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Dispatches From The Rear -- The Universal Correspondent

By Dan Byrnes

I know War is Hell ... We all know War is Hell ... and we all want to avoid blame! We all want to avoid losing... But Hell! Sometimes a (young) man's gotta do what a (young and ignorant) man's gotta do. But does he (young as he is) ever know why a (young and ignorant) man's gotta do what a (badly-used man as it often turns out) man's gotta do? Doh... Ask the enemy? They feel the same?

Dan Byrnes, cynical poet-type guy from Outback Australia and sometime websurfer loads his cannon with grapeshot, selected found-shrapnel from various military history, and some odd bits of gravel and rusty nails dug up from his concrete courtyards in Armidale, New England, Australia, sends a single live charge across the bows of the good ship USS NewYorkTimes. (Who?) Dan Byrnes thinks: 20-year-old soldiers have probably only-recently just gotten over problems of brain-maturation situations, as today's Psychology now informs re post-adolescents. Is this why they so sadly let cynical old men send them to war to be shot at? Simple non-resolution of brain-maturation questions? You decide? It's your call! It's their deaths! It's called - Correspondence! War Correspondence! You decide if the war-letter is worth sending, or printing, or keeping, or putting on the Net. (Is God on Your Side right now? You're sure? Where were your children just last night? You know where they were? Really?)

Whoopee! We're All Gonna Die!

Follows: Long Winded Anti-War Preamble By Journal Editor Gerry Patterson

And it's five, six, seven, eight
Open up them Pearly Gates!
Ain't no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! We're all gonna die!

It's Sunday night and I should be in bed -- I have to work in the morning. I really cannot complain about having to work. Having just observed three years of the worst employment slump I have seen in my brief three-decade encounter with computers and computing, I wouldn't want to show ingratitude. Although I might wonder why the (mainstream) media never mentioned the slump ... But then I find the media often don't mention some things. Funny, that. Free speech, and yet, so many things never get mentioned?

I shouldn't do it, but I check my inbox before retiring. There is an article there by one Dexter Filkins about the action in Falluja, Iraq, writing for the New York Times. (A city feeling somewhat challenged since 9/11, we must admit.) It is the sort of tough, gritty war correspondence that one could find in any dispatches from the front line in the last hundred years - these days, "embedded". Which got me thinking. Times change, and yet they don't. How come on-the-spot war correspondence is all such-a-piece? I feel sure it has got little to do with the individual war correspondent. He just writes down what he sees. Or, he writes what he is allowed to say about what he thinks he sees. We normally hear less from deceased war correspondents: who among their own ranks, if they are excessively gung-ho, are often called "war whores". Because they get off on this sort of stuff and travel from one theatre of war to another... can't let it go, really. Unfortunately, they do have their readers - who might be called - war-whore voyeurs!?

Just this year, Dexter tells it like it is. (Look him up in NYT archives!) Young Marines, who are just ordinary American guys. Kids from Kansas, Virginia or Illinois slogging through the streets, strewn with rubble and dead bodies, dodging bullets and occasionally getting their heads shot off.

Here is a small quote:

As the marines inched upward, a burst of gunfire rang down, fired by an insurgent hiding in the top of the tower. The bullets hit the first marine in the face, his blood spattering the marine behind him. The marine in the rear tumbled backward down the stairwell, while Lance Cpl. William Miller, age 22, lay in silence halfway up, mortally wounded.

The reader can almost smell the cordite, and taste the blood ... As the combatants trudge into the smoke and debris of another hard day's fighting Dexter signs off with this paragraph:

"Keep a sharp eye," Captain Omohundro told his men. "We ain't done with this war yet."

Up until now the war in Iraq, which from now on I shall refer to as OWII (Oil War II), has been presented as a cross between a reality TV and a video-game plus gladiatorial sporting contest. Now, Dexter seems to be inferring that this is a real war. Just like any other. The peculiar feeling arises that since his is the first sort of real, war-fighting prose we've seen since March 2003 - The Real War Has Only Just Started before November 2004? So what were those earlier reports about? Is this alarming in terms of the usefulness of military reportage on this conflict? Is this alarming in the history of war correspondence to date?

This all seems rather eerie. Dexter's purple war-prose for the NYT could merely be the recycled manuscript of the Universal Correspondent who accompanied the Universal Soldier to war for most of the last century, and the century before that, and sent dispatches back to the folks at home. And if this makes me vaguely uneasy, I am further disturbed when my radio, just by accident, starts playing a song from last century. Some night for deja vu! The not so dulcet tones of Country Joe McDonald fill my office as he starts counting ... one, two, three, four! Country Joe tells us not to ask him what we are fighting for, because he doesn't give a damn and that the next stop is Viet Nam.

