Geo Beach and I have been close friends for nearly a half-century; his literary wisdom and counsel stand behind every line of poetry and prose I have written. No him, no me. This review meant the world to me when it appeared, and still resonates deeply. My father admired his writing enormously.
As an appreciative reader of WriteWeller’s timeless and world-wide “A Regular Irregular Blog”, it’s my privilege to have a worthy 2007 column appended here. It comes from faraway Alaska in the distant Noughties, but the topics have grown closer even, and continue to resonate beyond transitory events. I hope new readers will consider my recommendations and pick up copies of First Into Nagasaki. Our worlds today are still at war, and we need, again, the brave writer who might lead us, laughing and crying, to break the siege of monetized media and predictable publishing and help free our thoughts and hearts. – Geo Beach
Independent journalist Geo Beach writes for Anchorage Daily News, National Public Radio, History TV, and TomPaine.com.
Right now, the most important war reporting about Iraq is coming from a dead man who sneaked into a Japanese bomb site more than 60 years ago.
To recognize why that is so, you must admit the colossal failure of American journalism in this Iraq War. As with all wars, there has been military fog and political pettifogging. But in Iraq the willing collaboration of the media was, together with the neocons, coequally responsible for America’s unthinking entry into the war, and for the subsequent uncritical review of its strategy and tactics. (Until now, when it’s become safe to be a quagmire-raker.)
Here’s the enigma that breaks the code of silently going along to get along – “First Into Nagasaki”, by George Weller (325 pgs, Crown, $25). New Yorker subscribers have been tantalized by its advance publicity; Harper’s readers have just tasted a salty excerpt.
Not bad for an author who died five years ago at the age of 95.
But no wonder, either. “First Into Nagasaki” boasts all the right bona fides. “The much machine-gunned George Weller” (as Time pronounced him) was a Harvard man and Pulitzer-winner who covered every theatre of the Second World War, “one of the most-captured [foreign correspondents] as he kept crossing front lines in search of the day's front-page news.” (Chicago Sun-Times).
In “First Into Nagasaki”, Walter Cronkite introduces the reportage of George Weller (“one of our best war correspondents”) as a crucial warning for today, “when our nation is again at war and our citizenry can only guess as to how thick are the blindfolds of censorship that distort the truth of our military engagements.”
And George Weller’s dispatches from the smoking ruins are deftly framed with a deeply-researched and lyric essay by his son, novelist and foreign correspondent Anthony Weller.
(Disclosure: I was privileged to know George Weller for thirty years, with still-growing admiration. And for thirty-five years now Anthony Weller has been a colleague and inspiration.)
As befits the work of father-and-son writers, “First Into Nagasaki” is a thrilling read constructed of stories upon stories. How George, in the guise of a colonel, contrived to reach Nagasaki. How Gen. Douglas MacArthur censored George’s atomic reports. How George persevered with stunning scoops of POWs’ stories. How, at the 60th anniversary of the bombing, Anthony discovered the lost carbons of George’s censored Nagasaki dispatches a scant few feet from his deceased father’s desk. And how surviving POWs subsequently contacted Anthony with poignant stories of George himself.
But the guts of the book is the simultaneously elegant and straight-shooting reportage of George Weller, a man who defined the difference between being “embedded” and “in bed with”.
So “First Into Nagasaki” may spell the last word on getting out of Baghdad.
Here’s George Weller on the military holding a free press hostage: “All censored information is fundamentally propaganda.” (Remember that when you hear a splurge of words like “surge”, instead of “escalation”.)
On bait-n-switch foreign policy: “In war [the American people] are alternately drugged with the promise of bloodless and easy victory, then whipped up with official warnings that peace will be expensive and is far off.”
On compliant media: “The newspaperman’s malady is to accept all the inhibitions of a bad censorship and to discourage himself by precensoring his own work.”
Everywhere George Weller is a genuine correspondent, with letter-like intimacy that conveys respect for readers – a dirt-under-the-fingernails reporter, in striking contrast to today’s repeaters.
And Anthony Weller’s explications retain the old man’s bulldog toughness and beautiful touch: “[T]he Nagasaki reports each contained a dangerous radiation of their own, the unpredictable half-life of truth.”
George Weller wasn’t just first. Sixty years later, he’s still new, with stories of “The Two Robinson Crusoes of Wake Island” and – in a terrifying obverse of Hampton Sides’ “Ghost Soldiers” – “The Death Cruise”, which discloses vampirism, cannibalism, and murder on the Japanese hellship voyages.
Four years ago the Iraq War began under a false “mushroom cloud” of propaganda. Today, George Weller and Anthony Weller drop the more devastating bomb. The real story might be delayed. But, fiercely reported, the truth will be set free. Eventually.
Writer Geo Beach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.