Watchdog Blog

Morton Mintz: For Want of Reporting, Lives Were Lost

Posted at 8:44 am, May 26th, 2009
Morton Mintz Mug

The stenographic, invasion-enabling reporting of the run-up to the U.S. war in Iraq had a precedent of sorts in World War I. The story emerges in “A Farewell to Arms,” a review in the June 11th New York Review of Books of British author Mark Thompson’s The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919 (Basic Books, 454 pp., $30).

The central figure was the commander of the Italian army, General Luigi Cadorna, “a strutting authoritarian of epic incompetence, even by the high standards set by his British and French counterparts,” writes reviewer Max Hastings, a former editor of London’s The Daily Telegraph and The Evening Standard. Under Cadorna Italy “lost substantially more soldiers in proportion to its population–689,000 from 35 million–than did Britain, which counted 745,000 battle dead out of 46 million.”

By no means were all lost to the Austrian enemy. “As Italian morale flagged, Cadorna, the Duke of Aosta, and other commanders introduced arbitrary executions as a means of inducing their men to keener effort,” writes Hastings. “Decimation, the practice of shooting men chosen by nomination or by lots from regiments that were deemed to have displayed insufficient determination or signs of mutiny, became commonplace in 1917.

“When Italian commanders perceived their men to be surrendering too readily, they began to treat all those who fell into Austrian hands as putative traitors. The authorities prevented parcels of food and comforts dispatched by families from being forwarded to POWs. Around 100,000 Italian soldiers died in Austrian captivity, almost one in six of those taken prisoner.”

Yet Thompson found journalists “who systematically glorified Cadorna in return for access to his armies, and who told their readers nothing of the epic incompetence with which the war was being fought,” continues Hastings. “The author blames the absence of skeptical press scrutiny for the fact that the commander in chief was able to bungle on for so long, and to inflict such tragedies on his own people.

“Such famous and mendacious correspondents as Luigi Barzini, an ardent supporter of Cadorna, betrayed their calling and their country, as did most of their British and French contemporaries. In a great war, censorship of operational information is inescapable. But governments and commanders almost always find it irresistible to extend this to shield their own follies.” At this point Hastings injects a hopeful note: “Significant lessons were learned from the shameful press experience of the democracies in World War I, so that in the 1939-1945 conflict the American and British media provided somewhat sharper criticism of inadequate generals,weapons, equipment, and tactics.”

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