I was doing a little research into the history of war reporting in preparation to lead a class on journalism in World War II at my son’s elementary school, and found some old clips of the columns filed about that conflict by journalist Ernie Pyle.
They were eye-opening not just because of their sense of gritty veracity-he was right there taking the bullets with the grunts he was interviewing, one of which ultimately killed him-but because he never swallowed the jingoistic bilge that was all over the place during that conflict, as it is in every war.
Take this piece written right after the successful invasion of Normandy on D-Day, titled: The Horrible Waste of War.
In it he writes:
It was a lovely day for strolling along the seashore. Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn’t know they were in the water, for they were dead.
The water was full of squishy little jellyfish about the size of your hand. Millions of them. In the center each of them had a green design exactly like a four-leaf clover. The good-luck emblem. Sure. Hell yes.
I walked for a mile and a half along the water’s edge of our many-miled invasion beach. You wanted to walk slowly, for the detail on that beach was infinite.
The wreckage was vast and startling. The awful waste and destruction of war, even aside from the loss of human life, has always been one of its outstanding features to those who are in it. Anything and everything is expendable. And we did expend on our beachhead in Normandy during those first few hours.
Have any of the embedded journalists with the U.S. military in Iraq written a piece like this about, say, the assault on Fallujah? Not that I’ve seen. It’s all about the awesome might of the U.S. and its weaponry.
In another article, written in September 1943, Pyle, who had just covered the successful North Africa campaign from start to finish, wrote from home in the U.S., having decided he’d had enough of the killing and dying and needed to get away. He skipped the initial invasion of Italy, and writes:
Perhaps you who read this column wonder why I came home just at this special time, when events are boiling over in Italy.
Well, I might as well tell you truthfully. I knew, of course, that the Italian invasion was coming up, but I chose to skip it. I made that decision because I realized, in the middle of Sicily, that I had been too close to the war for too long.
I was fed up, and bogged down. Of course you say other people are too, and they keep going on. But if your job is to write about the war, you’re very apt to begin writing unconscious distortions and unwarranted pessimisms when you get too tired.
I had come to despise and be revolted by war clear out of any logical proportion. I couldn’t find the Four Freedoms among the dead men. Personal weariness became a forest that shut off my view of events about me. I was no longer seeing the little things that you at home want to know about the soldiers.
When we fought through Sicily, it was to many of us like seeing the same movie for the fourth time. Battles differ from one another only in their physical environment – the emotions of fear and exhaustion and exaltation and hatred are about the same in all of them. Through repetition, I had worn clear down to the nub my ability to weight and describe. You can’t do a painting when your oils have turned to water.
Where have you seen an embed write this way about America’s invasion of Iraq? And yet we know the troops are feeling this way about what they’ve been ordered to do.
And remember, Pyle was writing about the war against the great evil of the Nazis, not some manufactured enemy like Saddam Hussein or “global terror.”
How far my profession has sunk into the mire of compromise and mediocrity.
Instead of Ernie Pyle, for our war correspondents today we get Judith Miller and Britt Hume.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” to be published this fall by Common Courage Press. Information about both books and other work by Lindorff can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net.
He can be reached at: email@example.com