“The First Casualty Review”

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Philip Knightley wrote ‘The First Casualty’ in 1975, and the updated edition was published in 2003 by André Deutsch to take account of new conflicts.
The New Yorker describes it as “Disturbing, even dismaying, yet also in its painful way, enormously entertaining.” The renowned journalist, John Pilger, describes the work as follows: “Philip Knightley’s clear-sighted and principled book throws down a challenge to journalists to examine their role in the promotion of war.” (Book Jacket)
The title of the work is derived from what American Senator Hiram Johnson said in 1917: “The first casualty when war comes, is truth.”

Born in Australia, Knightley lived most of his life in London, where he worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times. This title won him the “Best Book on Foreign Affairs” award, and he has won numerous awards. (Jacket).
Pilger (Introduction xi-xiii) gives an introduction to the book and warns the reader of war reportage to be aware of the dangers of “fabrication”. He also adds the caveat: “that Knightley…throws down a challenge to journalists to examine their role in the promotion of war, in propaganda and its myths, and the subliminal pressures applied by organisations like the BBC, whose news is often selected on the basis of a spurious establishment ‘credibility’.” He urges reporters to “retain pride in our craft of truth-telling,” and adds that the “rest is not journalism.”
Journalists who veer away from true story telling are treading a dangerous path, and this was very apparent in the recent Rwandan conflict when several journalists were imprisoned for life for inciting ‘genocide’ by the International Tribunal sitting in Tanzania. The Second World War also showed us examples of journalists motivated more by Nazi ideology than a desire to report the truth.
Knightley (p1-17) begins his work by informing us about the career of the Irishman William Howard Russell, whose Times reports on the Crimea War in 1854-56, set in train the notion of war correspondents. Russell’s tools of the trade reflected the reality of life in the nineteenth century, and he wrote his reports with a quill. His language was classical, and full of what today would be regarded as “clichés”: “Rain of death…tore through the enemy ranks…point blank distance…terrible enemy.”
Two schools of thought emerged from this early war reporting. Russell attempted to portray the entire scene, describing how a battle was won or lost, whilst a contemporary, Godkin, wished to portray the effects of war on the individual. Russell’s reports on the Crimea ignited fervour at home, and spurred Florence Nightingale to set up a new skill, that of war nursing. His reports also encouraged Roger Fenton, one of the founders of the Royal Photographic Society, to go out to the Crimea armed with a camera in which to document conditions. Russell’s reports often came under fire for giving too much information, and a consequence of this was that by the time the British became involved in the Boer War, news from the front was heavily censored. Though Russell is recognised as the ‘father of war correspondents’, criticism has been laid at his door because his reporting didn’t go far enough. Belonging to the ‘officer social class” himself, he pointed out deficiencies within the ranks, but his reportage was muted when it came time to lay the blame.
By the time the American Civil War (1860-1864) broke out, news editors were quick to despatch correspondents into the field. The New York Herald alone despatched sixty-three reporters and utilised a budget of over a million dollars to cover the conflict. New developments like the telegraph, the spread of the railroads, the beginnings of news agencies helped the war reporter. The danger with this new type of reporting however was “bias” and Knightley (p23) notes that the “pressure for a scoop forced many correspondents into positions that compromised any ethics they may started with.” Northern newspapers attempted “saturation coverage”, but these attempts were often made to the detriment of good journalism practice. (P26) There is a suspicion that some British newspapers, including The Times, favoured the southern Confederate States during the conflict, but this changed after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Up to the outbreak of World War One, a number of positive changes occurred within the newspaper industry. In Britain, the Education Acts of 1870 increased literacy at a time when circulations were increasing, the telegraph grew in popularity and became cheaper to use, transportation improved – steam trains, canals, roads. Editors resorted to using famous personages to cover some of their reporting, and this is how Stephen Crane, author of the Red Badge of Courage, entered the business. James Creelman is remembered for his reporting of the Spanish American war, and Knightley also covers the reports from the Boxer War. An Italian war correspondent, Luigi Barzini, who was starting to make a name for himself is mentioned in glowing terms by Knightley. (p43-66). Barzini had the “hearing ear and the seeing eye” to report on battles with far reaching consequences and was one of the first correspondents to recognise the dangers of Japanese expansionism ambitions.
