In the firing line with the dogs of war
Fascinating look at the often complicated motives of foreign correspondents
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.