September 29th, 2005

Martha Gellhorn on press censorship during WWII

After reading Martha Gellhorn’s remarkably prescient
1961 Atlantic Monthly article
about the Palestinians, I wanted to read more of her work. I recently and serendipitously happened upon a copy of her Travels with Myself and Another (the “other” being short-term husband Ernest Hemingway), and have been slowly savoring it.

Gellhorn had a mordantly witty and idiosyncratic approach to travel in some very out-of-the-way places–in fact, the book is devoted to what she calls “horror journeys.” She throws herself into adventure with the reckless abandon worthy of a Hemingway heroine, although she herself was angry that her biographers tended to focus on her brief marriage to him. Despite the fact that this is a travel book–although it’s a travel book like no other–it was as a war correspondent that she made her name.

Gellhorn began her war reporting with the Spanish Civil War and ended it in the 80s with the fighting in Panama, and spent a long time arguing passionately against the Vietnam War (and those of you who have read my Vietnam essays here know that I now have some disagreements with that point of view).

In the following passage, Gellhorn is looking back on the outset of WWII. Though a seasoned war correspondent, she accepts the necessity for press censorship at the time:

During that terrible year 1942, I lived in the sun, safe and comfortable and hating it. News reached us at regular hours on the radio and none of it was good. But we didn’t understand how bad it was; piecemeal and (I now see) wisely censored, the news gave us no whole view. The only war I understood or could imagine was war on land and that was enough to shake the heart with the Germans moving like a tidal wave into Russia and Rommel rampaging in the desert. I think my ignorance was typical; the general public, which is most of us, did not realize that the fatal danger was on the sea. We would have lost the war if we went on losing ships at the appalling rate of 1942.

To Gellhorn, and to other Americans, censorship was a question of survival. Her words remind me of Sandlin’s essay on the chaos of WWII as it was actually lived through in real time, discussed here. That Gellhorn, a woman dedicated to getting the truth out during war, came to realize that it was necessary to block the terrible news of the first year of WWII in order to sustain morale on the home front, was an admission of the extreme importance attached to winning that particular war, the “good war.”

I’m not suggesting we go back to generalized censorship of war news. I’m not even so sure it could be accomplished any more, global communications being what they are. But it sometimes seems nowadays as though we’ve gone to the opposite extreme, and that the news is skewed to the worst rather than the best. It’s almost as though the goal were to demoralize those at home.

15 Responses to “Martha Gellhorn on press censorship during WWII”

  1. Steve J. Says:

    Yes, the liberals were proven right when they said that we needed more troops,

    Paul Bremer isn’t a liberal and neither is Graham:

    LINDSAY GRAHAM: Probably so, but I think we’re doing the best we can right now to adapt to a changing enemy, a ruthless enemy. But it goes back to planning. When Bremer asked for 50,000 troops right after the fall of Baghdad, I’d like to know who told him no and why.

  2. Ymarsakar Says:

    Rove never met a quote that he didn’t know that the Democrats would convert to their ideology.

    You got to get better propaganda sources than Rove.

    Liberals proved right once again:

    Yes, the liberals were proven right when they said that we needed more troops, and that Rumsfeld kept the troops at a low level to impale Americans.

    Some people need to stop believing in their own craptastic propaganda, that is for sure.

    How about coming up with your own articles, instead of relying on the propaganda machine of your party? You know, actually writing something similar to that article in your own words.

  3. Steve J. Says:

    a lot of the problems with Abu Ghraib and such will just disappear.

    Iraq scandal leaves White House reeling
    Rove says it may take decades to undo the damage done already
    Sunday, May 09, 2004
    By Ann McFeatters, Post-Gazette National Bureau
    http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/04130/313623.stm

    The White House itself is so gloomy about the repercussions that senior adviser Karl Rove suggested it will take decades for the United States to recover.

  4. Steve J. Says:

    Liberals proved right once again:

    U.S. Generals Now See Virtues of a Smaller Troop Presence in Iraq
    By Mark Mazzetti, Times Staff Writer
    10/01/05
    http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-usiraq1oct01,0,7766978.story?coll=la-home-headlines

    WASHINGTON — The U.S. generals running the war in Iraq presented a new assessment of the military situation in public comments and sworn testimony this week: The 149,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq are increasingly part of the problem.

    During a trip to Washington, the generals said the presence of U.S. forces was fueling the insurgency, fostering an undesirable dependency on American troops among the nascent Iraqi armed forces and energizing terrorists across the Middle East.

    For all these reasons, they said, a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops was imperative.

