It’s an occupational hazard of being a historian. I’ve been living in 1943 the past few months, and readers of this page know about my most recent obsession: the battle of Kursk. But while I’ve been thinking about the Germans and the Soviets and their great armored clash, there have been big doings in the present. Our own current war–one of them, at least–just witnessed a command implosion.
Or perhaps I should say a “commander implosion.” Anyone reading a paper recently should know about General Stanley McChrystal. He’s a four-star general, a special forces guy with an impressive resumé and no lack of guts. Unfortunately, if that recent portrait in Rolling Stone magazine is accurate (and it hasn’t yet been challenged), he and the lads on his staff also like to talk like ninth graders at an all-boys high school. And I should know–I attended one. Once the article appeared in print, with the general dissing his own commander in chief, the vice president, the French ambassador, and some other folks I’m probably leaving out, his days were numbered. An attempt to show that he was regular folks had effectively ended his career.
The more I thought about it, however, the more it reminded me of another war. Generalship and the media have gone hand in hand since the dawn of the modern era, but that relationship came to a sizzling perfection in World War II. That war was crawling with reporters eager to make their mark, and the way they usually did it was to find some general and profile him in glowing terms for an audience of avid readers back home. What we think we know about Omar Bradley, for example–the humility, the common touch, the aw-shucks folksiness–is largely the result of assiduous work by the greatest journalist of the war, Ernie Pyle. Bradley, as he currently exists in our consciousness, was in many ways Pyle’s invention.
But it went deeper than that. Sometimes it seemed as if the war and the reporting of the war were one and the same. Reporters could make and break careers, and the generals soon learned it. The press knew about General George Patton’s “slapping incidents”–in which he physically struck a couple of shell shocked soldiers in hospital–well before the rest of the nation. They decided to sit on the news after the first one, so as not to injure the war effort, then decided to report it through channels after the second. The story eventually broke in the states anyway, courtesy of muckraking columnist Drew Pearson. Likewise, General Mark Clark rubbed a lot of people the wrong way in this war, but none more so than the reporters who had to cover his campaign in Italy and who chafed over having to write a byline that always included the phrase, “General Mark Clark’s 5th Army,” as if it was some sort of personal possession.
The best example of the media/general symbiosis has to be Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Everything about him–his rugged good looks, his just-so poses, even his designer goggles–stamp him as someone we modern folk recognize instinctively: a star. Nazi propaganda painted him not only as a garden variety hero, but as a model National Socialist and Aryan, a man who could overcome materially stronger enemies through the sheer force of his will. Nor was he a passive bystander to the creation of his own myth; he was an active accomplice. He loved nothing better than having a camera crew along with him while on campaign, and he would regularly order scenes to be re-shot if his posture was insufficiently heroic or the lighting had not shown him to his best advantage.
It’s a very old game, in other words. As General McChrystal has now discovered, however, even the friendliest, best-cultivated relationship to the media can be as self-destructive as it is self-serving.
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