"C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre."
LI recommends Thomas de Waal’s article about the Charge of the Light Brigade in Friday’s Financial Times. According to Waal, the Charge went down in history when William Howard Russell, the London Times war correspondent, wrote it up 150 years ago. Russell decided to cast it as a magnificent spectacle of civilization, brought to nought by the barbarity of the enemy.
At the time, the vocabulary of propaganda didn’t include the term “terrorist” so beloved of the embedded American reporter. But like your average NYT or WP reporter today, Russell realized that his first job was to lie for the governing classes. That was also priority number 2 and 3. And like his modern day counterparts, he was so steeped in the mendacity and delusion of the governing class himself that he barely recognized his lies as lies.
Here’s how Russell described the Charge:
"A more fearful spectacle was never witnessed than by those who, without the power to aid, beheld their heroic countrymen rushing to the arms of death. At the distance of 1,200 yards the whole line of the enemy belched forth, from thirty iron mouths, a flood of smoke and flame, through which hissed the deadly balls."
Thus began the myth of the charge of the Light Brigade. Russell not only gave a passionately dramatic description of what happened, he gave it an inspiring spin, beginning his dispatch, "If the exhibition of the most brilliant valour, of the excess of courage, and of a daring which would have reflected lustre on the best days of chivalry can afford full consolation for the disaster of today, we can have no reason to regret the melancholy loss which we sustained in a contest with a savage and barbarian enemy."
One is reminded of the mindnumbing dumbness of the early coverage of the war in Iraq – the stupid confidence that the war’s end was determined by the Bush administration’s desire, rather than its actions – the empty headed repetition of the pathetic lies that preceded it, that invested its operation during the first phase, and that covered up the wholesale looting of the country – by Bush connected corporations – during the wild ride of proconsul Bremer.
Russell’s account of a charge that was, actually, insignificant, inspired Tennyson’s poem. But Tennyson was too much of a poet not to be more penetrative than Russell – Tennyson did realize that ‘someone had blundered.” Russell took it as his job to obscure just who that someone was. As de Waal puts it:
“Russell also ducked what should surely have been a journalist's main aim in reporting this fiasco, to investigate the chain of command that led to the disaster and apportion blame. His account signally lets off the hook the British commander Lord Raglan, who issued the fatally ambiguous order. Raglan, who was on friendly terms with Russell, was never held to account for losing the Light Brigade.”
The Lord Raglans of the Rumsfeld gang – the Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchezes – have, if anything, been even more coddled by the press, which does love a man in uniform, and since getting their fingers burned in the Vietnam war have reliably laid down a covering fire of delusions for the U.S. government as it has supported death squad democracy in Central America and, now, Iraq. It is rather embarrassing for the newspapers to have to confront the obvious screwups of our politicized and incompetent high command – Franks inability to hurt Al Qaeda when it was concentrated in Afghanistan, and Sanchez’s mindblowing underestimation of the insurgency last fall – so the reporters prefer to do in depth reports on these things a year or two after they have happened. News may upset the bourgeois reader, but never his prejudices. And so the world is cut out for us on a paperdoll pattern.
De Waal is not uniformly critical of Russell: “His reports on the failures of the army supply system and the lack of nursing care for the wounded shocked British public opinion and helped bring down Lord Aberdeen's government. After the war they helped lead to a public inquiry held in Chelsea Hospital. It was the Hutton inquiry of its day - many witnesses were called but no one took the blame at the end of it.”
Interestingly, while the British were wallowing in their mock chivalry, the French were winning the war. As de Waal points out, the French army, under Pierre Bosquet, took Sevastopol. Russell, who shared with his British readers the kind of gallophobia that so infects Fox News today, skewed his reports, as much as possible, to exclude the French.
What's the other phrase about that? Plus ça change...