    During his congressional testimony, Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said that troop reductions were necessary to “take away one of the elements that fuels the insurgency, that of the coalition forces as an occupying force.” A smaller U.S. presence could alleviate some of the anger feeding the insurgency, Casey suggested.

    The same approach may prove helpful across the Middle East, commanders said. The Central Command’s Gen. John P. Abizaid, who supervises all U.S. troops in the region, said the broader fight against Islamic extremism required the United States to “reduce our military footprint” across the region and push governments in the Middle East to fight the extremists themselves.

    Even among themselves, military officials have differed in their assessments of the number of Iraqi troops ready to take on the mission. During a briefing Friday, Casey was asked whether there were enough Iraqi troops in Tall Afar to permanently keep insurgents out of the western town, where U.S. and government forces recently launched a major offensive. “We do have enough force,” Casey said.

    Yet the U.S. commander of the Tall Afar operation, Army Col. H.R. McMaster, said Sept. 13 that it would be some time before the town had enough trained Iraqi troops to keep insurgents from filtering back. “Is there enough force here right now to secure this area permanently? No. Are there opportunities for the enemy in other areas within our region? Yes,” McMaster said.

  5. Ymarsakar Says:

    The reason why the PR against Bush is so damaging to our troops is because there is no counter-defense PR for Bush and America.

    When you have no defense, and the enemy has all the offense, just who do you think is going to get hurt?

    It’s not just about who has the bigger gun, it is also about who has the bigger killer instinct.

    Bush has PR power equivalent or greater than the MSM. But he doesn’t use it. And that, hurts America, citizen and soldier alike.

    PressThink thinks it is a good idea for Bush to… what did they call it, “advise and consent” with the media? Ah, nevermind. Regardless of what PressThink thinks, the real truth is that there is no danger if Bush did 3X as much propaganda as FD Roosevelt did in WWII. No danger at all, I’m serious.

    You can trust humans to be humans. And if the Republicans wanted to use propaganda to attain power, they wouldn’t be campaigning to allow us the use of guerrila type weapons. The Democrats, are a different issue, but even they, will be unable to face the dual power of the internet and guns with propaganda powers.

    Self-sufficiency is the best defense against power abuses.

    I recommend that Bush give a speech every week. If he has to hire 10 speech writers, then so be it.

    If Bush has to subtract time from wooing and wowing the Senators, then so be it. It is the American people that counts, forget the stupid Senators on high.

    Every week, Bush will emphasize something new and positive. Repetition is good, but only in one speech. Bush should highlight Operation Restore Rights, the name itself is propaganda designed already.

    Bush should have Special Forces up, who are giving gripping stories of fighting in far away lands.

    Bush, should in effect, do what the MilBlogs and blogs on the internet are already doing. Bush has the advantage of time (he gets paid to talk and command), and he has the advantage of INSIDE INFORMATION. Therefore he can, if he wants, set the agenda, lead from the front, initiate an offense where and when he wants to.

    Bush is like that ruler, who doesn’t like to do paperwork, and ends up being killed in a coup cause the paperwork was the army’s authorization to be paid their wages.

    Bush would gain 30 pts of Approval, if he used propaganda and the media to America’s advantage. I’m not kidding. Done right, he’d gain as much as he did in 2002, and more so.

    And with a unified country, unified by propaganda but still, a lot of the problems with Abu Ghraib and such will just disappear.

    You can call it informing the public, being “real” to the public, whatever. I just lump it all into one technique of persuasion, propaganda.

    Bush is doing a good job in the physical realm, but he sucks badly in the psychological realm.

  6. Goesh Says:

    Just as much of America was not alarmed at the tiger cages of Viet Nam when that came to light, the pictures of Abu Ghraib are at the bottom of the topic list for the average American today. This is another Leftist pipe dream and projection, that angst and anger and guilt will swell up in average, working Americans over some prisoners in Iraq being mistreated. It is not happening because when the Left thrusts this kind of crap in our faces, most people instantly reflect on the death and destruction of so many innocents at the hands of terrorists and attach a high probability to the fact that said prisoners were probably terrorists or supporting terrorists. Imagine that, the workings of the common mind! Plying guilt works well within the Leftist communities, but not mainstream communities. This is a lesson they refuse to learn. We shouldn’t be giving so much credence to their tactics – let sleeping dogs lay where they are at, because they can always be kicked later if necessary while they are down. the same applies to the leftist notion that the so-called Arab street is going to become more inflamed when they see more pictures of Abu Ghraib. Hogwash! We were hated long before the invasion of Iraq and we were being attacked long before the invasion of Iraq. It is the Left that panders the myth that 9/11 was the real beginning of terrorism. It seems at times we buy into this too.

