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.

Tame the media, the thinking went, and you'll win wars. That thinking became policy in the 1980s. The British government is credited with limiting press access during its controversial Falklands War; a year later, the Reagan administration stalled reporters for six days while U.S. special forces seized control of Grenada; the first Bush administration was just as strict during the U.S. invasion of Panama. Two years later, media access to Gulf War troops was moderated through Pentagon officials hosting highly polished press conferences and cameras embedded in the noses of smart bombs.

Perhaps it was the smart bomb that inspired Defense Department officials to create the Iraq War's embedding program. Touted as a liberalization of press access rules, embedding was in fact a brilliant strategy to convert the media from massed skeptics into a rolling public-relations field force. Hundreds of wannabe Pyles would roam the battlefield with the troops; their natural instincts to protect the soldiers protecting them would rein in skepticism.

It's a miracle that Dillow–a predictable columnist who rarely strays from paeans to cowboys and cops–got one of the plum embed assignments of the war. He says Marines at Pendleton called the Reg last November and asked if they wanted to enter the embedding program. Dillow, who in 1971 served in Vietnam as a sergeant in the U.S. Army military police, leaped at the chance. Once in Kuwait, he said, he begged the Marines to hitch him to a combat unit from Pendleton. The Marines okayed his request.

So, while most reporters were assigned to rear-area cooking and cleaning units that never saw even a muzzle flash, Dillow found himself with Alpha Company of the 1/5, the first U.S. combat unit to enter Iraq. According to Dillow, the armored personnel carrier he rode in was the seventh vehicle in the U.S. invasion force to cross the border.

"They told the Marines we were to be treated as an 'adverse condition,'" said Dillow. "Some of the officers and most of the NCOs [noncommissioned officers] looked at us like we were snakes who crawled into their tents."

Dillow said the men eventually warmed to his presence, which should have provided his readers with an unparalleled view of the war. Yet the Register never ran Dillow's stuff on Page 1–they reserved the front page for Associated Press or New York Times war reports. Dillow's dispatches ran on Page 4, or even deeper, perilously close to narcotic stories on state budget issues.

It's easy to see that Reg editors made the right decision. Dillow's war journalism was olive drab. His first eight dispatches–all written from Kuwait–dealt with such topics as where to get a gas mask; the dos and don'ts of eating field rations; vaccinations; foxhole digging; and how to detect incoming chemical attacks. Even when the Pentagon unleashed the invasion on March 15, Dillow seemed stuck in the mundane. One March 30 dispatch began promisingly enough, with a quote from the company commander warning his men that an attack on their position was expected that night. But then the story meandered through a long discussion of how the men got some sleep in the meantime. The attack never came.

***

The problem wasn't that attacks never came, but that, when they did, Dillow dishonestly reported what was happening around him. The effects of being constantly surrounded–and protected–by the Marines had destroyed his objectivity. For over a month, Dillow ate, slept and joked with them, drank the same swimming pool-tasting purified water and shared space in an APC the size of a prison cell. But mostly he relied on them to save him from death or capture. The pressure to return the favor–in the form of favorable coverage–was enormous. And Dillow succumbed.

It's not so bad that Dillow passed his satellite phone around the company so the Marines could make their first calls home in over a month. The act was harmless, though it violated embedding rules. More important, Dillow admits he censored his own reporting to make the men of Alpha Company look better than they actually were. In a piece on embedded journalists that appeared in the May/June 2003 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, Dillow said he never published the fact that the Marines in the 1/5 so consistently used the term "Haji"–presumably the name of the turbaned Indian kid in Jonny Quest–as a derogatory slur for Arabs that he was unaware of it "about five minutes" after arriving in Kuwait. Dillow also said he bowdlerized the Marines' language. "The astonishing crudity of young men in wartime–your average Marine wouldn't say, 'I have to go on guard,'" wrote Dillow, "but rather, 'I fucking have to fucking go on fucking guard.' It wouldn't fly in a family newspaper . . . . The result was that the Marines sounded much more like choirboys in my stories than they really are." Most ominously, Dillow admitted holding back "some things [that] were simply too gruesome to describe in detail."

Though Dillow mentioned this self-censorship to the Bahia Corinthian crowd, he would not elaborate. But his stories suggest his handling of less-than-gruesome details. When Dillow reported on real fighting, he typically pushed the bloodiest events to the ends of his stories. We've already seen how he buried the Baghdad ambush in the back of his big April 20 feature. Buried within his March 27 dispatch "Days of Danger and Misery," Dillow described how Alpha Company Marines opened up on a van speeding toward their position. Three civilians were killed. Inside the van the Marines found not weapons of mass or even limited destruction, but a load of rice. The reason the van didn't stop at the checkpoint is unknown, left unexamined by Dillow, who reported the incident in eight spare paragraphs. He paid even less attention to the incident in his special April 20 feature on Alpha Company.

"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.

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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