Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A Good Piece of War Correspondence (Graded Blog #5, Option 3)

Twain never shies away from violence in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but the death and destruction which takes place during the last few chapters is uncanny. Hank is a man of technology and at the novel’s close, he uses that technology to annihilate 30,000 knights. The fact that Twain was able to publish such a novel in his time is surprising, but perhaps it is Hank’s cursory, newspaper style description of violence that allowed Twain to publish such a work. Hank’s ironic detachment from the death of 30,000 individuals has forced me to reconsider how modern day newspapers cover the war in Iraq.

Before the Battle of the Sand-Belt, there is an essential piece of irony in the preceding chapter, ‘War!’ Hank returns to Camelot only to find that civil war has broken out in the kingdom and that the nobility has been busy fighting against one another. Clarence describes the reasons for the war and the battles that have taken place, but once he arrives to the King’s death, he diverts to the newspaper and reads straight from the lines of the paper. Once he finishes, Hank exclaims:

“That is a good piece of war correspondence, Clarence; you are a first-rate newspaper man. Well – is the king all right? Did he get well?”

Hank first and foremost concerns himself with Clarence’s article, rather than the health of the king. This is a glaring example of how Hank’s primary interest is technology and in this case, he is interested in the development of a new type of newspaper column: war correspondence. Hank compliments Clarence’s piece of war correspondence before inquiring about the emotional issue of the king’s health. This is not surprising because although the column is eloquent and extensive, it is written without emotion, which is the standard for a good newspaper article.

The description of the king’s death is written in a third person narrative in which the narrator gives a play-by-play of events but does not describe the actions in gory detail. This style is again used by Hank when he narrates the violence that takes place during the Battle of the Sand-Belt. While some of the details are a bit gruesome, the overall effect does not make the reader feel as if 30,000 people have just died in the novel. In fact, most of the men die by touching the electric fence as Clarence and Hank lay in the dark, reporting to the reader as the events unfold. It is this effective style which helped Twain’s novel to be published. This narration style allows 30,000 men to be killed in 15 pages of the novel.

It is very possible that Twain intended this irony to comment on the newspaper writing of his time. Twain had just witnessed the Civil War, the most emotionally draining war in the country’s history, as thousands of Americans died at the hands of their brethren. No cursory newspaper write up could effectively communicate the pain and suffering with its detached, third person narrative.

Twain’s writing really made me question how modern day newspapers cover the war in Iraq. Every time I read an article concerning the war, there is a certain emotion evoked from the article of dry facts and slightly slanted viewpoints (the Trib, the Post-Gazette). Either way I do not question one emotion in place of another, but I question my emotional attachment overall. Should I really be feeling any overwhelming emotion from such an article? Can any of these columns really communicate the true emotions of war? Can they really make me, a person who sits over 5,000 miles away, feel what war is? One word that often is used to describe my current generation is “apathetic;” perhaps we are not just apathetic, but detached and not unjustifiably so.


Adam Johns said...

Twain was, of course, a journalist himself, and most of his books have at least a strong journalistic element. Your focus, in other words, is very fitting.

I hadn't even thought about Hank's prioritization of the article over actual experience, but you make a great point here. Several days ago I pointed out that Hank has a tendency to confuse actual events with their representation; you are pointing out to an extreme example of this tendency -- Hank even does this when the actual events concern him intimately (compare with people's contemporary obsession with documenting their lives, esp. weddings, births, etc; attempts to represent an event change it radically and can even psychologically crowd out the event itself).

One wonders, though, how you want media coverage of the war to be different.

I'm reminded of my mother's account of my grandfather watching the news during the Vietnam war, when war correspondence was very different: you could sit and watch people being napalmed on t.v., and my grandfather did. It wasn't entertainment for him, as I understand it: he was in favor of the Vietnam war, but as someone who had almost died himself fighting in the South Pacific, he felt an obligation to see the war as it _was_ -- with this same coverage, of course, strengthening my mother's opposition to the war.

Are you asking, then, for better access for reporters in Iraq? Less government control of content? More direct coverage of actual combat? This is good up to a point, but what are you looking for (or are you satisfied with the status quo?). I'm not sure that you're finishing your thought, as interesting as your focus is.

JamesGz said...

I had the same questions when I finished this blog entry. But for me, there is no true answer to this question. On one hand, you have reports that our as objective as can be, written in the third person that focus on numbers and statistics. On the other hand, you have strongly emotional writing (first person narratives, poetry) that evoke certain feelings and are biased or even propaganda.

The problem is that neither of these really can capture the effects of war in my opinion. One is too cold, the other is boiling over with feelings. One allows you to come up with your own feelings, which cannot be appropriate in my opinion, and the other tells you what to think.

I believe there is no appropriate emotional response to war, but maybe just a physical one: exhaustion. As your father watched napalm bomb after napalm bomb, he probably felt the same exhaustion as the soldiers were feeling and as he once felt fighting. Our response then to this exhaustion, is detaching ourselves from the media world that bombards us with a never ending war.

I guess I should've changed my focus too media as a whole, but that just seemed to broad. What I really want is hard to pinpoint, but to sum it up I want this: I want the media's goal to be awareness, not ratings and money. This is an unrealistic goal as money is the driving force behind almost everything, but I believe that media's sensationalism has exhausted the American people to the point where they just don't care. Media has turned the majority of our country into apathetic, detached zombies and that's what I hate to see.

