Steven Casey sets out to debunk two conceptions of American wartime reportage that he regards as erroneous. His punchy introduction to The War Beat, Europe takes to task media scholars who have characterized the U.S. press corps that covered World War II as essentially on side, with all the calculated omissions, elisions, and exaggerations that a morale-boosting conception of wartime professional purpose required. But Casey also cautions postwar exponents of the “good war” mythos whose laudatory portraits of journalistic courage under fire have added a cluster of danger-courting war correspondents to the greatest generation’s pantheon of heroes. Casey seeks to chart a via media between simplifying constructions of reporters as either subservient cheerleaders or unerringly patriotic battlefield witnesses. His self-proclaimed goal is to add texture and nuance to existing appreciations of U.S. journalism in the European theater, drawing on extensive multi-archival research including official military and civilian records alongside numerous collections of private papers. Although a number of individual journalists and photographers dominate the ensuing account—most prominently Ernie Pyle, Wes Gallagher, Bill Stoneman, Hal Boyle, Drew Middleton, and Robert Capa—Casey characterizes his approach as less group biography than a study “organized around the news stories that mattered: the ones that got published, garnered the most attention, and exerted the biggest impact” (4). To execute this revisionist project, Casey adopts a strictly chronological approach to the material, following the American press corps from the initial setbacks suffered by the Allied campaign in North Africa to successes in Sicily, stalemate in southern Italy, and then onto the beaches of Normandy, through Belgium and into the heart of Germany. Focused on the combat dimension of war, Casey's account achieves considerable momentum, while his richly descriptive prose evokes the linguistic agility of his journalistic subjects. Casey is especially attuned to the complex interpersonal dynamics everywhere apparent on the war’s shifting frontline. Journalists sparred with one another over access to information and the means of communicating copy back to headline-hungry editors in the United States. Reporters also sometimes came to blows with the sizeable corps of public relations officers tasked with chaperoning them and excising questionable material from drafted reports. (At the launch of Operation Overlord, the allied invasion of Normandy, no less than two hundred censors accompanied five hundred accredited reporters.) But as Casey underscores, tension was just as apparent within military ranks, as reputation-obsessed generals vied with one another for commendations and column inches, desperate to sideline rivals whether in British or American uniform. Yet despite multiple lines of division—frequently blurred, crossed, and redrawn—hostility was not the exclusive order of the day. Shared dangers and privations also fostered camaraderie, as did the copious quantities of alcohol that kept military-media relations afloat. Friendships, or at least instrumental allegiances, developed between reporters and senior commanders, as well as broader affinities between journalists and ordinary GIs, exemplified by Pyle’s sensitivity to the perspectives of enlisted men. Previous scholars have depicted the arc of wartime reportage as one of greater “realism” as U.S. involvement in the war lengthened. As George Roeder and others have documented, the War Department came to appreciate by 1943 that more graphic reports from the front—entailing at least a partial acknowledgement of combat's human toll—would better serve the interests of morale maintenance than tight-lipped denial. This liberalizing shift in Pentagon policy gave editors greater latitude to publish photographic depictions of dead American soldiers, as well as reports that conveyed soldiers’ (and also reporters’) bouts of fatigue, grief, and homesickness. From General George C. Marshall’s perspective, carefully calibrated rations of grit, served with smatterings of aestheticized gore, could help fend off public complaisance. “Grimness” had its uses.1 But a more downbeat register wasn’t something that required a mandate from on high. Reporters who had spent long stretches of time at the front, watching scores of young men in uniform suffer grievous harm—sometimes at the unwitting hands of fellow Americans, as Casey details—often needed no encouragement to avoid glib boosterism or premature intimations of easy victory. Casey avoids an overly teleological account. Rather than plotting his tale as either a succession of small triumphs for press freedom or the latter’s gradual eclipse, he remains attuned to oscillations between visceral and evasive modes of reportage and the fluctuating determinants of these shifts. Reluctance to embrace a more hard-hitting approach, he suggests, as often originated with news organizations themselves as with the military. After a number of prominently publicized stories in which reporters accompanied bombing raids over