Monday, May 25, 2015

D-Day - A column I wrote 11 years ago about Ernie Pyle and George W. Bush

The first time I visited the Normandy beaches, almost 20 years ago, I went with my father-in-law, who'd landed there on D-Day. We walked on the wide sand and through the green, wind-blown fields, and he looked a little lost, as many veterans do when they wander those cross-covered cliffs.

You could see him gazing out to sea, but searching inside himself for the buddies who'd died, and for that young man who used to be him. Since then, we've visited other sites where he fought and his friends perished. The experience is always heartbreaking, not only because of the sad fact that death is, but because of the terrible scale of it in these places—a spectacle of killing which, thank God, we haven't seen in my generation's many wars. At least, not yet.

The chronicler of G.I. Joe's World War II was Ernie Pyle. When he was killed by a machine-gunner on the little Japanese island of Ie Shima in April 1945, after so many years reporting on the fighting, he had a draft column in his pocket that describes as eloquently as anything I've ever read the weight of the carnage on those who survived it. He was thinking back on Normandy:

"Those who are gone would not wish themselves to be a millstone of gloom around our necks," Pyle wrote. "But there are many of the living who have had burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedge throughout the world.

"Dead men by mass production—in one country after another—month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer.

"Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous.

"Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them.

"These are the things that you at home need not even try to understand. To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and just didn't come back. You didn't see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France.

"We saw him, saw him by the multiple thousands. That's the difference. . . ."

He well and truly hated war because he saw what it was from so close.

Pyle, the son of a tenant farmer, mixed easily in the enormous conscript army mustered by the United States to take on what was, truly, an Axis of Evil. He knew what his country was fighting for, and his columns never doubted the rightness of the cause, even though he admitted he lost sight of it sometimes in the middle of all the killing. The way Pyle wrote about the common soldiers' lives, sharing their pains and frustrations and horrors as well as their good humor and common sense and uncommon valor, made him probably the most widely read and best-loved correspondent of his time. But he well and truly hated war because he saw what it was from so close.

Pyle understood that even the highest ideals get worn down by endless fighting. "I had come to despise and be revolted by war clear out of any logical proportion," he wrote in 1943, when he began a brief trip back to the States. "I couldn't find the Four Freedoms among the dead men. Personal weariness became a forest that shut off my view of events about me. I was no longer seeing the little things that you at home want to know about the soldiers."

When George W. Bush makes his D-Day anniversary visit to the Normandy beaches on Sunday, we're going to hear a lot of well-honed speeches trying to compare the righteous combat forced on us in World War II with the war of choice we've entered into in Iraq. But only speechmakers from coddled, comfortable backgrounds who've never heard a shot fired in anger, much less seen "dead men by mass production," would dare use the blood of those who died at Normandy 60 years ago to try to cleanse their conscience of those dying in Iraq today.

The United States entered World War II, as it had entered World War I, to defeat a proven aggressor and bring the war to an end. The Bush administration actually won its righteous war, in Afghanistan after the aggression of September 11, 2001. But that victory came too quickly, it seems, for our leaders to get much satisfaction from it. So they sent our kids to Iraq. And what is the goal there today, now that the reasons we were given at first have proved to be grand delusions? To spread democracy? To extirpate the very idea of terrorism? To work the will of God? Sixty years ago, those who thought they could teach the world how to live the only right way, which was their way, and launched unprovoked wars claiming this was the only thing could do to defend their values--those were the people we called the enemy.

But let's be clear about the soldiers. Our soldiers. Those men and women in Iraq today are, indeed, just as heroic as those at Normandy. They have been put in the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong reasons, but that's not their fault. They are fighting and dying and trying to build something good as soldiers, despite the most foolhardy civilian leadership in the modern history of the United States. Like any G.I. Joe in World War II, they're making the best of a bad situation.

In his day, Ernie Pyle's columns read like the letters every soldier wanted to send. But today's soldiers, at least the ones who write to Shadowland (, do a pretty good job of telling the story themselves.

Last week, for instance, I got a long letter from Lt. Col. Richard Allinger in Baghdad. ... 

"The American soldier in Iraq is a fine human being," he writes. "Young men and women, a zillion miles from home, watching their friends die day after day, being mortared..., eating lousy food, baking in the unbelievable heat. Young men and women who are attending too many memorials and last roll calls. These young men and women suffer these indignities routinely and go out each day to help rebuild a school, build a water line, repair a bridge, fix the substations, install air conditioners in orphanages, the list goes on and on. These young men and women are heroes, not prison guards gone wild. They are the bravest most incredible people I have ever had the pleasure to know."

To which I say, Amen.

The full column is available on

Monday, May 04, 2015

In an Age of Information Insurgency, Notes on My History in the Mainstream Media

More excerpts from draft speech by Christopher Dickey, "Call of Duty / Call of Da'esh," at Bahcesehir University, Istanbul, 28 April 2015

We'll come back to the question of whether and how we in the press should address the communication challenge of ISIS—this information insurgency, but first perhaps we need to look at the evolution of what we in the United States call "the mainstream media." 

