Burying the Dead

Famous war correspondent Gordon Dillow struggles with his truth

Think about the Baghdad firefight when the Marine gave Dillow the hand grenade. That fight occurred after Alpha Company charged off without good intelligence or planning. Dillow reported that, but didn't report that it was the Marines' own bravado that led them to act recklessly on the intelligence. And it cost them dearly: One dead and two dozen wounded. For a reporter unblinkered by love of subject, the story is this one: a bunch of cocky Marines charged into a place without adequate preparation and got sucker-punched. But Dillow couldn't tell that story. That tale would be too true, a personal betrayal of the Marines protecting him, the men to whom he'd grown so close.

The same is true of the rice van shooting. Did the Marines really do all they could to make sure civilians understood that they had to stop? Were barricades properly set up? Were good signs posted? According to Maass' reporting of an unrelated shooting, it was likely that U.S. forces in Iraq weren't trained to set up and manage checkpoints. But we'll never be sure about Alpha Company, because Dillow didn't pursue the matter.


Back home, Dillow has settled into the predictable paths he followed before the war. In one recent piece, he profiled Burt Pronin, a Democrat gathering signatures for the Davis recall. A week later, he wrote "Yes, Recall Could Open Pandora's Box," a column addressing readers who said the recall is misguided. "Don't I understand, they asked, what chaos a recall election could create in our already chaotic state?"

"Actually, I do," Dillow continued. "But like all journalists, I have a vested interest in chaos and mayhem of every sort. To boil journalism down to its ugly essence, there is no news value in planes that don't crash–or politicians who aren't in trouble."

Especially, apparently, when those politicians are Democrats.

Dillow's professed love of chaos didn't carry over to Iraq. On the battlefield, Dillow turned out to be terrified of chaos–or at least terrified of what battlefield chaos might imply: that soldiers make fatal mistakes, that war is brutal no matter what our politicians say, that lying to the American people about weapons of mass destruction is not only a forgivable error but a reasonable tactic for rallying the public behind war.

"The point wasn't that I wasn't reporting the truth," Dillow wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review. "The point was that I was reporting the Marine grunt truth–which had also become my truth."

Research assistance by Drew Farrington.

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