Burying the Dead

Famous war correspondent Gordon Dillow struggles with his truth

Illustration by Smell of SteveThe day after U.S. soldiers hitched an armored personnel carrier to a giant statue of Saddam Hussein in downtown Baghdad and then gunned the motor, Orange County Register reporter Gordon Dillow nearly got himself killed in a vicious firefight across town. Embedded with a company of Marines out of Camp Pendleton, Dillow had hitherto been a simple 52-year-old reporter, taking notes and writing occasional dispatches for his paper back home as the Marines raced across Iraq. But now his unit was in serious trouble. They'd charged into a section of Baghdad where narrow streets run between multistory buildings, hunting for a mosque where, intelligence said, Hussein himself was hiding. Instead the Marines found themselves in the middle of a textbook ambush. They took AK-47 fire from all directions. Rocket-propelled grenades slammed into every armored personnel carrier (APC) or "track." Marines scrambled for cover in the vehicle's cramped hulls to return fire. At one point, things got so hairy that a Marine gave Dillow a hand grenade–an outright violation of Pentagon rules for embedded journalists–and told Dillow to throw it if the Iraqis got too close.

"It was reassuring," Dillow recently told a Newport Beach audience. "But it had been 30 years since I had handled a grenade. And I had this vision of [accidentally] killing everyone in the track. I wondered how that would look."

The fight lasted four hours, and Dillow never had to use the grenade. It was nevertheless the most exciting event of Dillow's time in Iraq, and most people–including Register readers–don't know it happened. That's because the longtime Reggie columnist buried the incident in a mammoth, plodding April 20 feature called "The Men of Alpha Co."

From early March until April 15, Dillow traveled with Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment, a frontline combat unit. During that time, Dillow saw more action than almost all the other embedded journalists combined.

Dillow handled his embed assignment in a way that would make Pentagon officials proud–and in exactly the way media critics feared when military officials first described their program of permanently assigning some 600 journalists to various units.

Sent over to capture the war for the folks back home, Dillow was captured instead by the camaraderie and courage of the men he was supposed to cover. The result was a series of ponderous, irrelevant and ambivalent stories that made a brutal and controversial war safe for patriotic Americans. Dillow did small things like excising the jarheads' foul language. More important, he smoothed out rough ethical issues, downplaying, for instance, the killings of civilians. Always, Dillow made sure the Marines of the 1/5 looked good.

No one told Dillow to play propagandist. He chose the role himself. And he does not apologize.

"They always tell you not to fall in love with your subject," said Dillow, admitting that he violated the preeminent rule of reporting. "But I did. I fell in love with these guys. They were really great."

***

Dillow spoke recently in front of nearly 200 mostly elderly Newport Beach Republicans at the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club in Corona del Mar. The event was one of former state assemblyman Gil Ferguson's breakfasts; he calls the gatherings "Principles Over Politics." Ferguson billed Dillow's appearance in the most grandiloquent terms, calling him "one of America's most famous and distinguished combat journalists" and "definitely one of the very best combat correspondents to cover any war."

Dillow delighted them. He told war stories. He bashed the Arab news network Al Jazeera, the BBC and the "liberal, anti-military media." He criticized other reporters for "overblowing" the post-invasion looting of Baghdad's museums (6,000 artifacts remain missing, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials).

But was it love of the common soldiers that transformed Dillow into a propagandist for the military? Or was it the crude politics of nationalism? You decide: when someone asked why U.S. and British forces had failed to find Saddam Hussein's supposed chemical and biological weapons, Dillow shook his head. "I never really thought we'd run into chemical warfare," he said. "I wish we would find some weapons. And I wouldn't object if [Defense officials] wanted to load up a C-130, put in some 55-gallon drums and fly them over there."

The audience cheered.

During the Second World War, reporters such as Ernie Pyle and Joe Galloway could simply hop on a truck or helicopter and head to where the action was. Pyle censored his stories to protect strategies and identities, but never to mask the often senseless carnage around him. The practice of allowing such independent reporting continued through Vietnam, where legions of independent reporters wandered the countryside without escort, listening to soldiers complain about inept leadership or whisper rumors of massacres and assassinations.

Searching to explain America's subsequent failures in Vietnam, conservatives drew precisely the wrong lesson: blame the media, they said. An unrestrained media might be great for democracy, might even be enshrined in the First Amendment, but it was antipodal to the progress of modern warfare. Too much information turned the public against war. And as totalitarian regimes had learned, a mobilized public opinion was a weapon every bit as powerful as bombs.

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