Robert Fisk: War reporters used to prefer morality over impartiality

I wonder whether we show the same power and passion as the earlier generations

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The "normality" of war, part two. We had a great storm in Beirut this week, thunder-cracks like gunfire, great green waves crashing below my balcony, rain like hail. So I curled up on my balcony sofa – coat and red scarf and thick socks – and opened a book sent by a kindly Independent reader, a much bent copy of Snyder and Morris's 1949 A Treasury of Great Reporting. And I began to wonder – in an age when the BBC can refuse help to the suffering because of its "impartiality" – whether we still report war with the same power and passion as the men and women of an earlier generation.

"'Turn back! Retreat!' shouted the men from the front, 'we're whipped, we're whipped!' They cursed and tugged at their horses' heads and struggled with frenzy to get past." This is William Howard Russell covering the Union rout at Bull Run for The Times. "Soon I met soldiers who were coming through the corn, mostly without arms... The ambulances were crowded with soldiers, but it did not look as if there were many wounded... Men literally screamed with rage or fright when their way was blocked... At every shot a convulsion, as it were, seized upon the morbid mass of bones, sinew, wood, and iron, and thrilled through it, giving new energy and action to its desperate efforts to get free from itself... In silence I passed over the long bridge."

And here is Archibald Forbes reporting the collapse of the Paris Commune in 1871 for the London Daily News. "The Parisians of civil life are caitiffs to the last drop of their thin, sour, white blood. But yesterday they had cried 'Vive la Commune!'... Today they rubbed their hands with livid currish joy to have it in their power to denounce a Communard and reveal his hiding place. Very eager at this work are the dear creatures of women... They have found him, the misérable!... a tall, pale, hatless man with something not ignoble in his carriage. His lower lip is trembling, but his brow is firm, and the eye of him has some pride and defiance in it. They yell – the crowd – 'Shoot him; shoot him!'... men club their rifles and bring them down on that head. They are firing on the flaccid carcass now, thronging about it like blowflies..."

The first German war crime of the 1914-18 war – the sack of the Belgian city of Louvain – was covered by Richard Harding Davis of the New York Tribune, forced by the Germans to stay aboard his military train as it circled the burning city. "When by troop train we reached Louvain, the entire heart of the city was destroyed and fire had reached the Boulevard Tirlemont, which faces the railroad station. The night was windless, and the sparks rose in steady, leisurely pillars, falling back into the furnace from which they sprang... Outside the station in the public square the people of Louvain passed in an unending procession, women bare-headed, weeping men carrying the children asleep on their shoulders... Once they were halted, and among them were marched a line of men. They well knew their fellow townsmen. These were on their way to be shot."

Now a slightly selfish Quentin Reynolds at the fall of Paris in 1940: "I had stayed behind to write the story of the siege of Paris... Now it developed that there would be no siege of Paris. The Grand Boulevard was almost deserted this morning. One middle-aged woman was sitting at a table at a sidewalk café, one of the very few where one could still get coffee and bread. She had driven into the city that morning in her small one-seated (sic) car. She wanted to sell her car. I bought it on the spot. Now I was mobile."

And Ed Murrow for CBS in the London Blitz: "Millions of people ask only, 'What can we do to help? Why must there be 800,000 unemployed when we need these shelters?... What are the war aims of this country? What shall we do with victory when it's won? What sort of Europe will be built when and if this stress has passed?' These questions are being asked by thoughtful people in this country. Mark it down that in the three weeks of the air Blitz against this country, more books and pamphlets have been published on these subjects than in any similar period of the war... Mark it down that these people are both brave and patient, that all are equal under the bomb... You are witnessing the beginning of a revolution, maybe the death of an age."

Finally, the sharp tongue of Rebecca West for The New Yorker at the Nuremberg trials. "Though one has read surprising news of Göring for years, he still surprises. He is, above all things, soft. He wears either a German air-force uniform or a light beach-suit in the worst of playful taste, and both hang loosely on him, giving him an air of pregnancy. He has thick brown young hair, the coarse, bright skin of an actor who has used grease paint for decades, and the preternaturally deep wrinkles of the drug addict; it adds up to something like the head of a ventriloquist's dummy. His appearance makes a pointed but obscure reference to sex... it appears in the Palace of Justice that it is only the Americans and the British who can hold up a mirror to Germany and help her to solve her own perplexing mystery – that mystery which, in Nuremberg and the countryside around it, is set out in flowers, flowers which concert by being not only lovely but beloved... 'The people where I live now send me in my breakfast tray strewn with pansies,' says the French doctor who is custodian of the relics at the Palace of Justice (the lampshade made of human skin, the shrunken head of the Polish Jew)."

It's not just the power of the writing I'm talking about here; the screaming soldiers, the dying Communard, the condemned men, the woman wanting to sell her car, the death of an age, the flowers. These reporters were spurred, weren't they, by the immorality of war. They cared. They were not frightened of damaging their "impartiality". I wonder if we still write like this.

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