"History, Journalism and Covering Wars Past and Present"


Rick Atkinson

The Washington Post


Northwestern University "Literature of Fact" Lecture Series

February 28, 2005



Thanks for inviting me to be with you today. I’m always delighted to come back to the Chicago area—even in February—because I went to graduate school at the other end of the city, in Hyde Park at the U of C. Northwestern’s journalism school was much admired then, and in the thirty years since has only become more so. In those days I thought I wanted to teach college English; if I’d had any sense I would have come here instead to learn something useful about my future profession rather than having to learn everything, absolutely everything, on the job, much to the dismay of a string of long suffering editors.


The truth is that I now consider myself a recovering journalist. It was a profession that I loved, a calling really, and I will always cherish the people the profession attracts, and the role that journalism generally and newspapering in particular plays in our society and in our culture. But I have moved on to a different kind of writing, a different kind of reporting, and really a different kind of life.


My ambition today is to make this into a conversation, to hear your thoughts and questions. For a few minutes though I’m going to talk about three writing genres, each of which I’ve taken a crack at, and how they might fit into the study of and writing about history. Those genres are: journalism, “instant” history, and “true” history. Those last two terms were coined by a professor at Ohio State. For classification purposes, they’re as good as any. What is the relationship between these types of writing? What are the boundaries? Is there a relative scale of legitimacy? Can they inform one another, with a kind of synergism? Can you practice one without devaluing yourself as a practitioner of another?


I’m going to use three brief examples, and I hope you’ll pardon me if I draw all three from my work. If we’re going to eviscerate anyone this evening, it might as well be me.


The first example is from the Washington Post, of April 7, 2003, and it’s datelined Karbala, Iraq. It starts like this:


 “They shamble through each stinking alley with the gait of men old before their time, burdened by more than the weight of their kit. The Mesopotamian sun is molten today, again, and they sweat like horses. A room here, a balcony there: They sweep the town in small teams, eyes darting from corner to dim corner.


“In a war dominated by armored juggernauts and precision munitions dropped from 20,000 feet, infantrymen are the proverbial boots-on-the-ground. If the dismounted infantry has played a secondary role since the war began on March 20, its stock has risen in recent days as troops have been needed to seize and subdue cities bypassed by tanks and armored personnel carriers bound for Baghdad.


“In a pattern repeated in Najaf and Karbala, and which may be a template for the Iraqi capital, armored forces ‘set the conditions for success by shooting the big pieces, and then the infantry moves in to clean out the die-hards and secure the town,’ one Army general said.

“Ernie Pyle, the legendary war correspondent, called infantrymen the ‘mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys.’ He forgot dust. Troops here from the 101st Airborne Division have for weeks been living in a four-inch layer of brown talc that has become a fifth element, along with fire, earth, air, and water.


“Pyle’s description of World War II infantrymen in Tunisia in 1943 remains apt for thousands of Screaming Eagles: ‘There are none of the little things that make life normal back home. There are no chairs, lights, floors, or tables. There isn’t any place to set anything or any store to buy things. There are no newspapers, milk, beds, sheets, radiators, beer, ice cream, or hot water….A man just sort of exists.”


Okay. What characteristics do we see here? The entire piece is short, about 700 words in total. It was written quickly, on deadline, and in fact the writer had another longer piece in the same Monday newspaper that carried the hard news of Karbala’s capitulation. It relies on direct observation and virtually no other source material besides another journalist, albeit a pretty good one.


The second example is from an “instant history,” although I have to say the events it recounts seem, on some days, like ancient history. This is from the opening of the prologue of the book I wrote that recounts my time as an embedded journalist with the 101st Airborne Division. It’s titled In the Company of Soldiers, and it’s a first-person account of being inside the division headquarters from the deployment out of Fort Campbell in late February through the occupation of Baghdad in mid-April. Here’s how the prologue starts:


They found the sergeant’s body at mid-morning on Saturday, April 12, 2003, just where an Iraqi boy said it would be: in a shallow grave in south Baghdad, near the Highway 8 cloverleaf known to the U.S. Army as Objective Curly. His interment was imperfect; an elbow and a knee protruded from the covering rubble. He had been stripped of boots and combat gear but not his uniform, and his rank stripes and name tape sewn over his right breast pocket made identification easy: Sergeant First Class John W. Marshall, who had been missing since Iraqi forces ambushed his convoy below Curly on April 8. A rocket-propelled grenade had ruined Sergeant Marshall’s back and arm; four days in the ground had spoiled the rest of him. Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division recorded the map grid of his makeshift burial plot, MB 4496275295, and a chaplain read from Psalms. By the time I arrived at the site, the remains had been lifted into a body bag, wrapped in an American flag, and carried—head first, as Army custom prescribed—to a Humvee. A Graves Registration team took the body for eventual burial in Arlington National Cemetery.


