In the fir­ing line with the dogs of war

Fas­ci­nat­ing look at the of­ten com­pli­cated mo­tives of for­eign cor­re­spon­dents

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS -

prac­ti­tion­ers – amongst whom may be men­tioned in the same breath Ed Mur­row, Ernie Pyle, Walter Cronkite and Martha Gell­horn – yet there re­mains a co­nun­drum about their work and the work of many oth­ers.

Be­cause the Sec­ond World War has been apos­trophised as a “good war” in that it con­fronted the evil of fas­cism it has al­ways been as­sumed that the same de­scrip­tion can be ap­plied to those who cov­ered it as re­porters. There were cer­tainly enough of them, just un­der 2000 and of their num­ber 69 paid for that fas­ci­na­tion with their lives. The ma­jor­ity were print jour­nal­ists and some like John Stein­beck and Ernest Hem­ing­way were bet­ter known as nov­el­ists be­fore the war be­gan. A few had mas­tered the art of ra­dio broad­cast­ing and made their names by re­port­ing di­rectly from the bat­tle front – Richard Dim­bleby in the skies above Ger­many and Ch­ester Wil­mot from be­sieged To­bruk.

All wore mil­i­tary uni­forms and were given hon­orary ranks and priv­i­leges as of­fi­cers and a hand­ful joined in the ac­tion even though it was pro­hib­ited by in­ter­na­tional law. So in­te­gral was their work to the al­lied war ef­fort that some se­nior com­man­ders re­garded war cor­re­spon­dents not as nui­sances who got in the way of the fight­ing but as quasi staff of­fi­cers who could be re­lied upon and could there­fore be use­ful. An­other con­sid­er­a­tion was cen­sor­ship which was of­ten wielded with a heavy hand and the ar­chives are full of in­stances record­ing clashes be­tween an­gry re­porters anx­ious to file their copy and of­fi­cers de­ter­mined to pre­vent that hap­pen­ing.

In that kind of en­vi­ron­ment there were bound to be grey ar­eas, hence the un­re­solved ques­tion about the role of the war re­porters. Ba­si­cally, this boils down to the sim­ple equa­tion: were they do­ing a good and nec­es­sary job to tell the truth about what was hap­pen­ing in what the his­to­rian Max Hast­ings has called “the largest event in hu­man his­tory” or were they cheer­lead­ers for their own sides? A lit­tle of both per­haps? Now along has come Ray Mose­ley, a dis­tin­guished US cor­re­spon­dent and war his­to­rian, to give his take on the way in which that war was re­ported and a splen­did job he has made of it too.

From the out­set he ac­knowl­edges that the con­flict was too sprawl­ing, too broadly based and sim­ply too in­choate to al­low a com­pre­hen­sive or en­cy­clopaedic ap­proach. There is lit­tle or noth­ing, for ex­am­ple, about the fight­ing in Burma and many other cam­paigns are sim­ply foot­noted but by con­cen­trat­ing on the main bat­tle­fronts in Europe, the Soviet Union and the Pa­cific he has pro­duced the first in­clu­sive ac­count of the many ways in which the war was cov­ered and of the men and women who did the front­line re­port­ing.

Read­ing this book is an en­gross­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Not only has Mose­ley dug deeply and as­sid­u­ously in the ar­chives to re­trieve some trea­sures which might have re­mained hid­den but he has also man­aged to keep hu­man­ity in fo­cus. This is es­pe­cially true of the lit­tle-known story of how a group of in­trepid west­ern re­porters man­aged against the odds to cover the fight­ing in the Soviet Union in the early years of the war. Amongst them were the nov­el­ist Ersk­ine Childers and his wife the pho­tog­ra­pher Mar­garet Bourke-White who had a strug­gle evad­ing the cen­sors yet man­aged to of­fer their own com­men­tary on the ac­tion. When the am­mu­ni­tion used by Soviet fighter pi­lots ran out they re­sorted to the sim­ple but deadly tac­tic of ram­ming the Ger­man bombers but as Childers wryly noted it was not al­ways nec­es­sary as the Ger­man pi­lots “wouldn’t earn merit badges for marks­man­ship at a Mary­land clam­bake.” An­other fact re­vealed by Mose­ley con­cerns the small num­ber of re­porters with adopted dogs which ac­com­pa­nied them into the heat of the ac­tion. One was owned by Harry Sulzberger of the New York Times and was wounded in ac­tion; an­other was run over by a tank in Nor­mandy. Both were rightly listed as ca­su­al­ties.

Mose­ley’s sum­mary is also fair and pre­scient. In­stead of at­tempt­ing to an­swer the per­haps unan­swer­able ques­tion about fail­ings he prefers to say that some great re­port­ing came out of the war and that the many suc­cesses out­weighed any short­com­ings.

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