By the time of the Boer War another influential journalist was making himself known – Winston Churchill. Other famous personages reporting during Victorian times included Charles Dickens, Dr. Conan Doyle, and Kipling. Churchill’s reporting from the Boer War is widely recognised as originating through a “soldier’s eyes”. (P71) Knightley also recognises the career of Baden-Powell, the founder of the scouting movement. Edgar Wallace was warned by the British government to tone down his “vivid atrocity stories.”(P78) It is also somewhat ironic that German newspapers criticised the British use of concentration camps in light of subsequent events. (P79)
Ernest Hemingway is quoted in relation to the First World War, calling the conflict the “most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery…on earth.” The Defence of the Realm Act in Britain would have far-reaching consequences, and the outbreak of the war surprised the British who had their eye on the Irish question. Newspapers and agencies engaged in collective propaganda publishing on all sides of the conflict. Lord Kitchener proved a formidable opponent of pushing war correspondents into the field, and even Churchill a former war correspondent himself opposed the idea of war reportage. Some enterprising reporters were not to be deterred however, men like Granville Fortesque, Philip Gibbs of the Daily Chronicle, William Beach Thomas of the Daily Mail, Geoffrey Pyke a Reuters correspondent, and the aforementioned Luigi Barzini. Pressure to allow war reportage came from America’s Theodore Roosevelt. The British agreed to a form of “writing chappies” in the field, and the era of the embedded journalist had begun. (P100). Photographers suffered similar restrictions. Keith Murdoch, an Australian newspaperman, reporting from Gallipoli, also proved that war journalism was a force to be reckoned with. The Battle of the Somme, with its atrocious toll on human life sickened people of the war, and casualty figures became “debased”. (P116). Before America’s entry into the war, precipitated by the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat, American correspondents had joined with neutral correspondents in reporting on the conflict. Their efforts were soon curtailed by strict censorship as the war worsened. American correspondents like Richard Harding Davis, Irvin S. Cobb and William G. Shepherd had made their mark though. The latter is renowned for his account of the “first Zeppelin raid on London” in 1915. America’s entry into the war was lacklustre at first, and a Committee on Public Information chaired by a journalist – George Creel – was initiated to galvanise Americans into joining the war effort. (P131) Lord Northcliffe, the newspaper baron who owned The Times and The Daily Mail encouraged these efforts.
Frederick Palmer, an American war correspondent accredited to the British Army, was tasked with leading the efforts of American war correspondents. Reporters like Floyd Gibbons of the Chicago Tribune were not to be stymied in their efforts though, and Peggy Hull of the El Paso Times. Others like Westbrook Pegler, Fred Ferguson and Broun reported on what they saw fit.
The allies attempts to interfere in Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution, never properly reported to the public, effected Soviet and Western nations for years to come, and is cited by Knightley. The Guardian’s reporter, Morgan Philips Price, made a name for himself here. One drawback to accurate reporting as mentioned on page 189 refers to the fact that “a reporter who cannot speak the language of the country he is working in can never get at the facts because he is completely at the mercy of either his interpreter or the official handouts.” Sir Percival Phillips reports on Abyssinia broke through this problem. Knightley (p197) also stresses the importance of “eyewitness reports”.
The next major war to disturb the world came with the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Correspondents like Martha Gellhorn, Claude Cockburn, George Orwell, and Kim Philby filed reports on this affair, though the latter was a Soviet agent. A clear line needs to be drawn in the sand between true reporting and “propagandist” reporting, and Cockburn himself fell foul of this rule. Ernest Hemingway also filed reports on this conflict. Robert Capa, the renowned photojournalist, also captured the war through the lens of a Leica. Jay Allen’s reporting was also important and set a benchmark. The heavy bombing of Guernica also marked a turning point in world conflicts – heavy saturation bombing of cities. Knightley (p224) pinpoints another problem, the question of paying money to journalists to make favourable reports, raising the spectre of ethics.
The reporter, Alexander Clifford, joined the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) when it left for France at the outbreak of WW11. The German press, under the control of Dr. Goebbels, ran more smoothly than the British press. They also recognised the importance of radio broadcasting. The Germans enacted a “freie Berichterstattung” or “freedom of reporting”, but the lines between reporting news and spying were blurred. The American press used “Stowe’s dispatches” from Norway widely. As the war progressed, German correspondents parachuted in with their forces and joined in with their countrymen in tank battles to report the news. Their stories told first hand the fall of the Low Countries and of Paris. Western correspondents were forced to flee Dunkirk with allied soldiers.
The BBC reporter, Charles Gardner, set the journalistic tone for The Battle of Britain. The PM Winston Churchill stirred the nation to fervour with his rousing speeches. The reports of Ed Morrow, during the time of the Blitz and the Battle of the Atlantic indicated that American war reportage could bypass the censor. The invasion of Russia caught out the world press, and the Soviets clamped down on news releases.
“Photography was banned to the horror of Margaret Bourke-White,” one of the few foreign photojournalists in Russia at the time. Pravda spoke of the “terrible danger” that threatened the motherland. (p272). The agency reporters proved quite adept in extracting newsworthy information from the Soviets. Some of the “finest war reporting” emerged from the Italian, Curzio Malaparte who had witnessed horrific scenes from the Warsaw Ghetto. During the Leningrad siege, the Russians allowed two western journalists in to report on conditions – Henry Shapiro and Alexander Wirth. When Stalingrad proved a failure for the Germans they were forced to send a number of correspondents back to Berlin. The “diaries of ordinary soldiers” told the real hell of Stalingrad. Stalingrad and Kursk proved decisive turning points. On page 291, Shapiro is quoted as saying: “…the minute a newsman takes sides, he stops being a reporter.”