I decide to complain, to write to a long-term friend and colleague who lives thousands of kilometers away... But in Australia, heck, that's practically next door. I compose an e-mail to Dan Byrnes - webmaster, weary reader of history, long-battered poet of the common-sense genre, flawless cynic, and as optimists about Western Civilisation go these days, somewhat bewildered.

> ----- Original Message -----
> To: "Dan Byrnes"
> From: "Gerry Patterson", freelance computer programmer correspondent
            and New York Times critic in Melbourne, Australia
> Date: Sun, 21 Nov 2004 22:29:32 +1100
> Subject: Where have all the flowers gone? or plus ca change ...
> Theme: Supplied By Country Joe and The Fish
> DejaVu: Fixin To Die Rag ... I include a brief summary of Dexter's article,
          which I see as a turning point in coverage of OWII (The Second
          Oil War). And as I do I reflect on the role that mainstream
          media is playing in the conflict.

It seems that many of the broadsheets that we used to consider prestige publications, have lately become little more than information management outlets for vested interests. At least the conglomerates don't yet have the power to edit history as the The Ministry of Truth did in Orwell's chilling alternative history.

I seem to recall that the problems in Falluja started in April 2003, when American troops opened fire on unarmed demonstrators. The Americans claimed they acted in self-defence. A year later (April 2004) four Americans, driving through Falluja were dragged from their car and killed.

That night, back in April, the four hapless Americans died again and again and again on our television screens. Despite the considerable amount of coverage devoted to the story, there was little mention of the previous massacre of civilian demonstrators. Those that did referred to them as "insurgents".

Much outrage ensued ... especially in the USA. Within weeks American bombs and artillery shells were raining down on Falluja, killing several hundred.

This form of collective punishment brings to mind the German policy of reprisal in Yugoslavia and Greece during WWII. This was a policy of killing 10 civilians as retribution for every German soldier killed by partisans.

But that was by no means the end of the tribulations that the unfortunate residents of Falluja would have to suffer. The final conflict practically destroyed the town.

Now, in December 2004, Falluja is a smoldering ruin. Scores of Americans have been killed, and the reports of Iraqi casualties vary considerably. Some say hundreds killed, some say thousands ...

Hundreds? Or Thousands? Which is it? It seems that unlike the days of Viet Nam when body counts were important and unlike the Third Reich who documented their own excesses with teutonic precision, these days, nobody seems to keep an accurate record of how many Arabic untermenchen have been killed.

Overall, it seems like a helluva way to promote liberty and democracy ...

And as I reflect on this Country Joe tells me not to hesitate. He says I should send my sons off before it's too late. Then I could be the first in the block to have my boy come back in a box.

Ah, but today, patriotic families can send their daughters too!

Time passes ...

Dan Byrnes is quite taken with my reminiscing. The next day he composes a reply that is a masterpiece. Easily one of the best things he has written in his long career. His endeavours take up almost half a day! He is just at the point of sending me this literary masterpiece ... when he gets:

The Blue Screen Of Death ... He is not amused. "Imagine", he complains, "a machine gunner whose gun locks up four times day because it can't handle the data? This is good software? This is good machine gun?". A suitably military analogy given the subject matter.

Byrnes' masterpiece may be lost for all time. He tries to recapture the moment. But somehow he can't stop cursing Microsoft long enough to concentrate on the job.

When I hear of this, I am cruel-but-fair, I do not offer sympathy, I offer schadenfreude. I send advice he can't adopt because he uses MS software... which is another war of the computer variety, which is equally important but not relevant to this story.

And so, more time passes ...

We eventually get to communicate again as an editor and correspondent should ... The end result of his endeavours is, I am sure will agree, an accurate parody of Dexter Filkins' earlier stuff and the predominant writing style in many broadsheets today, eg., NYT and also CNN in the TV world. Sadly we will never be able to measure it against his lost masterpiece which remains lost for all time.

He's a Real Nowhere Man.

By Dan Byrnes

> ----- Original Message -----
> To: "Gerry Patterson"
> From: "Dan Byrnes", Battered poet, nugatory web commentator and crusty
>        ex-journo
> Sent: Thursday, December 02, 2004 1:54 AM
> Subject: Dear Fester Pilligan
> Theme: Supplied By Lennon and McCartney
> Hellonearth: Tuesday last, 3.30pm:
> Reply-To: Fester Pilligan in Nowheresville with contributing reporting
            from others in the NYT network of late, wherever they may
            lurk and however they manage their war-reporting
            "genre-jive" and editing of same.
He's a real Nowhere Man!
Drifting in his Nowhere Land!
Making all his Nowhere Plans ...
For nobody ...

