The First Casualty, or "The Journalist's Job is Never Done."
Der Derian and Santos
Lit Review for 3/19/08
The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq
By Phillip Knightley
In The First Casualty, Phillip Knightley seeks to address the way journalists have failed the public in reporting every major war of the last century. He attributes the war correspondents’ inability to adequately inform the public to both the government-military propaganda machine and a partial failure on the part of the journalists. Knightley’s primary concern is to illustrate both the impossibly daunting task of attempting to report during wartime and the history of lies the military and the government have spewed at the public in an effort to justify what he says were often senseless wars. In doing so, he essentially bludgeons the reader with historical data, statistics, and anecdotes that demonstrate how corrupt and manipulative governments have been during wartime. In this sense, Knightley’s argument reaches a somewhat annoying level of repetitiveness, until he leaves the reader saying: I understand, enough now, the government is corrupt, the military is manipulative and brutal, the media is powerful, and the journalist’s job is never done. He argues that wartime journalists, even those who were most successful, often relied too heavily on facts and figures or complete fabrications handed to them by the government and the military propaganda machine. He goes on to say that these journalists should have probed more; they should have attempted to glean the truth from the mass-distributed military lies and to moralize the war according to their own standards. On the whole, Knightley sees the efforts of war correspondents as both inadequate and futile; most of them did not go far enough, and those who did were suppressed by the government.
In chapters fourteen through eighteen, Knightley addresses the Korean War, the Algerian War, the Vietnam War, and various British wars in the 1970s and 1980s, focusing mainly on reportage in Korea, Algeria and Vietnam. In these chapters, he begins to see some merit in one group of reporters: the Vietnam War correspondents. He identifies a shift in war reporting in the reporters beginning “to question the ethics of their business” (448). However, Knightley fails to recognize that while he criticizes the Korean War and Algerian War correspondents for not pushing far enough to report the truth, he hails many of the Vietnam War reporters who, though they faced similar obstacles to that of the Korean War reporters, were not censored by the United States government. Though he eventually expresses the idea that all the wartime reporters, including those during Vietnam, had failed in some sense, he gives the Vietnam War reporters higher accolades than they may deserve considering the fact that they were granted access to a much more wartime information.
Knightley begins the section with chapter fourteen, a look at the United Nations’ invasion of Korea from 1950-1953. In the early stage of the war, he notes, there was no censorship, so correspondents were free to write the truth (367). But the government soon caught on to the problem of maintaining its image, and cited the “bad moral and psychological effect” the reports could have on UN troops. They began to invoke the idea of the wartime journalist’s responsibility “in the matter of psychological warfare.” Since the army was essentially the correspondents’ lifeblood and supplied communications, transportation and housing, journalists found it difficult to get their story out without government intervention (368). The press were seen as “natural enemies” by the military. Censorship began more heavily on December 21, and Knightley cites several examples of journalists expelled from Korea and placed under jurisdiction of the army. One such journalist was Peter Webb of the United Press, who was suspended from working in the country. Correspondents were threatened with deportation and trial by court-martial if they criticized allied conduct (376-77). When John Colless, an Australian working for AAP-Reuter, tried to report on South Korean atrocities and mass murders, he was also censored. Some correspondents began to question if South Korea was even worth saving, especially in the face of the corrupt police force, whose officers would leave soldiers to die of starvation, blackmail citizens with the threat of labeling them communists, and bring refugee girls to brothels (374).