The dangers of war reportage are aptly conveyed, when Knightley (p295) talks about the shooting dead of Pembroke Stephens. Edgar Snow’s reports on the conflict in China revealed a remarkable insight into this war theatre. He met with the Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung, a contact that survived the war. Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbour and conquests against countries in Asia marked a new progression of the war. The Americans also censored news and insisted on “accreditation” of correspondents. (P300). American journalists who made their mark in this new theatre of war operations included Theodore White, Stanley Johnston, Jack Belden; and British journalists O.D. Gallagher and Cecil Brown. From a Japanese point of view (“the other”)1 news was handled by Radio Tokyo and the Domei news agency. Dehumanising of the enemy was commonplace. British and American propagandists encouraged people to think of the Japanese as “apes in uniform.” (P320). All sides failed to report on atrocities against POW’s, although it wasn’t well known that not all captured officers were treated badly by their Japanese captors. Some were treated quite well. Journalists found themselves as part of a “pool”, and shared their information with colleagues. (P323). One journalist with a sense of humour, Allan Dawes, described as “fat and slow”, and thinking the public might be tired of reading about intrepid, macho correspondents filed a story saying he was the “last correspondent into Lae.” His newspaper published the story a month later: “LAST PRESSMAN INTO LAE POSTS MESSAGE.”
Wilfred Burchett’s report on the effects of the atom bomb on Hiroshima was a scoop in that it was the first to report on “radiation sickness.” The New Yorker’s, John Hersey, also made a very detailed report on Hiroshima. Other journalists of note throughout the war included Ernie Payle, Richard Hughes, John Steinback, Alan Moorehead, and Richard Dimbleby and Godfrey Talbot of the BBC. Chester Wilmot of the Australian Broadcasting Authority wrote a sweeping “analysis” of the report, and became a leading historian after the war. Unlike Wilmot though there were others who revelled in “blood and guts” reporting, a practice Knightley (p338) frowns upon. RAF bombing raids were reported by James McDonald of the NYT, and by Ed Morrow of CBS. Neutral countries in the conflict, like Sweden and Switzerland, also came out with news reports, like the toll inflicted after the Dresden bombing. A German reporter, Rudolph Sparing, also told the Dresden story. Another journalist who became a historian of note was Reginald Thompson. Edward Kennedy’s report on Patton also made headlines. During D-day the BBC had a number of reporters in the field, and photojournalists like Capa were also involved – the latter even parachuting in with soldiers during ‘Operation Market-Garden’. Details of the concentration camps were reported by Russia’s Ilya Ehrenburg, and by reporters like Marguerite Higgins, Gene Currivan and Ed Murrow.
Marguerite Higgins also became involved in reporting on the Korean War, the next conflict Knightley (p371) looks at. James Cameron, a British journalist and “pacifist” also reported on this conflict. Other reporters who made their presence felt included Alan Dower of the Melbourne Herald, I.F. Stone, and Norman Macswan of Reuters.
The Algerian War of 1954 is next examined. It is Knightley’s (p392) contention that the “press failed in its duty” with this war. Reports on the horrors in this war really emerged when the fighting was over.
Vietnam was a televised war and can be summed up by three lines in Knightley’s (p412) book: “Correspondents had been patriotic in the Second World War. They had been on side in Korea. What was wrong in Vietnam?” The televised nature of this war, coupled with brutal shocking photographs turned the tide of American opinion in this conflict. Some reports that stand out include Hersh’s My Lai account, and the photographs taken by Nick Ut. Other reporters well known from this era include Michael Herr, Don McCullin, Sandy Gall, Harrison F.Salisbury and Madeleine Riffaud – the latter a female correspondent assigned with the Vietcong. Women journalists involved in reporting on Vietnam included Catherine Leroy, Oriana Fallaci, and Kate Webb. Tim Page’s (p461-2) experiences make interesting reading. One vital element on Vietnam reporting stands out: there was no censorship, unlike previous conflicts. John Pilger was also beginning to make his presence felt.
The dangers inherent in the “multiple journalist” where a Rhodesian, Ian Mills, used different aliases when reporting for competing media organisations is pointed out by Knightley. (p471-475) Reports show that the work of journalists is becoming an extremely hazardous undertaking. Journalists killed in East Timor, Salvador, Nicaragua, and the Lebanon. The Falklands saw another campaign of heavy British censorship. Max Hastings won an award for his reporting here.
Those who went outside the “pool” system during the Iraqi/Kuwaiti conflict were dubbed “unilaterals” and were discouraged. One of these was Robert Fisk.
