Michael's Dispatches

Ernie is Dead

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March 13, 2007

Old Tents 

Something was strange about the moon.

Not able to sleep, I pulled from the sleeping bag and used a small red light to walk from the long dark tent into the Baghdad night. Inside had been dark, but outside the moon was so strangely bright that I crept quietly back into the tent, aisles flanked by sleeping bodies, and felt through my gear for the camera before creeping back outside.

The moon, so bright and sharp, draped crisp penumbra-less shadows from the tent ropes, casting sharp stripes across the gravel. As the moon followed its natural path into umbra, the fact that a complete lunar eclipse would unfold in mere hours had escaped my attention.

Helicopters roared through the midnight, low overhead, most burned no visible lights. As the helicopters disappeared and Saturday drifted into Sunday, I stood alone in the moonlight watching the tents under the stars, and photographing the various light sources mixing and flowing together.

When I first stayed in these tents in December 2004, the air was cold and loud. It had been one of the deadliest months in the war, with explosions and gunfire day and night. With only cots in the tents, the low sandbag walls might be enough to spare a body from damage so long as it was lying flat and the rocket or mortar didn’t land in the tent. Tonight, in March of 2007, the sandbags were stacked like gradient sediment around the older tents. Older, tattered bags crumble around the tents, while newer, faded bags make bases for the newest bags, still shining.

The war has been raging in Iraq for nearly four years. Tonight more soldiers are flooding into Baghdad. Cots are being replaced with bunks, new tents are going up, and new sandbags are filled by the thousands.

Sometimes night is brighter than day, as these new tents appeared to the camera just after midnight. [note: camera metadata time is 2123 hours, 03 Mar 07; Camera clock set to GMT; Baghdad time was 0023, 04 Mar 07]

For now, I stay in an old tent filled with bunks, my fellow occupants mostly transients; neighbors one day and gone the next. Some days, maybe half are Iraqi, the rest are American or other westerners. At times, I am one of the few “guests” without a gun. Many of the thousands of soldiers now flooding into Iraq will never see tents; they will drive over bomb-laden roads to rough combat outposts all over Baghdad and other cities, or out to lonely forts on the border with Syria or Iran, where the landscape looks like the front range of Colorado.

Many of the soldiers streaming into Iraq will spend a scorching summer with no air conditioners or running water. They will stink like soldiers; there will be no ice cream. There will be grit and filth, mosquitoes with malaria, foul smells from the burning garbage of the cities, snipers, and terrorists who will try to flatten their buildings with truck bombs. The soldiers will see things that age them a decade or more over the course of a single summer. Many will die here, others will lose limbs and a few will go crazy. They bring the final hope for Iraq.

A future President of the United States might spend his or her 25th summer in downtown Baghdad, Ramadi, or maybe out in Diyala Province or up in Kirkuk, watching full moons rise and fall over the cities, hearing dogs bark in the night. Maybe the distinct POP will puncture the darkness, as an American sniper kills a man nearby who was carrying a shovel next to a road at midnight.

Machine guns and rifles will fire until they become so hot they glow. When big machine guns fire too long their barrels will begin to melt and droop. Lubricant evaporates and leaves the weapons dry, signaled to soldiers when the odor of hot weapons mixed with smoke and dust fills their nostrils and lungs. When the weapons fall silent, the air percolates with metallic clicks, tics and tinks, the sounds of parts cooling. During the silence the soldiers redistribute ammunition and check each other for holes. Sometimes the wounded do not know they are the wounded until someone tells them.

Some of the soldiers streaming into Iraq are raw and new to battle. Others are serving their second, third and fourth combat tours, having fought across Afghanistan, or down in Africa, or in some corner in a secret fight, on a special team of some sort, killing men in jungle camps in South America, in wars few people have heard about. Around the world, dangerous American soldiers will close in on men tonight and kill them in small battles that will never be spoken of. Al Qaeda turned it on, but is powerless to turn it off.

Terrorists started this war with killing, and now are suing for peace with more killing, lashing out at schoolyards, marketplaces, and soccer matches, blowing up kids, women, and men on their way to work or worship. All to win the battle for headlines, which they are certain to get; the greater the savagery, the bigger the font.

Our soldiers, meaning the soldiers from countries like the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Germany, yes France, and the United States, are better in all aspects but one: The terrorists somehow manage to beat us all in our respective medias. We may own the air, but terrorists own the airwaves.

Midnight in Baghdad. The weather is still cool. Alone with my camera, with time to just think.

Today there are over fifty journalists here. We have an excellent new Commanding General, David Petraeus. A big plan is unfolding that will affect the lives of nearly every person reading this, and many more. Soon the weather will change as a long, hot, grinding, and sticky year begins, but most journalists will spend little time here. When the weather turns hot, most will go home.

