When John Steinbeck's dispatches from World War II were compiled and published in 1958 as a collection called Once There Was A War, one critic delivered a particularly acidic assessment:
"They are period pieces, the attitudes archaic, the impulses romantic, and, in light of everything that has happened since, perhaps the whole body of work untrue and warped and one-sided."
The critic was Steinbeck himself. Already a well-regarded novelist by the time the United States entered the war, Steinbeck was one of the first true "embeds." His generation of war correspondents eagerly traveled with combat troops, wearing uniforms and sharing their meals, petty concerns and front-line perils while compiling material for their reports. The most famous members of the press cohort included Ernest Hemingway, whose writing had influenced Steinbeck; Ernie Pyle, who would be killed in the Pacific at the end of the war; and Homer Bigart of The New York Times.
But 15 years later, when reviewing his own articles, Steinbeck, who covered the war for the New York Herald Tribune, articulated misgivings about his writing that anticipated many criticisms of today's war coverage.
"The events set down here did happen," Steinbeck wrote in his introduction to the collection. "But rereading this reportage, my memory becomes alive to the other things, which also did happen and were not reported."
"There was," he warned, "a huge and gassy thing called the War Effort. Anything which interfered with or ran counter to the War Effort was automatically bad."
More than 600 journalists have been integrated into U.S. and British military units in the Persian Gulf during the current U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Under the contemporary system, participating reporters are told by officers what subjects or details are temporarily not to be published. Unlike the World War II correspondents whose work was routinely censored, the reports of today's journalists are not reviewed before being transmitted back to newsrooms at home. Yet the cautionary notes Steinbeck sounded still echo today.
Steinbeck wrote from England and North Africa and Italy. Some of his pieces were deeply impressionistic, gentle essays about the queasy jumble of sentiments felt by soldiers sent from home at a young age. Others were sprightly narratives of humor amid boredom and uncertainty.
Looking back, Steinbeck concluded the natural sympathies of correspondents for the troops they accompanied led them to filter their reports. Urged by editors of the 1958 compilation to insert the precise locations of very general datelines, or give more details about some of his anonymous subjects, Steinbeck noted with chagrin that he had done such a good job of repressing potentially sensitive information that he had no recollection of those details whatsoever.
That impulse to withhold information and insight constricted the boundaries of war reporting then and, as Steinbeck discovered, in the years that followed.
If you were to believe these reports, Steinbeck wrote with more than a trace of scorn, men no longer were capable of venal sins once they were at war. There could be no exploration of cowardice, though examples abounded. The most lowly privates had to be repeatedly assured they held the most exalted role. No commander, in his words, was "cruel or ambitious or ignorant." And, to complete their mythologizing, the young men in the armed forces no longer hungered for the company of women.
It was though, Steinbeck wrote, "five million perfectly normal, young, energetic and concupiscent men and boys had for the period of the War Effort put aside their habitual preoccupation with girls. The fact that they carried pictures of nude girls, called pin-ups, did not occur to anyone as a paradox. The convention was the law. When Army Supply ordered X millions of rubber contraceptive and disease-preventing items, it had to be explained that they were used to keep moisture out of machine-gun barrels - and perhaps they did."
What the reporters didn't remove, military censors frequently edited out - even when the material had nothing to do with the safety of the troops. "Once when I felt a little bruised by censorship," Steinbeck recounted, "I sent through Herodotus's account of 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."
The small view each reporter had of the war offered too narrow a window on the war for any nuanced understanding, he wrote. Even in his dispatches, he acknowledged this liability. One report of Oct. 6, 1943, datelined simply from the "Mediterranean Theater," started this way:
"You can't see much of a battle. Those paintings reproduced in history books which show long lines of advancing troops are either idealized or else times have changed."
He continued, "What the correspondent really saw was dust and the nasty burst of shells, low bushes and slit trenches. He lay on his stomach, if he had any sense, and watched ants crawling among the little sticks on the sand dune, and his nose was so close to the ants that their progress was interfered with by it."
As was noted by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose approval was crucial for the "embed" system, the front-line reporters' accounts in this new conflict cannot be taken as fully representative of the war. But they accomplish two things. Those reports give snapshots of reality for a readily defined group of fighters. And they can, on occasion, prove a counterbalance to rosy-hued statements from officials at Central Command or the Pentagon about the progress of the war.
Despite his own dismissive judgment, Steinbeck's writings offered keen observations of military life, blending compassion and whimsy to recount the tales of the men he met.
He told the story of an acquisitive private named "Bug" who hauled a mirror 6 feet by 4 feet throughout Italy in the vain hope he might be able to lug it home. It shattered the moment he hung it from a hook. Steinbeck chronicled the anguish of a man in a military hospital in England whose hand had been shot, who worried that his wife wouldn't love him anymore: "I got to get that hand working. She wouldn't like a cripple with a hand that didn't work." And he wrote of a junior U.S. Navy officer in Italy who tricked a garrison of German soldiers into surrendering.
All this was part of Steinbeck's war, and true enough as far as the facts went, and great good reading too. But, as Steinbeck would later warn, his reports were an accurate account of what happened, and yet a horribly imprecise way to cover a war.