Most wars in the modern era have been covered by reporters, commonly called war correspondents, working for news organizations. Their firsthand accounts of battles and other military events are often brief, tightly focused, and characterized by immediacy and personal reactions. If the writer is a vigilant observer with an eye for symbolic detail and is an effective storyteller, his or her work may be sufficiently reliable and useful to be considered a rough draft of history. That said, the very immediacy that informs the best dispatches is the trait that soon consigns the piece and the writer to oblivion. Which is a shame and a waste, because some truly excellent writers have served as war correspondents in the past century or so, and as the conflicts they covered have faded from the public eye and memory, their work has slipped from sight. The fame of only a few, like Ernie Pyle, Edward R. Murrow, and Walter Cronkite, has lasted to the present day.
But with the best of the many other correspondents, their writing remains vivid, rewarding, and meaningful to later generations of historians. Fortunately, much of the strongest work in English—first published in the Civil War (“by those who lived it”), World War II, and Vietnam—has been collected in volumes published by the nonprofit Library of America. It makes riveting reading.
Martha Gellhorn—one of the stellar writers whose work is included in the Library’s second volume on World War II—captures the fearsome cost of war in a dispatch she wrote for Collier’s magazine about the Canadian army’s September 1944 breakthrough at the fiercely defended Gothic Line in northern Italy: “There is a young Italian woman wrapped in a blanket on the doorstep of a poor little hovel that one of our shells had hit during the night; this was in a town the Germans held until a few hours ago. She wakes up and starts to laugh, charming, gay and absolutely mad.” Gellhorn is featured in this volume with such authors as A. J. Liebling, Ernest Hemingway, James Agee, E. B. White, John Hersey, and many others most of us have never heard of but whose work is worth remembering.
With this issue of MHQ, we launch Classic Dispatches, selections of some of the most worthy firsthand reporting on wars of the modern era. We begin with Jack Belden’s account of a massive retreat during the early months of the second Sino-Japanese war—a prelude to the wider Pacific War of 1941–1945.