People," he was speaking to a nation about to embark upon a global war.
St. John, a journalist and author of 23 books who died on Feb. 6 at the age of 100, learned what the sights and sounds and smells of war were like when he was a reporter for The Associated Press in Yugoslavia in the Spring of 1941. He was in Belgrade when the Luftwaffe destroyed the city in a massive air raid. With three other reporters, St. John fled the city barely a step ahead of the Nazis and embarked on a harrowing journey.
Bombed and strafed by the advancing German and Italian forces, St. John and his companions reached the Adriatic, and in a rough 400-mile voyage on a leaky 20-foot sardine boat, somehow made it to Greece.
There was no safety there, either, as he was caught in the midst of the British forces' retreat from Greece. Wounded in an attack on a Greek troop train, St. John was finally evacuated by the British Navy to Egypt.
He had plenty to write about when he reached Cairo, but British censors prevented him from telling the full story of what he had seen on his 28-day journey. The details had to wait for "From the Land of Silent People," a book now almost forgotten that was a best seller when it came out. It deserves to be on the short list of great reportage from World War II.
I read St. John's book a few months ago. I've been doing a lot of reading on World War II, focusing on the books written during the war. I've been trying to find some sort of perspective that could be applied to the coming war and the reporting of it.
The reporters who covered World War II - in that age before digital cameras, laptop computers and satellite telephones - faced stringent military censorship. They moved freely with the troops, but every word of their dispatches was subject to review before it could be released to the public. For example, it took almost a year before Americans saw photos of the extent of the damage from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But, for the most part, Americans were able to see how the war was going with a minimum of spin and propaganda.
But that was a different war. In a war of national survival, there are few dissenters. In World War II, the survival of the free world clearly was in the balance and the cause was just.
What kind of reporting are we going to get out of Persian Gulf War II - a war that by any measure will not be a war of national survival? Are we going to get the sights, smells and sounds that St. John described, or will we get the sanitized coverage that we saw in Gulf War I in 1991?
I'm betting on the latter.
While the Pentagon is "embedding" hundreds of reporters with U.S. units in the Persian Gulf, it appears to be more of an attempt to prevent the Iraqis from gaining the upper hand in the propaganda war than it is an effort to give a true and accurate account of what U.S. forces are going through.
Chris Hedges, a foreign correspondent for two decades, covered Gulf War I for The New York Times as one of the handful of reporters who didn't participate in the military's press pool. In an interview in the Feb. 24 edition of the newspaper trade magazine Editor & Publisher, Hedges pointed out the limitations of the "embedding" policy.
"I'm not saying people shouldn't be embedded," said Hedges, "but they're not going to get an accurate picture unless people are allowed to do their job. When you're embedded with a unit, you rely on the military for transportation: they decide where you'll go, what you see and what you report. They're not going to drive the press vehicle to sites where things go terribly wrong. ... The control will be just as heavy as it was in the Gulf War, in Grenada, and in Panama."
And Hedges - who covered the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, the first Palestinian intifada and various and sundry conflicts in India, Algeria, Sudan and the Balkans - is very skeptical of the one-week "boot camps" the military has run for journalists heading to the Persian Gulf.
"That's a Boy Scout Jamboree - you can't train people in a week," he told E&P. "They initiate you into their little fraternity, but the real purpose is to bond, to feel part of a unit, and to get the military good press."
Hedges just wrote a book on his experiences as a foreign correspondent, called "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning." He's now retired from the war-chasing business, mainly because covering wars is as much a young person's business as fighting in them.
He would agree with the passage from St. John's book that opened this column - about the sounds and smells and sights of war that most of us will never know, especially the men in the Bush administration who are hell-bent for war with Iraq but somehow managed to avoid military service themselves.
In a recent interview on Bill Moyers' PBS news show "Now," Hedges said he fears that most Americans have "lost touch with the notion of what war is."
"Because once you unleash 'the dogs of war,' and I know this from every war I've ever covered, war has a force of its own," said Hedges. "It's not surgical. ... Once you use the blunt instrument of war, it has all sorts of consequences (when you use violence on that scale) that you can't anticipate. I'm not opposed to the use of force. But force always has to be the last resort, because those who wield force become tainted or contaminated by it. ... When we lose touch with what war is, when we believe our technology makes us invulnerable, that we can wage war and others can die and we won't - then eventually, if history is any guide, we are going to stumble into a horrific swamp."
One can say that the sanitized, video game-like television news coverage of Gulf War I made Gulf War II inevitable. The tens of thousands of Iraqis that died in Gulf War I were almost totally invisible to Americans. The tens of thousands who'll likely die in the planned "shock and awe" bombing campaign of 3,000 cruise missiles and laser guided bombs to be dropped on Baghdad in the opening hours of Gulf War II will be likely be just as invisible in the accounts of yet another glorious American victory.
As Hedges and anyone else who has been under fire will tell you, the essence of war is death. And any journalism that doesn't make this point to the people back home is merely propaganda.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).