Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Pyle's War

[posted by Callimachus]

There's been an interesting exchange on Kevin Robinson's site, involving a host of your favorite stars. I recommend it.

I introduced Ernie Pyle in a minor way toward the end of it. But I realize now that, though most people recognize the name, they probably haven't read him. He's cherished by aggressive patriots and sneered at by anti-war protesters. Neither has read him.

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 the left side of the mule, their stiffened legs sticking out awkwardly from the other side, bobbing up and down as the mule walked.

The Italian mule-skinners were afraid to walk beside dead men, so Americans had to lead the mules down that night. Even the Americans were reluctant to unlash and lift off the bodies at the bottom, so an officer had to do it himself, and ask others to help.

The first one came early in the morning. They slid him down from the mule and stood him on his feet for a moment, while they got a new grip. In the half light he might have been merely a sick man standing there, leaning on the others. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the low stone wall alongside the road.

I don't know who that first one was. You feel small in the presence of dead men, and ashamed at being alive, and you don't ask silly questions.

We left him there beside the road, that first one, and we all went back into the cowshed and sat on water cans or lay on the straw, waiting for the next batch of mules.


I've been a fan of his ever since I found a copy of "Brave Men" in someone's library -- one of my uncles', probably -- when I was about 12. When I was growing up it seemed all the men who had fought in WWII had that book. Pyle said he wanted "to make people see what I see." But Arthur Miller wrote that Pyle "told as much of what he saw as people could read without vomiting," which is probably closer to the truth.

Pyle and the World War II correspondents who worked in his vein "gave Americans about all the realism they wanted," James Tobin wrote in "Ernie Pyle's War" [1997]. "To tell much more was to risk shock, anger, rejection, not to mention censorship. To weave a myth of sacrificial suffering instead was to do one's bit for the war. Pyle's G.I. myth -- not an untruth, but a way of bending reality into a sensible and bearable shape -- helped Americans through history's most grotesque and deadly ordeal ..."

It was a balanced path. If Pyle stood one step back from the untellable horror of war, he also kept a footing in its gritty reality. Pyle never published a single sentence tainted by blind jingoism. If he had, it would have been scorned by the soldiers whom he moved among and derided by his fellow war correspondents. It would have disappointed most of the people who read him at home, who relied on him to show them "their" war.

But Pyle could write as he did, grimly and honestly, because no one ever doubted whose side he was on. No one ever doubted whether he thought America ought to persevere, or to win. The deaths of so many good young men were a god-damned sin. But he never hinted that they died for nothing. Pyle didn't have to say in so many words that our cause is just.

Considering how important he is to the history of journalism, there's remarkably little of his work available online. I'm pleased to see that this collection is growing since I last checked on it two years ago. If you can't find "Brave Men" in a used bookstore or a library sale in some town where most of the old G.I.s have gone to their last reward, this is a good place to start.