Mike K said...

The following is the feeling-invoking news reporting you're asking for. I'm biased, of course, because I wrote it. Perhaps you could compare it to the news you see on TV and note the differences.

The day I'll never forget.

6 months...6 months behind a computer screen. Looking at reports, memorizing Arabic names, picking out clues, targeting insurgents and getting inside their heads for 6 months. It's enough to make a man crazy. While I'd been in a combat zone for half a year, I'd never been to combat. I've heard stories of people coming back from the city. I'd heard the artillery returning fire to an insurgent group. I'd even been hit with rockets and mortars but in some way, I still didn't feel like I was in a war zone. For some reason, I couldn't go home without seeing some kind of combat. I tried to tag along on every mission I could but there was always some reason I wasn't allowed to go...not enough room, or the every-popular "we need you here doing intel." People thought it was weird but I didnt want to go home without a story to tell. Then, on the day we held a recruiting drive for Iraqi Police (the key to America's exit strategy), my chance came.

Sitting at my desk, reading and analyzing more information, I heard my name being called. It was Lieutenant Colonel Herbert. "Specialist Kobily, do you want to go down to the Glass Factory with Captain Hiles?" he asked. I almost declined. "The Glass Factory?" I thought, "How boring would that be. Well, it's more exciting than here." So I went.

Normally, when you leave the FOB, you take multiple armored vehicles, usually a minimum of 4. You take all your body armor and ammunition. The captain and I just took a Mazda pickup truck, our basic armor, and a few magazines of ammo. "Wait, I need my ballistic glasses...well, I won't need 'em." the captain said. "Yeah, its only the glass factory." I agreed, and off we went.

I stepped out of the vehicle with the heaviest step I've taken in my entire life. The instant my foot hit the concrete, I heard a thunderous boom. There were always booms, so I didn't think much of it. Captain Hiles just said "Wait here by the truck." He wondered down an embankment toward the buildings that made up the glass factory compound, where some of our unit was screening the recruits. A minute later, he came running back toward me in a full sprint.

"Get in the truck, get in the truck!" he yelled, "Get in the backseat...the back!" I was momentarily stunned. He ran past me and I gave chase. I was barely in the backseat when the captain gunned the accelerator and flew wildly over the curb toward the buildings. We came around the corner and I saw what had happened.

It was disgusting. There was blood everywhere. Some people were lying on mattresses- makeshift stretchers. Before I knew it, there was a shirtless Marine in the front seat and his gear was in the back with me.

As we sped back toward our FOB with our casualty, the Marine told us that they'd been hit by a suicide bomber. He kept saying that he couldn't use his legs. I peered over the seat and looked down at him. His knees were soaked in blood and his shoulder had a hole in it. His shoulder had little strings of "meat" hanging out of the wound and was dripping blood down his arm.

We pulled into Charlie Medical, our hospital on Camp Ramadi. I helped the Marine onto a stretcher while Captain Hiles pulled the vehicle out of the drop-off lane.

When the Marine was secure, I ran after the truck. Moments later, a medic came running by, saying they needed help. I could hear the PA system on the FOB saying something like "All available medics report to Charlie Med for mass-casualty event" over and over.

I began putting stretchers together as the ambulances started rolling in. Casualty after casualty, American and Iraqi, just kept coming. Everything was made into an ambulance...trucks, cars, tanks, everything. A medic grabbed my arm and told me to hold an IV bag for a patient and "talk to him, just talk to him", and I of course complied. I grabbed the bag and looked down at the was the Marine.

"Youre from Dallas, huh?" I told the shivering, bleeding Marine, "Good news, Longhorns won last night!". He'd laugh and carry on some small talk but he kept saying he was cold and kept asking about his dog handler.

The place was soon full of casualties. The inside had overflowed to the porch area which had overflowed to the traffic lane. We had run out of stands for the stretchers so they just began laying people on the floors. I walked from one end of the porch to the other to get a blanket and nearly fell twice, sliding around on the puddles of blood. The Marine tried to tell me how, in order to pull off his body armor, he needed to peel three Iraqi fingers from his vest. I couldnt hear him over the screams of pain from the other casualties. I looked up to see a medic pull a needle out of a healthy soldiers arm and stick it directly into a casualty's vein to deliver the blood he'd just drawn.

Helicopters landed on a nearby pad and people were being loaded into an ambulance to transfer them to the waiting birds. Eventually everyone was evacuated to the nearby larger hospitals. It wasnt until later that I was told Lieutenant Colonel Mike McLaughlin had died in the attack. Id know the man for a year but CPT Hiles had known him for over a decade. I also learned that a dog handler, Sgt. Adam Cann, hadnt survived

That was a month ago yesterday. Since then, at least some of the people responsible have been killed or captured. Over the next few days, we will hold another recruiting drive. Iraqis will once again show their courage and defy the terrorists. The LTC and the dog handler will not have died for nothing. Eventually, decent citizens can take control of their own destiny and my work here will be done. When that happens, Ill come home...with a story to tell.


P.S. Here's some references to what happened: