Anthony Shadid, dead at the age of 43, was our Ernie Pyle, a war correspondent who combined physical and moral courage with the eyes and ears of a great storyteller.
Pyle died at the age of 44 from machine gun fire near Okinawa at the end of World War II. Shadid died Thursday from an apparent asthma attack, brought on by his guides’ horses, as they were trying to get him closer to the war zone in Syria.
The greatest journalism comes at the intersection of craft and opportunity, being at the right place at the right time, reporting tools in hand. Pyle and Shadid shared something more, the guts to gain access at whatever cost.
For Pyle that access came from embedding with the troops across Europe and then into Asia with the mission of recording, not the sometimes hollow aspirations of generals, but the daily experiences — the lives and deaths — of common soldiers.
Pyle covered a war in which most journalists were loyal propagandists. He wrote using the pronouns “I” and “we.” He wore the uniform, typed stories on a noiseless portable in the trenches, took a bullet for the cause, and became one of the few civilians to win a Purple Heart.
Shadid covered different wars than Pyle’s and always preferred working outside the control of official sources, as a “unilateral.” He, too, once took a bullet for his efforts on the streets of the West Bank city of Ramallah, and often faced arrest and physical threats from all directions. His Lebanese-American ethnicity, a well-groomed beard, and a fluency in Arabic were the only armor he wore.
Because Pyle wrote from the war front to the home front, he became one of the most celebrated journalists of the 20th Century, a “buddy” to the common soldier and a household name. In spite of the award-winning journalism produced by Shadid for The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The New York Times, he was no celebrity, except perhaps to his loyal readers and to all the other journalists who admired him.
News media haters have ignored or dismissed the dangers to life and limb for reporters around the world who have tried to shine a light — especially in the Middle East — on the true consequences of war. From the beheading of Daniel Pearl, the number of imprisoned, wounded, and dead journalists keeps growing.
When you put aside the differences between Pyle and Shadid, what remains was their ability to offer eyewitness testimony about war, especially that need to look death in the face, and to force us to look.
One of Pyle’s most honored stories was “The Death of Captain Henry Waskow,” written on January 10, 1944, for Scripps Howard newspapers. It begins:
“In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them. But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Captain Henry T. Waskow, of Belton, Texas.”
“I was at the foot of a mule trail the night they brought Captain Waskow down. The moon was nearly full, and you could see far up the trail, and even part way across the valley below.
“Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules. They came lying belly-down across the wooden pack saddles, their heads hanging down on one side, their stiffened legs sticking out awkwardly from the other, bobbing up and down as the mules walked.”
One of the bodies turns out to be that of Capt. Waskow.
“Two men unlashed his body from the mule and lifted it off and laid it in the shadow beside the stone wall. Other men took the other bodies off. Finally, there were five lying end to end in a long row. You don’t cover up dead men in the combat zones. They just lie there in the shadows until someone comes after them.
“The unburdened mules moved off to their olive grove. The men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around, and gradually I could sense them moving, one by one, close to Captain Waskow’s body. Not so much to look, I think, as to say something in finality to him, and to themselves. I stood close by and I could hear.”
What follows is a quiet litany of grief, as soldiers visit the body.
“Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the dead hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently in the dead face. And he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there.”
Compare the narrative of that field-of-battle wake with Shadid’s story from Iraq, “A Boy Who Was ‘Like a Flower’,” published in the Post on March 31, 2003:
“On a cold, concrete slab, a mosque caretaker washed the body of 14-year-old Arkan Daif for the last time.
“With a cotton swab dipped in water, he ran his hand across Daif’s olive corpse, dead for three hours but still glowing with life. He blotted the rose-red shrapnel wounds on the soft skin of Daif’s right arm and right ankle with the poise of practice. Then he scrubbed his face scabbed with blood, left by a cavity torn in the back of Daif’s skull.
“The men in the Imam Ali mosque stood somberly waiting to bury a boy who, in the words of his father, was ‘like a flower.’ Haider Kathim, the caretaker, asked: ‘What’s the sin of the children? What have they done?’
“In the ritual of burial, the men and their families tried, futilely, to escape the questions that have enveloped so many lives here in fear and uncertainty. Beyond some neighbors, family, and a visitor, there were no witnesses; the funeral went unnoticed by a government that has eagerly escorted journalists to other wartime tragedies. Instead, Daif and two cousins were buried in the solitude of a dirt-poor, Shiite Muslim neighborhood near the city limits.”
One sees in the work of both writers reporting in its purest form, the story of an eyewitness who brings the troubling truth into the light of day with language that is like a camera.
There are two forms of bravery at work here, both of them equally powerful within the contexts of the wars these men covered. Pyle’s story of the dead captain might look heroic from our vantage point, but the stories of good dead men could be seen as hurting morale and undercutting the war effort. Shadid’s story lets Americans know that the conduct of even a just war results in the deaths of children and the agonies of whole families and societies.
On more than one occasion, I have held up for inspection a column written by Michelle Malkin a month after 9/11. It is a cruel commentary, rendered from the starkest forms of ideological cynicism.
“There will be no 21st century Ernie Pyles in our wars on terrorism,” she wrote, “because modern journalists wouldn’t be caught dead in a foxhole, wearing a military uniform, bravely recording and communicating the hopes, fears, dreams, anger and pride of the American soldier.”
Revisiting that piece, I feel more strongly than ever that Malkin got Ernie Pyle wrong, and got the courage of foreign correspondents the world over wrong, and will probably get Anthony Shadid wrong if she feels moved to write about him.
The next Ernie Pyle did come our way. His name was Anthony Shadid.