Afghanistan, too, is nearly forgotten. Our troops are slugging it out over there. I believe we are losing the war in Afghanistan, but I have strong hope for Iraq. Nearly all of America and Europe believe Iraq is a lost cause, but there is hope here and it lives in the thousands of stories about this place that are never told because they have not been witnessed by our media, or at least not reported.

Under that strange high moon rising to meet its eclipse, I thought of Ernie. Ernie Pyle. His was a name I hardly knew just two years ago, except in some vague way I knew he had been a writer, at war. That changed when people compared my work to his, and sent a couple of Ernie’s books to me. After reading them, I thought the comparison extremely flattering but not deserved. There are some obvious and even stylistic similarities. I say “folks” a lot; so did Ernie. Ernie had a particular heart for the infantry; I spend most of my time with infantry. But while Ernie talked bluntly about the ugly parts of war, I simply lack the skills to make anything ugly look pretty.

Where Pyle and I share closest ties is in our knowledge of the value our work has for troop morale, for strategic gains, and for ensuring the support of Americans back home. But in Ernie’s day, it seems that more of the military leaders knew this as well, and they made it their business to act on that knowledge. Military leaders made it possible for Ernie Pyle to do his best work, something I wrote about more than one year ago. But Ernie said it best when he wrote about the 9th Infantry Division in his book “Brave Men.”

An odd thing happened to the 9th while we were in the Mediterranean.

For some reason which we have never fathomed the Ninth wasn’t released through censorship as early as it should have been, while other divisions were. As a result, the division got a complex that it was being slighted. They fought hard, took heavy casualties, and did a fine job generally, but nobody back home knew anything about it.

Lack of recognition definitely affects morale. Every commanding general is aware that publicity for his unit is a factor in morale. Not publicity in the manufactured sense, but a public report to the folks back home on what an outfit endures and what it accomplishes. The average doughboy will go through his share of hell a lot more willingly if he knows that he is getting some credit for it and the home folks know about it.

As a result of this neglect in the Mediterranean, the Ninth laid careful plans so that it wouldn’t happen again. In the first place, a new censorship policy was arrived at, under which the identities of the divisions taking part in a campaign would be publicly released just as soon as it was definitely established that the Germans knew they were in combat. With that big hurdle accomplished, the Ninth made sure that the correspondents themselves would feel at home with them. They set up a small Public Relations section, with an officer in charge, and a squad of enlisted men to move the correspondents’ gear, and a truck to haul it, and three tents with cots, electric lights and tables.

Correspondents who came with the Ninth could get a meal, a place to write, a jeep for the front, or a courier to the rear—and at any time they asked.

Of course, in spite of all such facilities, a division has to be good in the first place if it’s going to get good publicity. The Ninth was good.

Ernie would continue plowing into battle with the soldiers, until one day in mid-April, 1945, when he was out with the Marines on a small island called Ie Shima, and a Japanese machine gunner shot him dead. America’s most loved and respected war correspondent ever was alive one minute and dead the next. When CSM Jeff Mellinger told me he had visited the little monument there on Ie Shima to pay respects, I knew no one will ever measure up to Ernie Pyle, who saw more, wrote more and paid more than any war correspondent I know.

Modern tents, with heaters and a/c.

Back then, everyone seemed to know that the Germans were hopeless followers of fanatics, who were only emboldened by appeasement overtures. And that the Japanese were so aggressively fanatical that they would fly airplanes full of fuel and bombs into our ships, knowing they were going to die. But for the unlucky raise of his head, Ernie Pyle never saw how Germany ended up being America’s ally, or how the collective focus of Japan was harnessed as an economic force that birthed the notion of globalization. Having covered the war so close to the ground, could Pyle have predicted anything beyond the outcome of victory for allied forces?

Analogies only stretch so far, even in this strange moonlight, where the war around us is not nearly as dangerous for soldiers as World War II was, but is actually more dangerous for journalists. Much more perilous is the often toxic nature of relations between journalists and the military, which has been steadily eroding since the start of this war. When it comes to assigning blame for the public’s lack of support for this war, many are quick to point accusingly at journalists, but I cast no blame on any journalist for not being here.

Morning came, and then night again. During the evening, as I walked back to my tent, there was a crew of fourteen from NBC. Sound people, cameramen, a big satellite dish, the works. Three producers. It was all there—the face of the “evil” Mainstream Media in the personages of Brian Williams and Richard Engle. And standing in the dark with them as military analyst for NBC was retired 4-Star General Wayne Downing, a legend in special operations. (Think Delta Force and all the rest of the gang. ) Wayne Downing graduated West Point in 1962. Served in Vietnam and everywhere else under the sun. He might have killed more terrorists directly and indirectly than any man on the planet.

I had to rub my eyes. Was that General Downing?

The General Downing?

When Presidents called 911—Downing probably answered the phone. And there he was before me. I walked up and started a conversation without mentioning my name. But General Downing asked, and upon hearing it immediately lit up saying he actually reads this website, and from our conversation it was obviously true. Of course, I said that I was going to take that and run with it, and tell the world that General Downing reads this site.

