Burying the Dead

Famous war correspondent Gordon Dillow struggles with his truth

"There were incidents where civilians got killed," Dillow said at the Bahia Corinthian, trying to explain why he gave so little play to the killings. "And we told that [story], but we didn't lead with that. Too many were focusing on it. We put it all into context."

Context? Actually, Dillow trivialized the incident, treating it as just one of those things that happen when you put a bunch of young soldiers in a rough situation. But in a brutal New York Times Magazine piece called "Good Kills" published the same day as Dillow's Alpha Company feature, reporter Peter Maass told a remarkably similar story in a remarkably different way. Embedded with the Third Battalion of the Fourth Marine Regiment out of Twentynine Palms, Maass reported that Marines had blown away a van rushing a checkpoint. Rather than bury the incident as Dillow did, Maass dealt with it like a reporter–peered into the cars, looked at the dead bodies and listened carefully to passing Marines lament that they'd missed the action. He interviewed one of the snipers as he wrestled with the shooting, trying to convince himself there was nothing more he could have done.

What Dillow and Maass and all the other reporters saw was yet another ugly war involving basically good-natured American boys. But Dillow's response never approached even standard reporting techniques. He blinked. And when he didn't blink, he dissembled.

***

In journalism, failing to begin your story with the most dramatic revelations is called "burying your lede." It's about instinct and integrity, about knowing what constitutes real news and what's just background, about telling the truth rather than hiding it beneath the mundane. Burying death and brutality at the end of a story trivializes its significance. It's like your Aunt Martha cooking for three days straight after the death of her husband of 40 years; she's burying her pain in routine.

Dillow's judgments about how high to run information in his stories reveal his biases toward the men he was covering, his ambivalence about their actions, his anxiety about public opinion.

Almost hidden within Dillow's dispatches, for example, and all but totally ignored in his April 20 piece, was an authentic war story reminiscent of Pyle's best. It is the story of Noah Glanville, a 24-year-old Navy corpsman from Orange who had the macabre distinction of being the first medic in the invasion to face the death of a soldier he was treating. Yet Dillow once again completely missed the point, abandoning what might have been an award-winning profile.

The story begins shortly after the 1/5 crossed the border into Iraq. While attempting to secure an oil-pumping station, the Marines suddenly encountered heavy resistance. Soon Lt. Therrel "Shane" Childers, who commanded Alpha Company's 2nd Platoon, was shot. Glanville ran 20 yards to care for him.

"I was scared, because it was an exposed position, and that's the usual thing an enemy does, shoot a guy and then shoot the corpsman," Glanville told Dillow a few hours after the fight. "But it was my job. I got to him . . . and treated him for shock, all the things you're supposed to do. But it was bad . . . The only thing he said was, 'I got shot in the gut.' Those were the last words he ever said.

"It was funny, but I didn't even know who it was until I got his [flak] vest off and saw the lieutenant's bars. Then I looked at his face and saw it was my lieutenant. I know this sounds strange, but in a way, I wish I hadn't gotten to know him as well as I did. I've had three different platoon commanders since I've been with the Marines, and he was the best I ever had. I'm not just saying that 'cause he's dead, either. He really was. I did everything I could for him. I really did. I know I did."

The Glanville interview was Dillow's most compelling of his entire time in Iraq. All the elements of a great war story were there: brutality, sincerity, heroism, futility.

Yet once again, Dillow didn't recognize the significance of his story. He recoiled from the reality of a young man turning against George W. Bush's war, shoving Glanville's story to the last third of an otherwise drab March 31 dispatch. More appalling, Dillow completely omitted it from his April 20 omnibus feature, except for this elliptical reference at the very end of the article that would mystify any reader unfamiliar with his early reporting:

"I'd remember Noah Glanville, a thoughtful, serious young man from Orange, sitting in a fighting hole after watching Lt. Childers die and telling me how he'd realized, suddenly and too late, how much he hated war, any war."

***

To most reporters, it's incomprehensible that Dillow would hide so much good reporting. Where's the sense in risking your life to witness our species at its best and worst if you're just going to hide what you've seen at the back end of stories few people will ever find and fewer still will get through?

Dillow's recent admissions–at the yacht club and in his journal article–suggest an answer.

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