    We can forget censorship given the current state of technology, but if one looks at the site counts of blogs, it is readily seen that MSM is not bought hook, line and sinker by many people. We are looking elsewhere for news, insights, commentary and analysis. Long live the bloggers!

  7. Anonymous Says:

    Considering the Islamic-Jihad training manaul advocates using our media as a weapon against us I would rather we did not arm our enemy with such a weapon.

    Censorship? I call it survival.

    Yeah, yeah, yeah our rights and all but if we lose this war we won’t have any rights left. In a time of war we must face the fact that we must sacrifice our own needs to protect our warriors and ourselves.

  8. Tatterdemalian Says:

    The people who are thinking in the present are the people on the front lines, and they tend not to share their information for the simple reason that sharing information leads to them being killed.

    Don’t let the ghosts of WWII and Vietnam infecting the blogosphere bother you. We’re fighting a different war, the war of public opinion, and that requires very different tactics than the physical war our troops are fighting.

  9. bob Says:

    The right keeps reliving WWII and the left keeps reliving Vietnam. Neither are a good model for today’s war. It’s tiring to hear the left or right resurect these old wars, and it seems to me that any victory today will only come when both ends are able to think in the present.

  10. Tom Grey Says:

    One thing I liked about Jay Rosen’s PressThink (where Jay is upset that I bash the Media Bias), is how it makes me think about the issues.

    Media defenders might say:
    “What do they want, PR for Bush?”

    I’ve developed a Moral Hazard of a Free Press, and 3 points of reference:
    PR for Bush, minimizes US casualties.
    Both sides, fairly balanced based on numbers killed.
    PR against Bush (=for terrorists), maximizes US casualties.

    The Leftist press is most upset at the idea of doing PR for Bush.

    I personally support a “both sides” approach, even though this means more Americans are killed. I’m enraged at the PR against Bush.

    It was, unfortunately, press folk like Gellhorn and Cronkite that made the US “lose” in Vietnam — and let the N. Vietnamese commies win, and the Pol Pot commies win, and the SE Asian Killing Fields.

    The press wants to support policy, but not accept any accountability for consequences of that policy.

  11. Jerry Says:

    The Bunnies -

    I’m afraid that they really and realistically don’t care whether it damages the US or inflames the ME. What is most important is to damage Bush and the Republican Party. It seems like EVERYTHING is judged with that in mind, and nothing else. Will it piss off folks overseas and put our soldiers in danger? Doesn’t matter, as long as it hurts Bush.

    I’m all for fairness and accuracy in reporting – but what they’re doing is just plain wrong. They’ve decided what the story is going to be, and anything that doesn’t fit gets tossed.

    ymarsakar -

    Yes, the reporters have sunk pretty badly. They’re more worried about ratings and how they can hurt Bush. Our military is doing an incredible job, but you wouldn’t know to look at the major media sites or the papers, or TV. As I said, they know the story they want to tell – the problem is, it doesn’t include victory for our side.

    J.

  12. The Bunnies Says:

    And I’m sure the photos of the prison abuses will be all over the press.

    TIME reported the mistaken story about the Koran in the toiltet without worry that it could be inflammatory, but the networks universally decided to stop showing 9/11 victims leaping to their deaths for fear that we might get too angry.
    I’m really trying to come up with a motivation other than outright sabotage, but I’m finding it much harder. Lebanon, a great victory for Bush, was in the news about two days before being dropped.

    I’m sure that much of the Left and press see this through the prism of Vietnam and think they’re doing the right thing, but the effect is still that of outright harm to our interests.

    If we win in Iraq, it will be a devastating blow against the anti-American view that many have of us. At the same time, a burgeoining democracy is at stake. Do they really want us to loose so that they can keep their delusions? Are they really that bad?

    God I hope not.

  13. Ymarsakar Says:

    The time when war reporters had more experience in war than the officers and soldiers fighting currently, are long freaking over.

    I wonder if that shows how much our military has improved or how much reporters have degraded.

  14. roman Says:

    And to top it all of, here is U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein releasing 70 or so more Abu Ghraib pictures at the request of the ACLU. Pictures that do not add anymore “information” but will inflame the Islamic peoples anew. Did we pass the Freedom of Information act in order to put our troops stationed overseas in peril? Where is the common sense in all this?

  15. The Bunnies Says:

    “It’s almost as though the goal were to demoralize those at home.”

    Unfortunately, I can’t see a shred of evidence to the contrary. We hear of all of the enemy’s successes but none of our own.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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