Just as discordant in its way is Newsweek’s cover story this week, which happens to be an excerpt from David McCullough’s new biography of George Washington.
Part of the selection describes Washington’s character and style. But a major portion of the piece tells the tale that every schoolchild used to know: how Washington and his ragtag, underfed army crossed the Delaware on Christmas Eve, marched all night through a Northeaster, and routed the surprised and soused Hessians in Trenton late on Christmas Day.
In a fierce hand-to-hand battle, 21 of the enemy were killed, 90 wounded, and 900 taken prisoner. None of the Americans died fighting but two soldiers froze to death during the night on the road..
On the last day of 1776, Washington asked his exhausted forces to stay with him, offering them a bounty of ten dollars–big money in those days. None agreed. But then he spoke to them, saying, “My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected, but your country is at stake…if you consent to stay one month longer, you will render service to the cause of liberty, and to your country which you can probably never do under any other circumstance.” The troops stayed with their general.
Odd, isn’t it, for Newsweek through this excerpt to look back at our soldiers in America’s past with respect and gratitude, while at the same time being so willing to believe “gotcha” stories that put our soldiers today in the worst possible light.
I read the excerpt from McCullough’s book just after I had seen a remarkable exhibit of photos by a young combat photographer, Lucian Read, who has spent nearly a year in Iraq embedded with the Marines. The exhibit, entitled “Devil Dogs: No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy,” is on display in midtown Manhattan in a former Fifth Avenue storefront. The setting is part of what is called “The Guerilla Galleries” established by World Picture Network, the agency that represents Read, which is trying to put the important work of photographers in surprising places never before used for photo exhibitions.
Read followed a Marine company from Camp Pendleton in California to Kuwait and then Iraq, and was with them through fierce battles in Najaf and Fallujah. There are many terrific photographs in the exhibit that give insight into our “Devil Dogs.” (By the way, “Devil Dogs” is the name the Germans gave the Marines in the First World War and the name that Marines often call each other.)
There is one shot of exuberant, young off-duty soldiers doing back flips, and another of a Marine, reenlisting and taking the oath, as 100 tons of ordnance from a Saddam-era weapons dump explode in the background.
The most compelling photographs, however, are those taken in the heat of battle, of the wounded and the fallen. There is one especially gripping photo in the “Hell House” of Fallujah. It shows First Sergeant Brad Kasal, covered with blood, being carried out by two fellow Marines after he nearly lost his leg. He is still holding tightly to his revolver.
He was shot seven times by insurgents and was peppered with shrapnel because he had used his body to shield an injured younger Marine, PFC Alex Nicol, from a grenade blast. Nicol lost the lower part of his leg in this encounter.
Kasal is a candidate for the Marines’ first Congressional Medal of Honor since Vietnam and is now recuperating in a hospital in California. Nicol is at Walter Reed and has already learned to skate board with his prosthesis. He and photographer Read spent a ski weekend together a couple of months ago.
“I didn’t know much about the military when I went to Iraq,” Read, who is 30, told me. “I never thought about going into the service. I went to college. I was on a different track. But being with these guys was an enormous, gratifying, powerful experience for me. I am so full of admiration for them.
“Of course they want to come home individually. But they think they are doing good things there.” Even after the battles and the loss of some of their buddies, Read said, “I never felt they didn’t think it was worth it. They take pride in what they are accomplishing.”
Too bad that Newsweek would devote a cover story to yesterday’s heroes without thinking that a story they have now retracted could endanger today’s.
Lucian Read told me that there was one sure way he could bond with the Marines and gain their confidence. It was when he wore a T-shirt he brought along. On it is printed: “Don’t Trust the Corporate Media.”