Knightley goes on to argue that the press during the war relied too heavily on censored military sources and false press releases and allowed themselves to be intimidated into suppressing the truth. In Korea, he posits, “too many were prepared to go along with whatever the military told them, getting their stories from handouts, which were not military documents but were filled with the phrases of advertising copy writers, not only misleading but often wrong” (379). Often, correspondents would print stories they knew were false because the United Nations press releases reported them as such (386). This denial of the truth and refusal to deeply investigate, “helped delay for years a proper examination of the reasons for a collapse of morale unprecedented in American military history,” Knightley says (384). So although the correspondents were courageous in battle, “they failed to show equal moral courage in questioning what the war was all about,” he says. Knightley goes on to say that more correspondents should have challenged censorship and misinformation, criticized the United States’ dominance in the campaign, and questioned the morality of the war. Instead, he posits, they became too wrapped up in telling the details of military gains and losses, rather than in evaluating whether the intervention was justified (389). At this point, Knightley expresses his opinion that a war correspondent’s responsibility is to “tell the truth as he sees it, even if that truth appears at the time to be against the national interest,” and he casts some of the blame for the 2 million civilian deaths on the Korean wartime journalists. Essentially, he claims it is the journalist’s job to evaluate the morality of military decisions during wartime. But according to Knightley, isn’t a correspondent’s role to present the facts as accurately as possible and to leave the evaluation to the public? Knightley’s comments earlier in the text call his argument against the Korean war correspondents into question, as he details the Spanish civil war correspondents as having reported “with the heart” and subsequently misled readers with undue optimism (234-35). In chapter eleven, the Struggle for Mother Russia, he again suggests the undesirable nature of the biased war reporter, quoting Henry Shapiro as saying “the minute a newsman takes sides, he stops being a reporter” (291). In this sense, it would seem Knightley might be more lenient in his analysis of the Korean correspondents, as his text abounds with examples of reporters who attempted to glean the facts from the military propaganda machine and to release them to the public without injecting their personal opinions. But instead, he rails against the correspondents in both his chapter on Korea and in his section on the Algerian War.
Chapter fifteen, Algeria is French, details the Algerian revolt against the French government from 1954 to 1962. Ten years after the revolt, the French people were still confused about what had happened during the war. Knightley’s culprits are both the military-government machine, which “harassed, expelled, gaoled, and tortured” any correspondents and editors who tried to get the truth out, and the press, which he says “failed in its duty.” This initial analysis seems the perfect springboard into a deep engagement with the correspondents’ cowardice in the face of the government propaganda and their refusal to dig deeper, but Knightley presents a rather favorable picture of the wartime correspondents. He offers several examples of journalists who defied government attempts at smear campaigns and intimidation techniques, including that of Georges Penchenier of Le Monde, who refused to accept that civilians killed, including women and children, were non-combatants, and challenged the government by writing further to insist he was correct (397). Penchenier, “one of the most courageous correspondents of the war,” was in the company of Georges Chassagne, a French correspondent who caught an execution on video and spoke out against an attempted government smear of his name. Knightley seems to further support the idea that the journalists had done the best they could with a justified demonization of the government’s role in suppressing the truth: “There appeared no limit to the government’s determination to suppress news that it did not like and to discredit or destroy professionally any correspondent who resisted this policy” (396).
That said, Knightley does provide some examples of journalists who simply went along with press releases and allowed the government to dictate their message to the French public through “censorship, propaganda, and political pressure” (400). However, he rebuts his own argument with further anecdotal evidence of correspondents who courageously faced death-threats, hostage situations, and risk of injury by the government, such as Jean Daniel of L’ Express, who was shot by paratroopers and given the wrong blood type at the hospital (403-404). In summarizing the chapter, Knightley proposes, “In France, no one wanted to remember. The divisions were too bitter, the scars too fresh, for any examination of the role of the information media, the effect of political prejudices on newspaper policy, the bias in the reporting of the war” (407). But his analysis begs the question, where are the abounding examples of correspondents who could have done more? From those examples presented, it seems they did the best they could manage with what they were getting from the government, which sought to intimidate them and suppress any dissent. So though Knightley effectively argues that the government was utterly corrupt, he falls flat on his initial assertion that the Algerian War correspondents failed in their duty. And once again, his accusation of the newspapers’ “political prejudices” and “bias” contradicts his previous assertion that Korean War correspondents should insert their moral judgments into their reportage. Either reporters should be biased or they should be neutral, and it appears Knightley analyzes the journalists of each war according to a different scale, as evidenced in his support of Vietnam wartime journalists.