That is my world and my frame of reference, and I'd like to start our quick tour of history about 150 years ago, around the time of the American Civil War. (At The Daily Beast, when I write about this period in book reviews, I sometimes have to assure my young colleagues that I did not actually cover that war myself.)

This was the second great age of mass communications. The first had come with moveable type in Europe, the Gutenberg revolution. The innovation of the 19th century, during the industrial revolution, was the industrialization of information. Paper got cheap, presses grew much more efficient, advertising became ubiquitous, helping to finance the publications, and suddenly it seemed just about anyone could put out a broadsheet. In major cities in the United States there were dozens of papers. And because copyrights were weak, nonexistent of unenforced, they picked up articles wherever they found them and reprinted them.

This may sound familiar. A little like the aggregation and blogging that goes on today. And there are indeed some important similarities. In that fiercely competitive market what we saw was fracturing of the news, sensationalizing it and making it more partisan in order to lock in one corner of the market or another. And those who were most successful with these strategies came to wield enormous power, which they used for political and profit-making purposes. By the end of the 19th century this yellow journalism was at its height — and it was dangerous.

Perhaps you have seen the great Orson Welles movie "Citizen Kane." It is based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the king of yellow journalism, who for various reasons wanted the United States to go to war against Spain and seize its colonies, most notably Cuba and the Philippines.

[[One sequence begins with a headline saying Spanish warships are off the coast of New Jersey. Kane’s guardian protests: There is no proof of that! Kane asks if the guardian can prove there are not! Then a telegram comes in from the paper's correspondent in Havana saying he can write prose poems about the palm trees, but there is no war there. Kane dictates a response: “You give me the tone poems, I'll give you the war.”]]

The idea that began to take a strong hold after World War I — that a newspaper should be a "newspaper of record," carefully balancing all the facts in its articles and keeping the stated political positions of the owners in a separate editorial-page isolation ward — had been around for a long time. People grew tired of the excesses of yellow journalism. 

But the idea of "responsibility" really started to dominate discussions of the media when the marketplace began to change with the appearance of new forms of communication and, therefore, of competition. In this case: radio, which brought a level of accessibility to the illiterate —still a very large part of the American and European population in the 1930s—and a kind of immediacy that newspapers found it hard to match.

Under the combined pressure of the Great Depression and the home radio, newspapers collapsed one after another and fewer, bigger companies emerged, so that by the 1950s, with television now added to the media mix as well, we saw the development in the United States of a small and immensely powerful oligarchy that not only dominated the news business, but the news judgment of the nation. Really, we're talking about half a dozen newspapers, three TV and radio networks, plus a couple of weekly news magazines. Many of the most influential organs, moreover, were controlled by rich and powerful families: the Sulzbergers at the New York Times, the Grahams at The Washington Post, the Chandlers at the Los Angeles Times, and so on. 

They watched each other, they competed with each other, and they kept score not just with scoops and revenues, but by vying to see who could be judged more responsible in the exercise of their great mission to inform the public. The crowning glory was a Pulitzer Prize "for public service."

At the height of their power in the late 1960s and early 1970s they exposed the hypocrisy and lies surrounding the Vietnam war with the so-called "Pentagon Papers" and brought down the president of the United States with "Watergate." 

That moment—the summer when Richard Nixon resigned—was the moment I started my journalistic career at The Washington Post. (And you might say that ever since the American press has been in decline....) 

Of course the driver of change was not really internal, it was external to the newspaper business: the advent first of cable news and satellite television in the 1980s and then the Internet in the 1990s, which not only diversified the sources of news, but, by the mid-2000s, had destroyed the advertising base that funded the reporting. 

So, perhaps a bit of personal history, to give a sense of just how much things have changed for a reporter in the field.

In 1980, after six years with The Washington Post in Washington, I became a foreign correspondent covering a series of wars and revolutions in Central America.

These were the first wars the United States had edged into after the fall of Saigon in 1975, memories were fresh, and bitter, and so was the partisanship among the public and, yes, among some reporters.

For my part, I learned very quickly to hate war, to see almost nothing about it that was noble or, perhaps more to the point, that was necessary. It was based on illusions and delusions manipulated by a few ambitious and powerful men (and sometimes women).

On the ground, I saw again and again that my own government lied, that the governments it was fighting lied, that the guerrillas we wanted defeated lied and the guerrillas whose wars we supported lied, and all the while the people — those people who just wanted to get on with their lives — died.

The job of a correspondent then, as now, was to try to extract some verifiable facts and perhaps some larger, necessary, useful truths from all this suffering.

The combination of casual obliviousness and willful ignorance is, of course, extraordinarily dangerous in a country that can have the kind of huge impact on global affairs that the United States has.

