The Media and War

I recently began rereading McPherson’s book of essays on the Civil War “This Mighty Scourge.” Of interest was a theme I noticed from William Tecumseh Sherman’s memoirs a few months ago. Then, as now, the fourth estate was a tool for both good and ill. While every American soldier dating back to the days of the powdered wig has considered himself to be fighting for the cause of freedom, I wonder how many fail to appreciate the value of the “free press.” Surely the freedom of the press should fit nicely with their image of a free society. Why, then, is the press depicted so negatively in so many war movies.

I recall holding a clear contempt of the press in general the day I saw “Hamburger Hill.” That movie proffered a heroic speech by some low-level non commissioned officer castigating a reporter for his reporting. Included in the tirade (as I recall, to be fair, though, I have not seen this movie in a couple of decades) was the implication that fair reportage was tantamount to treason. Well, McPherson gives a description of the love/hate relationship of the Civil War soldier and his voraciously consumed print media. It would seem that Sherman’s opinions on the subject were quite representative of the opinions of the entire U.S. Army during the same time frame.

It depressed me a bit that the ostensible object of primary importance is very often compromised in favor of security. I am further reminded that, in bullshit stylized retellings of stories such as “Braveheart,” characters like William Wallace probably knew appreciably less about the concept of freedom than his mostly illiterate defenders. Indeed, the statement that “[T]hey will never take our freedom!” is a bit sillier when you realize that it is technically true. Given that that group of people had never possessed freedom certainly precludes freedom being taken. Similarly, in “300,” we see the supposed rush to defend the democratic state (or collection of states). Do the worshipers of such tripe fail to acknowledge that Sparta was about as distant from the Enlightenment values as it was possible to be? Freedom as we now know it is a product of the French Enlightenment (and, the real key event in the earthshaking change that followed, the American Revolution). The grand document in which Enlightenment values are forever carved is, indeed the U.S. Constitution. Even then, it took bloody wars and civil unrest to bring many of the concepts to full fruition.