Standing in the rubble outside the smoldering remains of his medical clinic, Dr. Effendi Muhhamed, dressed in a blue blazer and work boots, another ruined stethoscope looping sadly from between his worry-beaded fingers, is weeping copiously as he gazes out at the ruins of his native village, a little north of Jerusalem.

This now-much-despairing medico thinks the last few olive-drab trees visible outside his village are just that - drab and depressing and dying, since there is no water anymore to moisten their roots. They will have to die, which in turn will remain symbolic of so much in this strife-torn country that the soul quails and the heart wonders once again where Hollywood got it so wrong. But he will water these last trees with his tears, he has decided. He hasn't heard enough yet about soil salinity.

He has just heard yet another group of overly-optimistic American state department officials, led by their secretary, Colin Powell, explain their plans to build a new Palestinian state, which like its neighbour, Israel, would then have had its existence preceded by many ferociously angry acts of terrorism. In Israel's case, from 1948 or before, such were conducted by "Zionist freedom fighters", three of whom have since been prime ministers of Israel. The imprimaturs of death! C'est la vie!

Dr. Muhhamed is like many in the world today - he finds it impossible to believe a Palestinian state will ever arise, more so if UN intervention is tardy. Still, he would like to be able to care for his patients without being regularly shot at by Semitically-piloted helicopter gunships.

Meantime, New York Times correspondent, Fester Pilligan, novice war whore, holed up in his notorious upstate New York loft, netsurfed as usual, at a location not so far from where the famous Woodstock music festival was held.

Pilligan, his endurance and sense of US military history forged by years of recline in an iron lung at West Point, has a committed sense of mission, as do his superior officers, that simply cannot be denied. Wine review articles are a bit like Pilligan's sort of war writing; one just has to get the right sets of words into the right sequences and the finally-published report reads with almost a sense of infallibility, the sweet voice of reason, and a conviction that the future will remain victorious and prosperous as long as the light of liberty and the joy of getting pissed regularly with like-minded wine-warriors burns on in the hearts of connoisseurs.

Tough training is part of it, but much the same can apply to the production of sermons, erotic writing, travel writing, the writing of annual reports from the corporate sector, and political one-liners meant for the evening TV news slots. It's mostly a matter of keeping *out* of the text, the kind of words which might intrude on what the reader has to be led to believe about whatever the topic is. Military strategists have agreed, and their secretaries, more so.

Odd as it may seem when it comes from non-mariners, the message is always the same: don't rock the boat.

Turning with satisfaction from computer to his well-thumbed maps, today's world weather reports now all printed to meet his heavy work schedule, and flicking through his out-of-date Lonely Planet guides to the Middle East, Pilligan fakes yet another on-the-spot report from Iraq about hot weather, missile launchers bloodying the shoulders of defiant insurgents, random and yet-unburied body parts littering the roadsides like ordinary road kill on American highways, iron in the soul, and other seriously military topics dealt with in a richly-patriotic turn of phrase smudged with a tad of concern about the future - just how long can he keep up this piffle disguised as propaganda?

Join the Army.
Travel to foreign and exotic places.
Meet interesting people ...
And kill them.

Pilligan finds that merely wondering about hot weather, and what it feels like to be driving a tank in such heat, makes even him thirsty. So he rips the top off another can of Coke - the ambrosia of down-home America - and drinks it dry so quickly, even he is amazed. Instantly he mobiles his girlfriend, a Navy seal stationed "somewhere in the Persian Gulf". What tasks does she have before her that she can't talk about fully till she is home on furlough? Extraordinary!

The two have, of course, missed being together at Thanksgiving, though they agree, unspoken, this is a small price to pay while democracy, truth, justice and the American need for oil have to be rammed further down the throats of the beknighted Iraqi people. As if they (the Americans) have not suffered enough, already.

Elsewhere this day, brave US Green Berets sitting astride the latest additions to the wall between Palestine and Israel continued to throw toy tanks at protesting Palestinian teenagers throwing rocks at them. Rocks torn with bleeding fingernails from the mounds of rubble left behind by Yassar Arafat, dead not two months now, rocks otherwise not worth keeping.

Mr Powell was so appalled he closed his eyes and some said they saw tears squeezing from between his eyelids. None of Mr. Powell's aides would agree this was his response, however. Joining him in crocodile tears next day was Koffi Annan...

Etc etc... "And, it's the pits", Mr Annan said after hearing he is now to be forced from his position as secretary-general of the futile UN for being so useless across so many years by now.

--------- Dispatch Ends - Transmission strangely occluded ----------

Ed: I have to acknowledge the editorial input of Dan Byrnes ... who not only contributed the article, but helped whip my editorial into shape.