Reporters from this conflict include Jeremy Bowen and Brent Sadler.
According to Knightley (p504) during the Serbia/Bosnian crisis in the ‘90’s the “US used public relations consultants to ‘spin and distort news stories’.” He cites the fact that “2,700 media personnel accompanied NATO forces into Kosovo.” Knightley also refers to the technological advances – “the satellite phone, instant television links, electronic transmission of photographs and the internet.” News ‘blogs’ are changing the face of war reportage. “Veterans”of this conflict again included Fisk, Simpson, Maggie Kane of the Guardian and Marie Colvin and Jon Swain of the Sunday Times. Anthony Lloyd was also there for The Times. He penned a book about his experiences: “My War Gone By, I Miss It So.” Referring to his fellow correspondents he wrote: “…an affable clan of damaged children, a concentration of black sheep taking their chances in the casino of war…they could fight and fuck one another with the abandon of delinquents in care, but they also looked after one another, linked by altruistic camaraderie common to any pariah group.” Other key reporters during this conflict included Julian Manyon, Matt Frei, Audrey Gillan of the Guardian, Alex Thompson of Channel 4 News, the BBC’s documentary makers, Don Mackay of The Mirror, and of course, Pilger.
Commenting on later conflicts like Afghanistan and the second Gulf War, Knightley (p533) talks about the reporting attributes of Sydney H. Schanberg (the NYT man whose reporting exploits from Cambodia in the ‘70’s gave is the movie The Killing fields), and of the problems of “embedding” reporters. Schanberg is quoted as saying: “Embedded means you’re there. It also means you’re stuck.” The New York magazine writer, Michael Wolff, was also highly critical of “embedding.” One news organisation that became a pariah among the Allied forces was the Al-Jazeera network, and the allies did their best to discredit it. Knightley (p536) also says they did their best to discourage “unilaterals” after the death of ITN’s Terry Lloyd. Kate Adie received confirmation of this policy from Pentagon sources. Knightley (p540) also refers to the importance of press “watchdogs” – “the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters without Borders.” He tells us about the slant taken by different media outlets: that “Clear Channel used its radio stations to organise pro-war rallies.”
Knightley (p527-548) concludes his book with an analysis of how different media outlets portray war reportage.
My own opinion of this book is that it is an engaging topic. The thrust of the work seems to suggest that telling the “truth” suffers an early death when confronted with government self-interest and intransigence, and that this death occurs when governments insist on ‘embedding’ reporters, through fabrication, or through censorship and propaganda. The book also captures the sheer thrill of gathering the ‘scoop’, that breaking piece of news that will make the media audience back home sit up and take notice. The reluctance of military authorities to allow maverick reporters like Fisk into the battlefield unaccompanied seems to suggest that they regard the media as a force to be reckoned with. Despite numeric firepower and superior weaponry, they still fear the consequences of the public knowing too much. Wars have been analysed before, and in major conflicts like World War 1 and the Vietnam War, polls would seem to suggest that people didn’t know what they were fighting for.
Vietnam showed us that negative media coverage could turn the tide of public opinion, and that America despite its might and weaponry could still lose. Even defeated nations can fight back through the power of media publishing. During the Second World War, for example, Polish partisans from the “Armia Krajowa” continued their fight against German occupiers, publishing a number of pamphlets, newsletters, and newspapers and broadcasting on a regular basis. Controlled by the Polish government in exile in London, the “Armia Krajowa” initiated the Warsaw uprising, which needs to be differentiated from the earlier Jewish ghetto uprising of 1943, and would have succeeded in freeing Warsaw from German occupancy if the Russians hadn’t stopped their advance. The very fact that 19,000 German soldiers were killed during the uprising shows that the possibility was there. To the Russians stung by criticism from the Polish government in exile over massacres at Katyn, and wanting for their own reasons to suppress future actions and daring militants within Warsaw, they decided to leave the Polish resistance to its fate and refused to help the beleaguered fighters. To their shame they blocked allied weaponry getting through to the Polish even though they knew they had German settlers on the run.
It may well be the case that wars are now a no-win scenario without a pliant media in tow. Equally the media suffers if it cannot report the “truth”.
During my stint with Griff FM, I interviewed Vincent Russell from the organisation ‘Reporters without Borders’, and Ann Cooper, the NY Director of the ‘Committee to Protect Journalists’, and I witnessed first hand the professionalism of these organisations. If journalists are to act like a proper “watchdog” in future conflicts, we all need to protect the ethics of our profession, to report without bias or favour, to report the “truth” and prevent it becoming a casualty. We need more reporters like Robert Fisk. At the end of the day we all need to remember that despite the fancy computer graphics, men, women and children die in wars.
We need to develop a respect for human rights, of the dignity and cultures of others, and the greatest challenge lies not in wars, but in peace.