Friday, July 15, 2011

John Steinbeck on war and the Second World War (2 of 3)

John Steinbeck's Introduction to his Second World War articles collected in Once There Was A War (1958) has a number of worthwhile observations about the idiocies of war, not least of which are the effects of censorship. He tells this anecdote:

Navy censors were particularly sensitive to names of places, whether they had any military importance or not. It was the safest way. Once when I felt a little bruised by censorship I sent through Herodotus's account of the the battle of Salamis fought between the Greeks and Persians in 480 B.C., and since there were place names involved, albeit classical ones, the Navy censors killed the whole story.
Steinbeck talks about how official censorship interacted with self-censorship on the part of reporters themselves:

We edited ourselves much more than we were edited. We felt responsible to what was called the home front. There was a general feeling that unless the home front was carefully protected from the whole account of what war was like, it might panic. Also we felt we had to protect the armed services from criticism, or they might retire to their tents to sulk like Achilles.
And he describes the larger environment of which this attitude was part, resulting in various things not being reported:

That they were not reported was partly a matter of orders, partly traditional, and largely because there was a huge and gassy thing called the War Effort. Anything which interfered with or ran counter to the War Effort was automatically bad. To a large extent judgment about this was in the hands of the correspondent himself, but if he forgot himself and broke any of the rules, there were the Censors, the Military Command, the Newspapers, and finally, most strong of all in discipline, there were the war-minded civilians, the Noncombatant Commandos of the Stork Club, of Time Magazine and The New Yorker, to jerk a correspondent into line or suggest that he be removed from the area as a danger to the War Effort. There were citizens' groups helping with tactics and logistics; there were organizations of mothers to oversee morals, and by morals I mean not only sexual morals but also such things as gambling and helling around in general.
The Noncombatant Commandos of the last decade were better known as the Keyboard Commandos. That, at least, changed since the Good War. And The New Yorker in recent years has been running pieces by Seymour Hersh, providing some of the best critical reporting we've had. That has changed for the better since seven decades ago.

What he has to say about secrecy is unfortunately very current:

Secrecy was a whole field in itself. Perhaps our whole miasmic hysteria about secrecy for the last twenty years had its birth during this period. Our obsession with secrecy had a perfectly legitimate beginning in a fear that knowledge of troop-ship sailings would and often did attract the wolf packs of submarines. But from there it got out of hand until finally facts available in any library in the world came to be carefully guarded secrets, and the most carefully guarded secrets were known by everyone.
He gives a couple of examples of how dysfunctional the secrecy could get:

When General Patton slapped a sick soldier in a hospital and when our Navy at Gela shot down fifty-nine of our own troop carriers, General Eisenhower personally asked the war correspondents not to send the stories because they would be bad for morale at home. And the correspondents did not file the stories. Of course the War Department leaked to a local newsman and the stories got printed anyway, but no one in the field contributed to that bit of treason to the War Effort.
It's worth noting that these two public revelations did no damage to the war effort of the time. If anything, the public revelation of the Navy's deadly "friendly fire" mistake surely created pressure on them to be sure to shoot at the enemy and not at American troops.

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"It is the logic of our times
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