In chapters sixteen and seventeen, Knightley presents his analysis of the war correspondent’s coverage of the Vietnam War in its entirety, from 1954-1975. He begins in 1954, when most of the articles written about the war played up the “Communist menace” of North Korea and cast Ngo Dinh Diem, leader of non-Communist South Korea, in a favorable light. Not until after 1960, Knightley argues, did journalists begin to demonstrate the principles that would characterize much of the Vietnam War reporting, including a general unwillingness to submit to pressure from the Diem government and from editors at home. A small group of journalists, including Homer Bigart of the Herald Tribune and Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press, formed the major press corps in the region at the beginning of the war, and they often faced intimidation by the Diem government similar to that used in Korea and Algeria (410). The United States Military Assistance Advisory Group attempted to make correspondents “accomplices” in deceiving the American public, and the reporters were not happy about it. Knightley quotes Homer Bigart as having said, “We seem to be regarded by the American mission as tools of our foreign policy” (411). Responses to the correspondents’ efforts to tell the truth included government appeals to their patriotism, efforts to freeze their sources and pressure their editors, and attempts to discredit their reputations and the quality of their reporting (412-415). American correspondents were either expelled or had their copies changed by editors under political pressure from the Kennedy Administration. Often, editors would use official military versions of events that were false rather than the reporters’ version, so as not to upset Washington (412). And John Mecklin, Time’s bureau chief in San Francisco, called the correspondents inexperienced, irresponsible sensationalists. The government also appealed to the journalists, often accusing them of siding with the enemy.
However, despite the various methods the government used to suppress information, the Vietnam War, as Knightley points out, was the least censored war there had ever been. Rather than force censorship, as it did in the Korean War, the United States government employed more subversive methods, including what it thought would be a successful political relations campaign (418-19). This led to the government’s loss of its iron grasp on war reporting, the position of power it had secured more easily in previous wars: “By making every facet of the war unusually accessible to any correspondent who turned up in Saigon, it lost control of the situation” (419). This access made it possible for journalists such as Seymour Hersh to relate the travesties of My Lai to an audience at home (424-29).
However, though Knightley initially puts forth the idea that correspondents covering the Vietnam War were somehow leaps beyond those of previous wars, he finally expresses his judgment that they too had somehow failed the public. “Clearly, those charged with the responsibility of informing the United States public about Vietnam had not fulfilled their task,” he posits, going on to say that most efforts by well-meaning journalists to get the truth out were either suppressed through the use of anti-communist, government propaganda or by cowardly editors unwilling to stand up to the administration (441). Though “the correspondents did their best,” Knightley says they could have done more to subvert authority, gain access to accurate statistics, and express the larger picture in their pieces, analyzing “what it all meant” (464-66). In this sense, though he sets the Vietnam War reporters apart from the generally lackluster bunch of correspondents he has discussed up to this point, Knightley’s final analysis of the Vietnam reporters is not one of immense pride.
It seems that in his analysis of Korea and Algeria, Knightley expects a moral stand from wartime correspondents, but in Vietnam he is more lenient, dismissing the reporters’ ineffectuality, lack of reportage on various atrocities, and inability to see the big picture as results of military pressures. For the first time, correspondents looked into their moral obligations in reporting, a moment Knightley sees as a turning point in wartime correspondence (448). Though the outlook at the end of the chapter is bleak, as none of the journalists he has analyzed escape unscathed, Knightley posits that Vietnam War correspondents were somewhat more successful. However, in view of the fact that these reporters faced fewer obstacles to their reportage, Knightley’s description of the way Vietnam War reporters excelled above all others remains somewhat lacking.
Knightley, Phillip. The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2004.
*In closing, though my essay does not cover chapter 21, I would like the point out the interesting choice of font by the book's publishers on the last page of chapter 20 and throughout chapter 21. While I'm not a font-enthusiast like some of our Helvetica friends, I imagine someone else can glean some level of significance from the abrupt font-change. Too bad I don't recognize the font. Where's Gary Hustwit when you need him, anyway?