As Long as Reporters Have Covered War, They’ve Glorified It
Journalists embellishing bomb and missile strikes are carrying on a tradition dating to the 1830s
When Brian Williams reported on American missile strikes on Syria, he fawned over the sparkling, smoking columns of destruction.
“We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. Navy vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen, ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons,’” he said as video showed ship-launched Tomahawk missiles firing into the night sky destined for a Syrian air base.
“They are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is, for them, a brief flight over to this airfield.”
Reporters, talking heads, pundits and denizens of the Internet were quick to decry or lampoon his comments. A few days later, Fox News host Ainsley Earhardt remarked on the MOAB strike—the bomb’s first ever combat use—on Islamic State militants Afghanistan: “That is what freedom looks like.”
Poor taste perhaps, but Williams’ and Earhardt’s poetic waxing is old news in war reporting.
On Sept. 13, 1814, British warships in Baltimore Harbor pounded Fort McHenry for 25 hours. American lawyer Francis Scott Key watched the barrage while under British guard. When bombs stopped and the sun rose, Key saw the fort was still in American hands and the battered stars and stripes still flew above it.
Key quickly scribbled his thoughts down in a poem:
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bomb bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
The poem was printed in the Baltimore Patriot and swept through the rest of the nation and eventually became the U.S. national anthem.
But this is not a solely American enterprise. In 1854 William Howard Russell—described by his epitaph as the “first and greatest” war correspondent—was on the Crimean Peninsula to cover the Battle of Balaclava.
Britain, France, Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire faced off against Russia during the battle, which proved indecisive. On Oct. 25, the British Light Cavalry charged in a full frontal assault into a Russian battery.
“At ten minutes past eleven our Light Cavalry Brigade advanced… They swept proudly past, glittering in the morning sun in all the pride and splendor of war,” he wrote in a dispatch. “At a distance of 1,200 yards the whole line of the enemy belched forth, from thirty iron mouths, a flood of smoke and flame. The flight was marked by instant gaps in our ranks, by dead men and horses, by steeds flying wounded or riderless across the plain.”
When the smoke cleared, the more than 600-strong cavalry lost around 270 men.
Russell reported this “pride and splendor of war” and the cheers that became “many a noble fellow’s death cry.” This would inspire Alfred Lord Tennyson to describe the “noble 600” in his poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
Nearly 45 years later, it was an American’s turn. In 1898 the United States went to war with Spain at the serious urging of William Randolph Hearst and his burgeoning newspaper empire. Once the war started, the reporters landed in Cuba in droves. One of those reporters, Stephen Crane, fell in with a unit of Rough Riders and relayed the charge up San Juan Hill for The World.
Crane described the charge of Americans against a deeply entrenched enemy as theoretically impossible. “But it was done, and we owe the success to the splendid gallantry of the American Private.”
Crane—like Russell and Williams—gets lost in the fervor of the fight when he describes the men going up the hill. “The enemy was keeping up a terrific fire. Then suddenly somebody yelled: ‘By God, There go our boys up the hill!’” he wrote.
“There is many a good American who would give an arm to get the thrill of patriotic insanity that coursed through us when we heard that yell. Yes, they were going up that hill, up the hill. It was the best moment of anybody’s life.”
‘Charge of the 24th and 25th Colored Infantry, July 2nd 1898’ by Kurz and Allison, depicting the Battle of San Juan Hill.
Fawning, poetic, a bit tone deaf: Crane’s description checks a lot of boxes. Other reporters take the opposite path, foregoing the manic patriotism for the demonization of the enemy.
Fast-forward to 1914 at the outbreak of World War I. Richard Harding Davis was in Belgium when the German army invaded. He described the mass of uniform gray moving through the city for three days in a continuous marching horde. He compares the German army to a mad dog in an appeal for American intervention.
“When a mad dog runs amuck in a village it is the duty of every farmer to get his gun and destroy it, not to lock himself indoors and toward the dog and the men who face him preserve a neutral mind,” he wrote.
Harding may not invoke Leonard Cohen or patriotic insanity, but he did dip into the fanciful when he wrote the German nation “have in their own image created this terrible engine of destruction. For the present it is their servant. But, ‘though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small.’ And, like Frankenstein’s monster, this monster, to which they gave life, may turn and rend them.”
Still other reporters capture the misplaced beauty of war machines and devastation.
Ernest Heminigway, at left, with Col. Charles T. Lanham in Schweiler, Germany, 1944. Photo via Wikimedia
With the outbreak of World War II the number of foreign correspondents exploded. Even famous novelists were joining in. Ernest Hemingway wrote the curiously headlined “London Fights the Robots” for Collier’s in 1944 about a squadron of British fighter planes.
“You love a lot of things if you live around them, but there isn’t any woman and there isn’t any horse, nor any before nor any after, that is as lovely as a great airplane,” he wrote. “And men who love them are faithful to them even though they leave them for others. A man has only one virginity to lose in fighters, and if it is a lovely plane he loses it to, there his heart will ever be. And a P-51 can do something to a man’s heart.”
Although more erotic than Williams’ comments, Hemingway romanticizes a war machine to an uncomfortable degree. But these are not just the habits of more eccentric, novelist reporters.
Even the sober, venerated journalists embedded during the fighting couldn’t resist. On Dec. 29, 1940 Ernie Pyle experienced a German bombing raid over London. He described the scene, albeit reluctantly, as the most beautiful sight he ever saw.
“As we stepped out onto the balcony a vast inner excitement came over all of us– an excitement that had neither fear nor horror in it, because it was too full of awe,” he wrote. He described the entire horizon of London lined with fires and the sky filling with pink smoke and turning barrage balloons shimmering pink instead of silver.
“There was something inspiring in the savagery of it,” he said. “These things all went together to make the most hateful, most beautiful single scene I have ever known.”
All Pyle lacked was a Leonard Cohen song to quote as London burned.