I learned more about Sergeant Marshall in the coming weeks. He was fifty years old, making him the senior American soldier killed in the war. He had served in the 3rd Battalion of the 15th Infantry Regiment, a legendary unit in the 3rd Infantry Division, and he died while firing a Mk-19 automatic grenade launcher at marauding Iraqi paramilitaries. The fatal RPG round had blown him from his Humvee turret, and in the chaos of combat his corpse had been left behind. Born in Los Angeles, Marshall had joined the Army at eighteen. His father, Joseph, was an Army quartermaster during World War II; his mother, Odessa, had been a medical technician in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, an unusual distinction for a black woman in those days. Odessa Marshall would wear her uniform to her son’s funeral.


Sergeant Marshall had left the Army for four years in the 1980s in a successful fight against Hodgkin’s lymphoma. With the cancer in remission, he rejoined the service. The war in Iraq was his first combat tour, and he was nearing retirement. His survivors included a widow, Denise, and six children, ages nine to seventeen. They collected his posthumous Silver Star and Purple Heart.


In a political democracy, every soldier’s death is a public event. Every soldier’s death ought to provoke the hard question: why did he die? Even without having met Sergeant Marshall, I could surmise that he had his own answers. His rank indicated enough time in service to have sorted out such existential issues. Later, I would learn that in his last dispatch home he saw little merit in debating the mission in Iraq. “It’s really not an issue with me,” he wrote. “I am not a politician or a policy maker, just an old soldier. Any doubts on my part could get someone killed.”

But private rationales, however valid and honorable, rarely satisfy public inquiries. Why did Sergeant Marshall die?


What about this genre? It reflects about 10 months of work. The book—which was published last spring and comes out in paperback tomorrow—is 90,000 words, much longer than any newspaper article but about one-third the length of An Army at Dawn, my history of the North African campaign in World War II. It’s first-person; never done that before. The underlying ambition is not to offer a comprehensive account of the invasion of Iraq, but rather a soda-straw view that observes the U.S. Army from within, and attempts to show how war is waged in an age when wars are small, sequential, expeditionary, and bottomless. Most of the material is based on what I saw, heard, smelled, felt and tasted, although I’ve drawn from some secondary sources—particularly about Mesopotamian and Islamic history—and I got hold of quite a few primary documents, including V Corps situation reports, after action reports, and personal notes.


I’m willing to classify this as “instant history,” but I’d been thinking of it in another genre that I’ve come to appreciate while researching World War II, the “battle-memoir.” Among examples I admire are: The Battle is the Pay-Off by Ralph Ingersoll, who had been managing editor of the New Yorker and Fortune before going to North Africa; Road to Tunis by David Rame; Brave Men by Ernie Pyle; Slightly Out of Focus by Robert Capa; The Road Back to Paris by A.J. Liebling; Journey Into War by John MacVane, an NBC correspondent in North Africa; Our Share of Night by Drew Middleton; Purple Heart Valley by Margaret Bourke-White, and The End in Africa by Alan Moorehead. A more recent example would be Martyrs’ Day by Michael Kelly, who died outside Baghdad on April 3, 2003.


It’s a book that takes to heart the observation by Samuel Hynes, the distinguished professor of literature at Princeton, that “war narratives make war vivid, they don’t make it familiar. Indeed, one motive for writing them seems to be to show how unfamiliar war is, how strange and desolate its ordinary scenes are.”


Okay, finally, true history: I’ll keep this brief. This passage comes from the epilogue of my North African history, which opens with the victory parade in Tunis, on Thursday, May 20, 1943, and describes the units marching down the boulevard. Then this sketch:

“Even after two and a half hours in the molten sun Eisenhower showed no sign of wilting. A reporter described him as [quote] ‘lean, bronzed, and loose-limbed. He was happy as a schoolboy…taking the salutes as the units passed. When the parade drew to an end he smoked, laughed, and joked with the various leaders.’ [close quote]


In truth, he had been peevish and distracted, notwithstanding the gleeful announcement from his West Point classmates that they were renaming him Ikus Africanus. ‘All the shouting about the Tunisian campaign leaves me utterly cold,’ he confided to George Marshall. The concept of a victory parade appalled him, and he had tried without success to convert the event into a sober commemoration of the dead. He still slept badly. If he seemed jolly, jolliness was among the many masks the commander-in-chief had learned to wear.


