Wednesday, April 02, 2014

"Hell Before Breakfast" by Robert H. Patton - America's First War Correspondents

Robert H. Patton has written a magnificent book that takes the reader through the history of war correspondents between the Civil War and the beginning of World War I.  Prior to my reading this book, I had given little thought to the life that a war correspondent must live in order to do his or her job.  I had known of Sebastian Junger and his book "War," and the companion video "Restrepo" that follows a group of warriors in Afghanistan.  But I had little understanding of how the role of war correspondent had evolved beginning in the Civil War.

Near the end of this fascinating book, the author makes the point that the emperor, Julius Caesar, in effect was functioning as a war correspondent when he wrote his famous "Gallic Wars"   "Omni Gallia in tres partes divisa est . . ."  As Patton covers the period in history from the U.S. Civil War to the end of the Ottoman Empire, he presents a fascinating set of dualities:

"I undertook this book expecting that its drama would come from reporters competing with one another for wartime scoops.  But it turned out broader than that.  Tribune and Herald became Greeley and Bennett; emancipation and slavery; letter and telegram; keel and centerboard; Harvard and Oxford; Dickens and Whitman; Stanley and Livingstone; Daily News and London Times; musket and machine gun; imperialism and republicanism; mercy and massacre; Christianity and Islam - all demanding historical context somehow not covered in my university studies of modern American literature." (Page 303)

Along the way, the author introduces us to the leading lights and personalities who shaped the world of war correspondence: James Gordon Bennett Sr. and Jr. of the New York Herald, along with Henry M. Stanley, J.A. MacGahan,  Francis D. Millet, John Russell Young.  From the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, George W. Smalley, Samuel Clemens.  From the Times of London, William Howard Russell.  Through the medium of Patton's narrative, we come to care for these men and for the way in which they expressed their particular views of warfare.

This book represents a signal contribution to the corpus of books that help us to think about war and its implications for history and for the future of society.



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