14 Tuesday Jun 2016
Martha Gellhorn (1908 – 1998,) referred to by some as one of the world’s great war correspondents did not write of tactics, strategy or great theories. She found plain folks and talked to them, writing of their lives and loses, in some seven wars she covered. After a few years as a young, “stunning” debutante in Paris in 1934, she found her way to the Madrid of civil-war convulsed Spain, and began what was to be her life-long vocation. [Her marriage to Ernest Hemingway was much shorter: 5 years.] In a collection of her writing titled The Face of War, she offers a small portion of what she has seen: Spain, Finland, China, WW II Europe, Java, Vietnam, Israel and Central America.
These bitter reflections are from the opening of the forward to the 1959 introduction.
“When I was young I believed in the perfectibility of man, and in progress, and thought of journalism as a guiding light. If people were told the truth, if dishonor and injustice were clearly shown to them, they would at once demand the saving action, punishment of wrong-doers, and care for the innocent. How people were to accomplish these reforms, I did not know. That was their job. A journalist’s job was to bring news, to be eyes for their conscience. I think I must have imagined public opinion as a solid force, something like a tornado, always ready to blow on the side of the angels.
During the years of my energetic hope, I blamed the leaders when history regularly went wrong, when cruelty and violence were tolerated or abetted, and the innocent never got anything except the dirty end of the stick. The leaders were a vague interlocking directorate of politicians, industrialists, newspaper owners, financiers: unseen, cold, ambitious men. “People” were good, by definition; if they failed to behave well, that was because of ignorance or helplessness.
It took nine years, and a great depression, and two wars ending in defeat, and one surrender without war, to break my faith in the benign power of the press. Gradually I came to realize that people will more readily swallow lies than truth, as if the taste of lies was homey, appetizing: a habit. (There were also liars in my trade, and leaders have always used facts as relative and malleable. The supply of lies was unlimited.) Good people, those who opposed evil wherever they saw it, never increased beyond a gallant minority. The manipulated millions could be aroused or soothed by any lies. The guiding light of journalism was no stronger than a glow-worm.
I belonged to a Federation of Cassandras, my colleagues the foreign correspondents, whom I met at every disaster. They had been reporting the rise of Fascism, its horrors and its sure menace, for years. If anyone listened to them, no one acted on their warnings. The doom they had long prophesied arrived on time, bit by bit, as scheduled. In the end we became solitary stretcher-bearers, trying to pull individuals free from the wreckage. If a life could be saved from the first of the Gestapo in Prague, or another from behind the barbed wire on the sands at Argelès, that was a comfort but it was hardly journalism. Drag, scheming, bullying and dollars occasionally preserved one human being at a time. For all the good our articles did, they might have been written in invisible ink, printed on leaves, and loosed to the wind. … “