Germany and made parachute jumps behind enemy lines—in the case of New York Times reporter Bob Post, at the cost of his own life—editors became less enamored of such stunts. The death of a correspondent was too high a price for the frisson of verisimilitude that came from sharing a cockpit with bombardiers or paratroopers. Dented by the emotional toll, press proprietors also tallied a thoroughly unsentimental bottom line: derring-do reportage was an expensive commodity that, after the first surge of adrenalin had ebbed, seemingly delivered diminishing returns. How much exposure to the hazards of aerial warfare—faced by those in the cockpit as well as those on the ground—did American civilians really want? Editors shrewdly guessed that the answer was not very much. Yet while editors pulled back from sponsoring more dare-devil forms of journalism, reporters at the front nevertheless continued to push military briefers for information and readier access to the communications systems that would let them transmit copy more expeditiously. Casey refutes the contention that American correspondents became ever more thoroughly aligned with a military worldview as the war progressed. Reporters may have grown more committed to the cause the longer they served overseas and the more Axis atrocities they witnessed, but they consistently pressed to expose transgressions by individual officers as well as larger tactical blunders throughout the war. Thus journalists who observed General George S. Patton slapping two hospitalized GIs in Sicily—cowardly malingerers in his eyes—surreptitiously spread the story despite official attempts to contain it. One of the best-known instances of journalistic disobedience occurred at the moment of Germany's capitulation. The Associated Press’s Ed Kennedy defied a temporary military embargo on reporting of this climactic event. Regarding the injunction against publication as unwarranted, not least after the Germans themselves had broadcast it, Kennedy duly scooped his chagrined rivals with the first report on General Alfred Jodl’s signing of the instrument of surrender. Narrowly escaping court martial, Kennedy was promptly expelled from the European theater before press censorship was lifted. Acts of brazen defiance were, however, extremely rare. In the main, the American reporters on whom Casey concentrates knew when to keep mum. Most journalists recognized that sensitivity to the dictates of operational security was likelier to encourage a steady flow of news than espousing an adversarial stance. And so it proved. Senior commanders generally appreciated that greater openness on their part would yield higher dividends than treating reporters as inherently untrustworthy. Tellingly, Eisenhower felt sufficient confidence in journalists’ capacity to respect secrecy that he divulged Sicily's assignment as the launchpad for Europe's liberation one month before Operation Husky began. Casey offers up this emblematic instance as one of several examples of Ike’s shrewdness in managing the press. Consistently, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces emerges as a more skilful exponent of media relations than certain thinner skinner subordinates, including Patton and General Mark Clark, whose perilously distended egos sometimes impeded sound judgment. While Casey exhibits some partiality—Ike and Pyle both receive especially approving treatment—The War Beat, Europe is a narrative without villains. Judicious to a fault, Casey succeeds in delivering fine-grained vignettes of journalistic life on the frontlines where, most of the time, seasoned professionals comported themselves like reasonably accommodating and rational adults, whether they wielded the pen or the sword. But his study nevertheless has built-in limitations. Most obviously, an emphasis on the “stories that mattered”—with the fact of publication tautologically taken to establish newsworthiness—marginalizes individuals and issues that were systematically suppressed by the wartime state or, for reasons of unselfconscious group-think, remained beyond the purview of the mainstream U.S. press. Taking the “stories that mattered” to be synonymous with the ones that monopolized headlines, Casey commits himself to focusing almost exclusively on a coterie of white male journalists who, despite some professional fractiousness, rubbed along reasonably well with officers of similar class and identical racial background. No wonder Casey likens the military-media relationship to that of an old married couple, constantly bickering but incapable of considering divorce. However, not all accredited American correspondents found a comfortable place in this quasi-matrimonial yet intensely homosocial club. Women journalists were only reluctantly granted access to the European frontline. Margaret Bourke-White flits into view once in a while, with her penchant for charming four-star generals and entourage of baggage-carriers. But the celebrity photographer’s room for maneuver—expanded by personal charisma that was perhaps all the more effective at door-opening in the absence of other women—was, Casey