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Posted on Jan 22, 2007 in Armchair Reading

Recommended Reading List on the Media at War

By Ralph Peters

There’s no shortage of books by journalists about war and, increasingly, by journalists about journalists (usually themselves) at war, but someone has to sort the wheat from the mountains of chaff. The books recommended below are all informative—sometimes in unintended ways—and most are just plain fun to read. Almost all of the titles are still in print, while those that aren’t are easily found through the internet.

1. Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh. This is a novel—perhaps the funniest ever written—but it nonetheless offers more insight into how journalists think and behave than any other single book. A brutal satire set amid African turmoil and written almost seventy years ago, it nonetheless nails today’s media (and nails ‘em to the cross). I re-read it as my “personal guide” en route to combat zones.

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2. William Russell, Special Correspondent of The Times. This particular collection of Russell’s work was compiled for and published by The Folio Society—copies can be pricey when you find them at used-book web-sites, but they’re worth every cent (The Folio Society produces beautiful editions—true collectors items). Russell was the best of the best, and Armchair General readers will love his eyewitness accounts of 19th-century wars and decisive battles, from Balaklava to Sedan. War reporting just doesn’t get any better. Other reprints of Russell’s work appear from time to time—grab ‘em whenever you see ‘em.

3. Campaigns of a Non-Combatant, by George Alfred Townsend. What was it like to be an American correspondent during our Civil War? Read this and find out. Townsend wasn’t a journalist of Russell’s stature, but he captures the times and the mood of a ruptured country. Used editions can be found on the internet—the most-attractive comes from the Collector’s Library of the Civil War series.

4. Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis. Read it and you’ll understand why it’s recommended here. Recently and deservedly republished in paperback.

5. Dispatches, by Michael Herr. Captures the mood, if not the full, accurate picture, of the Vietnam years. Vivid writing, fun to read—and less durable, in the end, than the work of William Russell from a century earlier (Russell’s a Brahms symphony, Herr is The Strawberry Alarm Clock singing “Incense and Peppermints”). Dispatches is the “new journalism” meets Oliver Stone—still, it’s a good read, and Herr had the guts to live down with the grunts. Easy to find copies.

6. Not a Good Day to Die, by Sean Naylor. Wham! Army Times reporter Naylor’s account of Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan is as good as contemporary war reporting gets. Naylor’s experienced, brave to the point of being foolhardy, and a diligent researcher with deep connections in the special-ops community. He’s the living model of what a war correspondent should be. The book’s an instant classic.

7. Cobra II, The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, by Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor. Gordon’s a great reporter, Trainor’s a great Marine. Together, they make a superb team for reporting and analyzing warfare. This bull’s-eye of a book credits our military with its magnificent accomplishments in the face of obstruction and inept decision-making at the top of the Pentagon—Gordon and Trainor won’t be getting any Christmas cards from Donald Rumseld. This is by far the best overview of any of our recent wars.

8. Night Draws Near, by Anthony Shadid. Don’t buy this—get it from the local library. Shadid doesn’t deserve the money. This book is recommended because, to me, it’s one of the most artful pieces of propaganda produced in the last half-century. Shadid is an Arab-American, and his reporting from Iraq certainly doesn’t take the American side. Beautifully written and profoundly dishonest in what it puts in and leaves out of the Iraq saga, it’s worth reading to see how journalists shape elite opinion. Shadid is always praised by his peers, never criticized. Judge him for yourself. For me, two details tell it all: The book’s sub-title is Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War—got that? Iraq’s People—yet, the index offers only nine entries under “Kurds” for 389 pages of text. Even al-Jazeera’s more balanced.

9. The First Casualty, From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker, by Phillip Knightley. Published in 1975, this first-rate book stays in print because it’s never been equaled as an account—from the journalists’ side—of media coverage in wartime. Knightley’s a superb writer and his judgments are usually sensible and balanced. Strongly recommended to those who want to understand the history behind today’s juggernaut media.

10. The River War, by Winston Churchill. It’s often overlooked that, after he left his cavalry regiment, Churchill worked as a war correspondent (covering the Boer War for the Morning Post, for example). The River War is an enduringly splendid account of Kitchener’s Omdurman campaign, to which Churchill was an eyewitness. One of the last century’s great masters of English-language prose, the future prime minister demonstrated what happens when a military veteran takes up the pen and writes honestly about war. Churchill might have had a great career as a journalist—but it turned out that he had other things to do.

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