Among his many other accomplishments, General Downing had commanded the 2nd Ranger Battalion, one of the most difficult and prestigious jobs in the entire military. Today, LTC Erik Kurilla, formerly commander of the Deuce Four and totally recovered from his last gunshot wounds, is now commander of 2nd Ranger Battalion. Small world.

Behind me I heard several NBC crewmembers talking with Craig White. I did not know Craig, but he was talking about an American Colonel I had the honor of getting to know, Colonel Stephen Twitty. The way Craig and the others were talking, Twitty sounded like he walks on water. According to some soldiers who know him, he does. Craig had been embedded with Twitty previously, and wanted to try to see him again. That was the opening I needed to interject that I’d just spent a month in Mosul with Twitty’s people in the 2-7 CAV. Later when I emailed the news up to Mosul, Twitty gave high praise to NBC. And when I watched Brian Williams and Richard Engle and General Downing do live interviews, everything they said was consistent with what I am seeing on the ground. Brian and Richard both clearly were concerned to get it right.

The rules, like the times and tents, have changed. Joe Galloway is retired. Journalists who in previous wars might have spent long tours with combat forces are rare. There have been a few, such as Lee Pitts who was here to cover a Tennessee National Guard deployment for a Tennessee paper. Or Rich Oppel of the New York Times, who has been here repeatedly for longer than typical journalists. John Burns needs no introduction. Likewise Dexter Filkins or Michael Ware. But journalists who roam the battlefield with the troops and write freely for long periods are completely gone. That doesn’t mean good journalists are gone. There are plenty of those, but mostly they are somewhere else, or they only come to Iraq for quick tours.

There is the new brand of journalists, the independents, of which I am a charter member. Many bloggers, along with their readers, are changing the face of journalism. Glenn Reynolds, from the immensely popular blog “Instapundit,” which I check regularly, calls the new media “An Army of Davids,” who are already changing the media by holding it more accountable. A number of very effective blog-storms have provided a needed check to balance the system. Don’t ever fake a photo: Bob at Confederate Yankee is watching.

Huge amounts of blog-energy go into attacks on mainstream media war coverage that might be better spent ignoring the irritant and offering alternative sources, in view of how critical any and all media coverage is to shaping public opinion which in turn determines the outcome of this war. These skirmishes between mainstream and alternative media produce only friendly fire casualties, and neither side can claim a monopoly on accuracy and objectivity. While the reliability and/or agendas of many mainstream media sources are questionable, the blogworld is also often too eager to anoint anyone who’s not mainstream as a guru-of-something. If this were the art-world, it would be like anointing anyone with some skill at putting brush to canvas as the “new Rembrandt.”

But the dirty secret known to only a few is that many of these “new Rembrandts” are clever forgeries. Some bloggers who advertise themselves as war correspondents with numerous “embeds” in the war, with the implication that they’ve spent more time on the ground than their mainstream war correspondent counterparts, mostly have spent very little time here, especially in comparison to those mainstream war correspondents.

This week, journalists are all around this area—ABC, Fox, New York Times, Associated Press, The Telegraph, Stars & Stripes (DoD publication) and others, all flagships—but where are the bloggers? Prohibitive costs, very high risks, and an increasingly shrinking market for the work probably contribute to the poor showing. Will the blog-world still maintain the attack on coverage from the mainstream media? Instead of looking for mistakes in some coverage, the common cause might be better served by well-informed bloggers searching all sources for the reports that get it right and driving readers to those.

ABC has suffered hard hits from the terrorists and is shrinking back, staying in the compound or on bases, mostly. On the other end of the spectrum, CNN roams the battlefield. Michael Ware says his bosses give him free rein and discretion. Independents like me are tiny sailboats amid a fleet of battleships and aircraft carriers, living at the eye of the storm, wondering if sacrifices to the internet and satellite gods will get the next dispatch published. If by some miracle it happens, the question of whether anyone notices comes next. In a world supposedly clamoring for “real” news that should be the least of the obstacles. And, with a shift from competition to collaboration between “mainstream” and “alternative” media, that may in fact be starting to pass.

Readers who came to this website via a link on the front page of the Fox News website are beneficiaries of one example of this cooperation. Fox News is on the cutting edge of this new wave. In the coming months Fox will post excerpts of my latest dispatches that link to the complete versions here. While Fox uses their resources to penetrate the murk here in Iraq, I will maintain independence and the net effect is more readers will see more of the situation on the ground.

Fox News is breaking ground for mainstream media on Iraq coverage. Hopefully other news websites follow. I welcome the increased traffic and reader support which enables me to stick it out for another year, and to afford satellite communications and other major expenses. Finding and highlighting new sources of information is something the bloggers have been doing since before I first hit ground in Iraq December 2004, and is another example of the impact that blogs have had on mainstream media.

Now, it’s back to soldiers’ stories, and the battle for Iraq.


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