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Truth: A Downtrodden Maiden

ISSUE:  Spring 1976
The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth Maker, By Phillip Knightley. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $12.95.

IF the title did not reveal the message of Phillip Knightley’s book on war correspondents from the charge of the Light Brigade through the Tet offensive, the design on the book jacket would. It depicts a jaunty, booted figure, notebook in hand, one foot planted on the rounded thigh of a prone damsel, labelled “truth.” The inside jacket blurb says of Knightley: “He never heard a shot fired in anger, and hopes he never will.” This might have been a better book had the cover been a less faithful illustration of the content and if Knightley had heard a few angry shots, It is possible to write about war without experiencing it but experience helps.

Knightley takes his title from Sen. Hiram Johnson’s 1917 dictum: “The first casualty when war comes is truth.” It might be said in the aftermath of Watergate that when peace comes truth is still vulnerable. The fact is that governments lie under pressure all the time but especially in time of war. Knightley proves to the hilt his premise that all modern wars, some only more so than others, have been fought behind curtains of secrecy and deception. Along the way he supplies some fascinating examples. But he also tends to overstate his case,

By placing equal stress upon the transgressions of war correspondents and on the governments they must rely upon at times for information (or misinformation) Knightley has achieved readability at the expense of fairness. However, he does describe situations in which reporters have no way of getting at the truth, or even if they do, have no way of getting it by the censors. But it is correspondents who bear the brunt of his disdain and many no doubt deserve it. In a succession of wars incompetents, adventurers, and mountebanks have been more conspicuous than serious journalists reporting the closest approximation of truth obtainable, sometimes against enormous odds.

Knightley, who seems to be a dedicated pacifist, also tends to treat all wars as equal abominations. He makes few bows to the distinction between the just and the unjust. Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia is of a piece with Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s resistance to Hitler. Both wars were badly reported in Knightley’s view and in neither was distorted reporting justified.

He denounces the U. S. government for concealing the extent of its losses at Pearl Harbor and the British leadership for pretending that the flight from Dunkirk was somehow less than a defeat and the aerial defense of Britain a gallant stand by a few outgunned heroes against an overwhelmingly superior Luftwaffe, whereas the defending force was in fact the equal of the invaders and possessed, besides, the advantages of radar and convenient home bases.

He refuses to concede that such temporary deceptions might have been justified in the interest of preserving morale in the early, discouraging stages of World War II. The reality is that words are weapons in modern warfare and the words are not always truthful. Yet the assumption that war would be abolished if civilian populations knew what wars entailed in suffering and destruction while they were going on is probably a fallacy. The Vietnam conflict, while televised for all to see and conducted without benefit of censorship, commanded majority support in this country until its futility became apparent.

Having been a correspondent myself in North Africa and Europe in World War II and briefly in Vietnam in 1962 when U. S. military intervention was starting there, I must confess to a certain self-serving bias. Like most of my associates in Europe, I was emotionally committed to Hitler’s defeat. Yet I never felt obligated to lie for the cause and observed no disposition to do so on the part of my colleagues. On the Normandy beach, where I landed with first-wave troops, I reported the bravery of the many but not the panic of a few, a sin of omission by Knightley’s lights.

Such sins, I admit, were not unusual. But they did not extend to major events. The trouncing U. S. armor took at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia was a humiliation and it was so reported. The short bombing in Normandy, where an armada of U. S. planes dropped tons of explosives on U. S. front-line troops, killing hundreds, was not kept secret.

Several of us correspondents were caught under the misplaced bombs, among us a press photographer who was killed, and we filed eye-witness accounts, which the censors cleared without alteration. Censorship was remarkably lenient at this stage of the war in Europe, probably because the Allies were winning and there was not much bad news to cover up, Knightley bypasses this incident and others like it. But he bears down hard on the Pacific theater, where censorship was harsh, probably because a long string of defeats preceded a turn in Allied fortunes. Covering several wars in one book, Knightley had to be selective but his selections serve his thesis rather too neatly.

His insistence that correspondents, with notable exceptions, have been willing, even eager dupes of officialdom, is not only unjust but, in my experience, uninformed. Most of the correspondents I knew were young, exuberant, idealistic and skeptical to a fault. In North Africa they were angrily critical of collaboration with the Vichy colonials, which culminated in the Darlan affair, even though this policy opened the way for lodgement with a minimum of loss. In Vietnam they actively promoted the downfall of President Ngo Dinh Diem, convinced that he stood in the way of military success. They placed themselves crosswide both of the U. S. government and, in many cases, of the position taken by their home offices.

I disagreed with the correspondent consensus on Diem and still do. Incidentally, Knightley describes me as a “Catholic liberal” and says I was sent to Vietnam by Newsweek after the expulsion of François Sully, then the magazine’s resident correspondent (later reinstated and killed), in response to government pressure for more sympathetic reporting. I am not a Catholic and whether I am a liberal depends upon definition. I went to Vietnam uninstructed except to replace Sully temporarily while a permanent correspondent could be enlisted and cleared. It was a time when the South Vietnamese were experimenting with fortified villages. My assessment was hopeful and, as events proved, mistaken.

Knightley is at his best with wars more distant in time; here memoirs and considered afterthoughts have enriched the source material and he has made the most of it. His first example of the civilian war correspondent in action is William Howard Russell, who cut the pattern for non-military war reportage. He told accurately what happened to the Light Brigade in the Crimea but neglected in his dispatch to hold the incompetence of Lord Raglan responsible. This part he reserved for a private letter to his publisher. His was a long and distinguished career, seldom subsequently matched.

Knightley allows himself few heroes. He disparages the record of Winston Churchill both as a correspondent-soldier in the Boer War and as a leader in World War II, blaming him for distortion of the war news in several crucial situations. He dismisses correspondents in the American Civil War as mere propagandists, equally bad on both sides. Some of them were shameless enough to accept payment from officers for favorable mention in dispatches.

He has no patience with Ernest Hemingway and other correspondents whose partisanship in the Spanish Civil War was so intense that their reporting lacked any semblance of objectivity. It was not until after the war that Hemingway in his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, referred to the Communist intrigues that so much damaged the loyalist cause. While conceding that John Reed, who covered the Russian Revolution as a correspondent for The Masses, was just as partisan, Knightley praises both his reporting and his book, Ten Days that Shook the World, written at the war’s end.

In World War I, he contends, propaganda and news were so tightly controlled and intimately entwined that the conflict was never decently reported, the work of such famous correspondents as Floyd Gibbons not withstanding. He insists that Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel, Scoop, can be read as an almost literal account of the press corps’s operations in Ethiopia.

About Ernie Pyle and others who lived with the GIs through World War II and faithfully chronicled their thoughts and activities, something never before done the way they did it, Knightley is at least neutral. They fall into his category of “trained seals,” outside the mainstream of war reporting.

Some of the correspondents in Korea and Vietnam win his limited approval for criticizing the way these wars were fought by the Western commands. But he scolds them for their failure to question the reasons for, and the morality of, outside intervention in Asian quarrels. Most correspondents, even in Vietnam, where they were free to go where they could and to write what they would, were not arrogant enough to undertake the responsibilities of the historian. The 45 correspondents killed in action in Vietnam and the 18 lost attest to the reporters’ conviction that their job was to report the fighting and its consequences.

Truth is an elusive and downtrodden maiden in the best of times and times of war are not the best for her. What Knightley does not quite recognize is that she has more than one foot on her thigh. He nudges her a little himself.


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