concedes, sui generis. Most women correspondents occupied a far less privileged position in the press pack, encouraged (if not required) to report on the “female angles” of war where they were permitted to report at all. Since pieces about WACs and nurses were ipso facto not the “stories that mattered” in the masculinist world of war, women correspondents are similarly peripheral to Casey’s account. In a text of some 350 pages, women other than Bourke-White appear on just nine. The same partiality of perspective also ensures that issues of race, along with the presence of African American reporters in Europe, receive short shrift. Near the end of his book, Casey candidly acknowledges that black newspapers and their representatives were treated more shabbily by the Pentagon than their “mainstream” counterparts: marginalization that replicated the structurally subordinate position occupied by African American troops in a segregated military establishment. Casey excoriates the racism that consigned black Americans to inferior ranks and minimized public acknowledgment of their contributions to the war effort, but ends up reproducing the same exclusions by adopting a limited definition of which stories mattered, why, and to whom. Concentrating on stories prominently covered by big circulation papers and magazines, Casey necessarily has little to say about issues that never made it into print. Taking bombing as a litmus test of whether reporters broached tough questions of war morality, he finds encouraging signs of independent-mindedness. While not the norm, at least one well-publicized account challenged the official line that bombing, since its enunciated goal was to degrade Germany’s military-industrial capacity, was “strategic” rather than terroristic in intent. But what about lower level questions of military ethics on and off the battlefield? Much recent scholarship has shown that American soldiers of every rank frequently stretched the parameters of the Geneva Conventions or violated them altogether. Looting, sexual violence, and mistreatment of prisoners were not uncommon occurrences. Yet while Casey describes reporters’ irritation that the residents of Normandy withheld food supplies from American personnel, he offers no larger context to explain why the French civilian population may have been less than enamored of their liberators.2 Whether American reporters failed to relate GIs’ more reprehensible behavior from a sense of fealty, or whether critical copy was quashed by censors or spiked by editors, readers of The War Beat, Europe do not learn. Similarly, the pervasive phenomenon of “fraternization” in Germany passes altogether unmentioned, though this was a topic that certainly generated much heat in the stateside press, earning Ike a rebuke from President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his inability to control either his own troops or the photographers who unhelpfully captured scenes of premature rapprochement between Germans and GIs. Casey reaches the verdict that “lack of docility” was the “most striking characteristic of the World War II correspondents,” insisting that previous scholars have exaggerated the collaborative dimensions of the military-media relationship in World War II, emphasizing deference over defiance (349). But since the push-back from journalists that he documents was almost invariably over tactics, not more fundamental issues of politics or ethics, Casey’s point seems overstated. Ironically, given his desire to stress pressure points, he altogether overlooks those reporters who most consistently bedevilled the military establishment: not women or African American correspondents, but the enlisted men who edited, wrote and drew for the military’s own press. Patton’s disdain for Stars and Stripes was legendary, with a particular animus directed against Private Bill Mauldin, whose Willie and Joe comic strip, featuring two laconic critics of the army’s “caste system,” made him as beloved by his peers as he was loathed by the brass. That the military found it harder to rein in journalists in uniform than their civilian counterparts is a paradoxical dimension of wartime journalism that scholars have largely neglected. While The War Beat, Europe sheds fresh light on familiar ground, readers might wish that Casey had chosen to explore some paths less traveled, posing more open-ended questions about the variety of things that various constituencies wanted from the media at war and whether their expectations were met. Footnotes 1 George H. Roeder, The Censored War: American Visual Experience during World War II (New Haven, CT, 1993). 2 These issues are tackled by, among others, William I. Hitchcock, The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe (New York, 2009); Alice Kaplan, The Interpreter (New York, 2005); Mary Louise Roberts, What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France (Chicago, IL, 2013). © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Diplomatic History – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 1, 2018
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