Six days before the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings, the A&E network, to publicize its Memorial Day movie Ike, ran a reproduction in the New York Times of the Times’s front page for June 6, 1944. Anyone comparing that day’s wartime Times with today’s had to be struck by the way earlier Times editors and headline writers, unlike their current counterparts, openly identified with the cause of America and its allies. Front-page subheads included “Nazis Say Their Shock Units Are Battling Our Parachutists” and “Allies Pass Rome, Cross Tiber as Foe Quits Bank Below City;” the caption of a map showing the reported site of the landings cited broadcasts of the German “enemy”; and the summary of an NBC pool reporter’s story on the parachutists’ landings quoted him as saying that he had flown across the English Channel with the first group of planes “to take our fighting men into Europe.”
By contrast, the Times’s Memorial Day editorial for 2004 observed that what the deaths of America’s soldiers in its past wars “accomplished is written into the fabric of this country, no matter how purposeful or purposeless they may have seemed at the time.” (Nothing in this sentence indicates that deaths that seemed purposeless then appear any more purposeful now, and what the deaths accomplished is unspecified.) The Times editorialist maintained, for no apparent reason, that “many grieving families” must deal with the “shock” of suddenly discovering that “the devotion of soldier to their unit…was stronger than anything the family itself could offer.” (How could the editorialist know that?) And he (or she?) added that “soldiers fighting in the large causes tend to die for the small causes–for a sense of duty to one another, the building block upon which armies are built.” (How can one separate the sense of duty to one’s fellow soldiers from the broader sense of duty to one’s country as well as one’s family that led war hero Pat Tillman to spurn a lucrative NFL contract to sign up for service that led to his death in Afghanistan?)
Elsewhere on the May 31, 2004, editorial page, a Massachusetts reader wrote to applaud the Times’s most partisan columnist, Paul Krugman, by observing that “we are witnessing, with the Iraq war…what happens when the press stops asking hard questions and demanding explanations.” She held that “the press has a responsibility…to be adversarial to any sitting administration. It is our only hope of keeping power in check and the government honest.”
Obviously, the 1944 Times would not have met the standard set by this reader–or, apparently, the standards of its present-day editors. As the distinguished journalist and political analyst Robert D. Kaplan has observed, the mass media in today’s America are able to constitute themselves the judges of their country’s foreign policies based on a “cosmopolitan” doctrine embodying the supposedly impartial application of “universal moral principles” only because they are unaccountable for the actual defense of our nation’s well-being, as well as the cause of justice in the world.
Today, no less than in 1944, the United States is at war for the most fundamental of reasons: because it has been (repeatedly) attacked. The war in Iraq is part of the same necessary struggle to root out Islamic terrorists and self-aggrandizing despots who threaten us and our way of life that led us to liberate Afghanistan from the Taliban and al Qaeda. While the means by which that broader struggle is conducted is a legitimate and necessary subject of journalistic analysis, it is unlikely that in 1944 the Times and other prestigious media would have let themselves be diverted from the main issues by focusing on so-called “atrocities” like the humiliation of prisoners in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. Contrary to the letter writer quoted above, what generally keeps America’s government “honest” and prevents the abuse of power is our constitutional system, and not chiefly the press. Media figures who set themselves up as supreme judges of their country’s military conduct in its own defense forget the dependence of their own freedoms on the people’s willingness to risk the supreme sacrifice on its behalf.
–David Lewis Schaefer is professor of political science at Holy Cross College.