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somebody dies, it is customary for those who knew the deceased to say a
few words of summation. Orators do so at funerals and obituary writers at
newspapers. Historians, however, try to determine not only what made the
life unique, but also what made it important in the broader context of
time and place. So what? they ask. What difference did Waskow, or Pyle's
column about him, make? What do Pyle's words about the death of a company
commander say about America in World War II?
The answers lie in examining why Pyle's column touched the hearts of so many Americans. There are three major reasons: the sanitized view of the war that appeared in print before 1943; the abstraction that characterized the Waskow column; and Pyle's skill with words.
The first is the most historically significant. During the first twenty-one months of America's involvement in World War II, the U.S. government prevented publication of photographs of dead American soldiers and sailors. The war had gone badly at first, yet morale had to be kept up at home and in the field. And so the Office of War Information and the censors of each branch of military service circumscribed the images of the war that appeared in the mass media.
When the image of war is censored too carefully, there is a threat of war becoming unreal. An OWI memo of 1943 said Americans were in danger of perceiving the war as one in which "soldiers fight . . . some of them get hurt and ride smiling in aerial ambulances, but . . . none of them get badly shot or spill any blood."175 The memo urged that harsher pictures be approved for publication in order to prepare the public for an increase in death and destruction, and to help motivate the home front.
In September 1943, the military released the first photographs of dead American soldiers. George Strock's images of corpses on Buna Beach, New Guinea, appeared in Life, the largest- circulation picture magazine. The powerful pictures shocked some readers, but a greater number approved of the policy. The Washington Post argued that the pictures "can help us to understand something of what has been sacrificed for the victories we have won."176 Images of dead soldiers appeared regularly after that. All were as anonymous as they could be made to be. Efforts were made to crop the photos or obscure the victims' faces, name tags and unit insignia. The caption to Strock's Buna Beach photo—"Three dead Americans lie on the beach at Buna"—told Life's readers that they did not need to know the names of the dead in order to appreciate what they had done.177
It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and it is true that images can pack an emotional wallop. In the right hands, the written word also has that power. However, many print journalists, like their photojournalist cousins, had been giving an incomplete picture of the war. In news accounts originating in the war zone, military censors had the power to edit or kill information they didn't want released. Domestically, the press policed itself according to the guidelines laid down by the Office of Censorship. The nation's newspaper editors chafed a bit at these restrictions on the First Amendment, but mostly the press was as patriotic as any American institution and acquiesced to the government's monitoring of what it printed.178
Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck, who was a war correspondent during World War II, said reporters not only were a part of the war effort, they "abetted it" by toning down and censoring their dispatches.
"Yes, we wrote only a part of the war but at the time we believed, fervently believed, that it was the best thing to do. And perhaps that is why, when the war was over, novels and stories by ex-soldiers proved so shocking to a public which had been carefully protected from contact with the crazy, hysterical mess," Steinbeck said.179
Newspapers shaped the coverage of the war by emphasizing stories of battle descriptions. Editors became restive when reporters strayed too far from the action. One correspondent in the Pacific said the war was written up like a meeting of the "Fifth Street Ladies Club"—stories included the proper names and addresses but almost none of the passion.180
Reporters wrote about death, of course. There was no way around it. Hometown papers published the names and faces of the casualties. Nevertheless, most such stories were one-dimensional, treating the dead as heroes but lacking the details that would have individualized them. In the broader view of the war, coverage of battlefield developments treated the dead as statistics on a scoreboard—how many killed and wounded suffered by each side.
This kind of reporting sprang partly from the U.S. government's efforts to avoid the negative in news reporting from the war zone. For example, Navy Secretary Frank Knox told his public relations officers in March 1942 to "do their utmost to secure press cooperation in toning down the gruesome details of sinkings, particularly the news regarding tankers," and Roosevelt that same year directed the OWI and Office of Censorship to avoid stories about fatal accidents among military personnel unless the accidents already were widely known.181 The managing editor of the Christian Science Monitor argued late in 1943 that this government effort to "hold back and play down American casualties" was pervasive and gave the public an optimistically distorted view of the war.182
In addition, the abstract treatment of death, including the emphasis on ground gain and bodies lost, was linked to the journalists' definition of news, which required an attempt to make an objective assessment of the impact of a battle. It also was the result of the limited vantage point of the reporter. Usually, that vantage point was a safe distance from the fighting and dying. The Navy, under Admiral Ernest King, clamped down on journalists' access to ships and thus to information. The joke that made the rounds in Washington was that if King had his way, there would be only one press release during the war, and it would say who won.183 The Army in the Pacific, under General Douglas MacArthur, was equally stingy with information. While he was in Australia, MacArthur threatened to ban from forward bases any correspondent who interviewed a soldier without official permission and to court-martial the soldier who gave the interview.184 The Army in Europe was more open, but relatively few reporters volunteered to join front-line troops or fly on bombing missions.185 Most journalists got their news of strategies and tactics at the command posts toward the rear, despite their newspapers' insistence that their reporting include battle descriptions.
Copyright © 1995, 1999 Michael S. Sweeney
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