In those days of the communication oligarchy in America the good news for a correspondent was that he’d have the money to go where he needed to go to get the story, and every side in the conflict knew to some extent that it needed the correspondent if it wanted to get its story out to the wider world. Many reporters were killed and injured in combat, but the because we were needed by all parties at some point there was some degree of protection.

The bad news was that it was damn hard to communicate that story from the field back to the home office. You basically had two options: telex or dictation.

The worse news was that even when your story was published, showing the lies of one side or the other, a great many people preferred to believe those lies. Indeed, they cherished them.

I came away from my early years with two firm convictions about the reading public.

First—and this is especially but not uniquely true of American—what people want from the rest of the world is to forget about it. They do not want to have to care, and given the chance, they will turn the page, change the channel, click on a different site.

Secondly—that people believe what they want to believe, and refuse to believe what they do not want to believe.

The combination of casual obliviousness and willful ignorance is, of course, extraordinarily dangerous in a country that can have the kind of huge impact on global affairs that the United States has. But we journalists, who are fighting against obliviousness and ignorance, see them triumph despite everything we do and try to do.

We saw it in the 1990s when hundreds of thousands of people died in Somalia – and then in Bosnia – and then in Rwanda.

We may communicate now on computers, tablets and smartphones, but that doesn’t mean people will listen to what we say or be convinced by facts when they read them or take action to change those facts even when they are convinced.

Very often reporters have warned about ethnic cleansing, horrific war crimes and genocide to come, and then they take place right before our eyes and—nothing or almost nothing is done to stop them. “Never again,” people say — again and again and again.

So, let us turn, now, to this part of the world, which has become well known for the means of communication known as terrorism.

Yes, you heard correctly.

What is terror but a means of conveying a message?

Brutal, savage, unforgivable perhaps (although often it is forgiven), terror can be used as a tool used to warn off enemies and build support among allies.

When I first started covering the Middle East 30 years ago, governments, through various proxy groups, used terrorism to send messages to each other. In the mid 1980s, when Jordan’s King Hussein was trying to cut a peace deal with Israel, Palestinian terrorists backed by Syria murdered some of the people involved and blew up Jordanian airline offices around the Middle East, among other targets. King Hussein, in the meantime, supported Muslim Brothers blowing up targets in Syria.

When the Syrians murdered the French ambassador to Lebanon, the French responded by helping the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and Saddam Hussein’s intelligence services blow up a military headquarters in Damascus, killing scores of senior officers.

Also see: Call of Duty / Call of Da'esh

These were acts of terrorism by all sides—but they were also intended as communications, much stronger than diplomatic notes, but not so great a commitment as open war.

After the first intifada began in 1987, the Israelis carried out a systematic program of assassinations, murdering Palestinian leaders in Cyprus, Tunis, Athens and elsewhere.

In the late 1980s there seemed to be some sort of terrorist incident just about every week. Airliners were hijacked or, in some cases, bombed. A cruise boat was hijacked and one of the passengers murdered. Westerners, including several reporters, were kidnapped in Lebanon.

The answer of the United States to the threat of terrorism and other challenges to its interests was a series of wars and military actions around the globe. From the 1982 landing in Lebanon and the invasion of tiny Grenada and the Contra guerrilla operations in Nicaragua in 1983 to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States carried out acts of war, either overt or covert, on average about once a year.

Did these American acts of war make the world a safer place? Did they even make it a safer place for Americans? In many cases, absolutely and certifiably not. And yet they were claimed as victories, and such actions were repeated, again and again.

And here is what is most striking about those military operations if you are in America: almost nobody remembers them. I covered many of them and even I can’t name all of them off the top of my head. But the Libyans did not forget that we bombed their country in 1986. The Iranians did not forget that we backed Saddam Hussein on the waters of the Persian Gulf and blew up an Iranian airliner full of Iranian men, women and children on its way to Dubai in 1988.

A couple of years later, when Saddam suddenly made himself the enemy by invading Kuwait, we had Desert Storm. People read about that in history books. But less often do they hear about the aftermath, which included repeated bombings of Baghdad throughout the 1990s, including the campaign called Desert Fox in 1998, which was entirely counterproductive. After the withdrawal of all UN weapons inspectors that accompanied that action, the United States had no idea what was going on with Saddam’s programs to try to build weapons of mass destruction. So that in 2003, the US invaded, not because of what it knew but because of what it did not know: it couldn’t be sure there was no threat until it occupied the whole country.

Obliviousness and ignorance.

If there is anything that makes the United States perceived as a great enemy by many people around the world, that is it. In 1997, in a work of fiction, a novel, I wrote about an Al Qaeda terrorist recruiting an American soldier to his cause: "In America you don't feel what you do,” he said, repeating a line I heard often fro jihadists. “You are in the eye of a hurricane that you create. Pain and suffering and injustice all over the world, and all you see is blue skies."

That was not the least of the reasons that, four years later, Osama bin Laden filled the blue skies over Manhattan with the smoke of crashing planes and collapsing towers. It was an atrocity, yes. It was also an act of communication that changed the world.

And all that was before … Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and smartphones. ...