“No soldier in Africa had changed more—grown more—than Eisenhower. He continued to pose as a small-town Kansan, insisting that he was ‘too simple-minded to be an intriguer or [to] attempt to be clever,’ [close quote] and he retained the winning traits of authenticity, vigor, and integrity. He had displayed admirable grace and character under crushing strain. But he was hardly artless. Naēveté provided a convenient screen for a man who was complex, shrewd, and sometimes Machiavellian. The Darlan affair had taught him the need to obscure his own agency in certain events even as he shouldered responsibility for them. The failings of Fredendall and other deficient commanders had taught him to be tougher, even ruthless, with subordinates. And he had learned the hardest lesson of all: that for an army to win at war, young men must die.

“’One of the great fascinations of the war was to see how Americans developed their great men so quickly,’ a British general later observed. None more than Eisenhower. In the fall of 1942, the general continued, he had been ‘a well-trained and loyal subordinate’ to his more experienced British colleagues. Now he was a commander. His son, John, later wrote: ‘Before he left for Europe in 1942, I knew him as an aggressive, intelligent personality.’ North Africa transformed him ‘from a mere person to a personage…full of authority, and truly in command.’”


This is something else, isn’t it? It actually disputes the journalist’s first-hand account. There are eight citations listed in the notes for this passage, including letters, memoirs, and oral histories. It makes judgments about a subject that has been scrutinized, Lord knows, by many others over the past sixty years. It’s a sketch, and an assessment, that could not have been legitimately made at the time because the supporting material was not transparent. It requires distance and time. Something had to ferment.


The methodological differences between these three examples are pretty obvious; so too is the varying length of the telescope through which they are viewed—basically from six hours to six months to sixty years. Less obvious I believe are the boundaries between these genres. What we have in the three excerpts, respectively, are the first-, second-, and third- drafts of history. None, I would argue, is a final draft. When people ask whether I think An Army at Dawn is the definitive history of Operation TORCH, which was the codeword for the invasion of North Africa, I cringe. Great events, like World War II, are bottomless; great men, like Dwight Eisenhower, are bottomless. There’s more to write, there will always be more to write.


There’s an intertwining going on here, isn’t there? I rely quite a lot in An Army at Dawn on journalists’ accounts, and I guess I believe they are often undervalued by many people writing history. Journalists are, after all, paid eyewitnesses—underpaid!--often with a literary flair, an eye for detail, and a penchant for irony and skepticism, those twin lenses of modern consciousness. And, in writing journalism, I look for historical resonances—the eternal verities of the infantry life for example.


Let me quote Professor Samuel Hynes again. “Historians,” he writes, “tell the big stories, of campaigns and battles, of the great victories and the disastrous defeats…assigning credit and blame, turning war’s chaos into order. The men who were there tell a different story, one that is often quite ahistorical, even anti-historical.” I guess what I’m trying to do in the books I write now is to reconcile the two, to square the circle, to integrate the turning of disorder into order, that he sees as the province of historians, while also capturing that ahistorical sense of immediacy, of authenticity.


In my recent Iraq book, I obviously am relying heavily on journalistic trawling, yet I also try to benefit from works of history, and sociology, and primary sources. I make judgments that I would not have been comfortable making on the spot, and which would run counter to the prevailing professional ethic of daily newspapers; that hard question—“Why did he die?”—would not make it through the Post copy desk. Yet I freely acknowledge that I cannot assess Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, as comfortably as I can assess Eisenhower. (For one thing, he’s still alive; I swore after writing Crusade, my book on the 1991 Gulf War, that henceforth the only books I was going to write would be about dead people. So much for that vow.) 


But I think there are other currents here that cut across the genres. Each have narrative elements. Frankly, for me, if it doesn’t have a story, or can’t be told as a story, I’m not terribly interested. Also, there’s an emotional charge in each, an effort to make flinty-eyed assessments while also trying to convey an emotional truth; that’s a truth, I suppose that isn’t right or wrong in a rigidly empirical or historiographical sense, but one that is evaluated on the basis of how it resonates. Writers of military history have an inherent advantage in their subject matter because so much of military history carries a natural emotional charge, like a proton carrying an electrical charge: it’s about life and death.


I’m much taken with Paul Fussell’s concept of history “illuminated by emotion.” Fussell, who for many years was a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, has this to say in writing about the British historian Martin Gilbert: “It is as if to Gilbert ‘objective’ historiography is not merely impossible but inhuman, offensively heartless and insensitive. To him, the writing of history is not a science, but distinctly one of the humanities, and only those with deep feelings for the human predicament should try it.”


And I guess that’s where I ultimately come down on this question of genres: the one thing that links them together, when done capably, is an inherent interest in the human predicament, whether it concerns events that happened this morning, or last year, or a hundred years ago. I don’t think I’d be quite so rigorous in declaring that those who lack deep feelings for that human predicament ought not practice journalism or writing instant history, but, as in those writing true history, it helps.


Thank you very much.




Copyright 2005 Rick Atkinson. All rights reserved.