Saturday, August 12, 2006

I'm tired.

CJR Home » Issues » 2004 » Issue 6: November/December

Columbia Journalism Review
A Soldier's Story
How we write about the dead

By Robert W. Snyder

It was hard to recognize my friend in the news photograph of the ambush that took his life in Baghdad on June 4. He and another man lay sprawled on the ground in front of a burning Humvee, their faces turned away from the camera in the awkward postures that bodies assume when the life is drained from them. His name was Frank Carvill, a sergeant in the New Jersey National Guard, and it wasn’t any easier to see him in the first wave of stories that followed his death.

The articles confused his biography, garbled his family’s history, and misrepresented his political views. A New York Times report, citing unnamed National Guard officials, described this ardent Democrat as a man of no “strong political leanings.” A piece in the Newark Star-Ledger confused his father’s death in a fall with his brother’s death from cancer and contradicted itself on Frank’s length of service in the Guard. It also portrayed Frank as a participant in Ground Zero recovery efforts and a soldier who was “very proud to be going to Iraq.” In fact, Frank visited Ground Zero only once after a narrow escape there on September 11, and was repelled by the souvenir stands. And he went to Iraq believing the U.S. invasion had been a mistake. Where the stories were factually accurate — Frank’s military service, his loving family, and his escapes from both World Trade Center attacks, in 1993 and 2001 — they too often seemed formulaic variations on a theme: patriotic Irish American dies doing the job he loved.

His sister Peggy Carvill-Liguori said later that reporters had decided what story they wanted to write even before they spoke to her. All their questions were designed to confirm their prior assumptions.

The truth is so much more interesting. Frank, a political activist with a big heart and inquiring mind, was fifty-one, single with a steady girlfriend, and approaching retirement from the National Guard when he was called up. He responded with resignation, loyalty to his outfit, and a determination to meet this obligation rather than ask for a deferment. He would not ask someone else to stand in his place. As always, he saved doubts and questions for his private life. In public he was cheerful and resolute.

In Baghdad he followed international news with a hand-cranked short-wave radio. He set down his thoughts in an extraordinary series of letters and e-mails, describing the tension of combat, the beauty of the skyline, and the complexities of his mission. He had supported the war in Afghanistan, and although he opposed the invasion of Iraq, he thought the United States was obligated to repair Iraq before leaving.

Stories of slain soldiers are usually painted in bold colors that obscure subtleties and avoid complex political questions. I stood in Frank’s mother’s kitchen in Carlstadt, New Jersey, two days after he died, listening to friends’ and family’s sorrows and complaints. I was frustrated that the press was adding to the pain, and missing an important story to boot. Peggy and her family, feeling invaded and devastated, were not in a position to get a fuller, truer picture of Frank into the news. As a historian and a professor of journalism, I was reluctant to step into a public-relations role, but I was disturbed by the coverage and wanted to set it straight.

With Peggy’s permission, I spent the next few days giving telephone interviews and scrambling to get phone numbers, letters, e-mails, and photographs to reporters. At Frank’s wake I alternated between talking with Jimmy Breslin and shepherding my dazed children and niece past the coffin of a close family friend. The funeral at Saint Joseph Church in East Rutherford — a place Breslin later described as “a church of broken hearts” — was a massive outpouring, with bagpipes, hymns, and National Guard pallbearers.

The next day, a second round of stories began to appear. In The New York Times, the columnist Peter Applebome told how Frank’s letters from Baghdad depicted a world that was “half ‘Black Hawk Down’ and half ‘Catch-22.’” He described a man who was equally at home in jazz clubs, boatyards, legal libraries, and the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. It was Applebome’s great insight to recognize that Frank was “a man able to distill so many disparate elements into his reassuring, transcendently stand-up personality, that he could be one familiar person in many different guises at the same time.” Applebome’s column ended with Frank’s own words:

“Our occupation is not intended to be forever,” he wrote in one letter. “I don't know how we can get out in the short run. We as a nation are going to have to absorb huge costs both in money and in lives for several more years. It will not be easy. I’m trying to make the best of this. It has been a unique experience, but one I would not want to repeat. Looking forward to having dinner with you guys when I get home. Thanks for everything. God bless. Frank”

In Newsday, Breslin meditated on how Frank “came to war as a soldier out of all the Irish literature,” the son of a mason from County Armagh and a live-in maid on Park Avenue from County Cork who met at a dance in the Bronx. How Frank had written Cody McCone from overseas to say, “It looks like Kerry for November. It is very important for the Irish-American community to get on board.” In the Irish Voice, Tom Deignan wrote about Frank’s eager reading of Irish newspapers forwarded to him in Iraq.

The Star-Ledger, though, said the most. On Sunday June 13 more than half of its front page, and a page and a half inside, were given over to a beautifully written and carefully reported piece by Tom Feeney, which included reprints of Frank’s letters and e-mails from Iraq. If the letters allowed Frank to speak for himself, Feeney’s article wove connections between his life, his words, and the thoughts of his friends. He concluded with a detail that no single recipient of Frank’s letters could know until the letters were assembled: nearly all of them ended with his heartfelt desire to come home.

In July, a memorial mass for Frank was held at the Holy Trinity Church on the West Side of Manhattan. The reception was in the church basement, whose walls were covered in newspaper clippings about my friend. In columns of newsprint and photographs, it was now possible to grasp the passions, commitments, and complexities that made him unique.

The stories written with the aid of Frank’s letters suggest a lesson for reporters, who will inevitably have to write about more casualties in the days and months to come. Too much of the coverage of our military dead relies on euphemism, formula, and abstraction to make the cost of war bearable. Letters from soldiers, especially letters like Frank’s, get closer to the truths of combat. And so does real digging about the quirks and traits and habits of the dead.

In a nation of citizen soldiers, journalists should pay full attention to both the military and the civilian lives of our casualties — including, when it matters, as it certainly did with Frank, their politics. To do less is to paint an incomplete picture. In the words and memories that he or she leaves behind, every soldier passes on a bigger story than we imagine.

Robert W. Snyder, the former editor of Media Studies Journal, is the director of the journalism and media studies program at Rutgers-Newark.


Blogger AnnieAngel said...

I'm sorry about your friend, Jex.

8/12/2006 06:44:00 AM  
Blogger AnnieAngel said...

I miss Bo-bexter.

9/14/2006 12:23:00 AM  

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