RE-INVENTING THE SOLDIER-JOURNALIST
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- It's not common in this enlightened journalistic age of ours to read much about the welfare of the common soldier. Syndicated columnist Col. David Hackworth, who passed away this week, was following an old tradition in trying to reestablish that concern among our people. But before Col. Hackworth, before the embedded journalists in Iraq, more than half a century ago there was Ernie Pyle.
Born in the Indiana farm country, a newspaper journalist before World War II, war correspondent in Africa, Europe and the Pacific, Pyle was killed by enemy gunfire in April, 1944 on the island of Ie Shima, two miles off the coast of Okinawa. By the time he died, he had left a legacy. Reading his words today lends some view, however dim, of a time when our nation believed in a cause and contributed its blood and muscle willingly, and when scribes painted in words for their distant readership.
In reading the day-to-day Ernie Pyle, one encounters on one hand a folksy, matter-of-fact tone that seems naturally midwestern. At the other extreme, one encounters Pyle's masterpiece about a dead soldier from Belton, Tex. Almost minimalist in length, tone and word choice, it crystalizes a moment in time and grief. "The Death of Captain Waskow" is at http://www.kwanah.com/txmilmus/36division/archives/waskow/appenda.htm and elsewhere.
Pyle's column requires no particular explanation. Simple and devastating on the surface, it can be analyzed in terms of the way it builds from simple elements to create a portrait that is at once crushing and somehow cathartic.
The column didn't appear in American newspapers until a month after the incidents described. In those days, there was quite a lag. It took time for the family of the dead man to be notified and for the text to be passed by the censors before it was forwarded stateside. When the column was finally available to be published, Pyle's home newspaper The Washington Daily News devoted its front page to the column. Other newspapers and radio stations recognized its power and ran it themselves.
By then though, Pyle had long since made a name for himself as a military reporter, starting at army camps in the United States before our entrance into the war. Here is part of a column he wrote from Fort Bliss, Texas in April 1941:
I was given a cot in a tent with three privates and a Regular Army corporal. One of the boys had just discovered the futility of explaining in the Army. He learned it on his first day when a sergeant asked him something, and every time he'd try to answer, the sergeant would yell: "Shut your mouth!" Most of the boys learn to take this stuff and laugh about it. To others it is hard. But both kinds are sincere in wanting to do anything required of them to help build up America's defense. If they happen to like Army life, that's so much velvet. If they don't, they're thoroughly willing to make the best of it, because they feel a duty to America. That sounds a little flag-wavy, but it is something genuine which has impressed me very much.
Reading these excerpts after all this time, we are provided a window into a different world. The attitude towards authority is less skeptical than our current one, the sense of duty to country is something that is assumed, and the imposition of a certain amount of abuse to recruits is considered par. This is not to suggest that training in those days was harder than it is today or that Sergeants yelled louder in that era, but that the attitude towards a little screaming is treated with loving humor rather than the sort of macho posturing or shocked outrage we might expect to read nowadays.
In other words, the profession of journalism seems to have been considerably more respectful of military authority. The overall tone is mild in comparison to what we see in today's political discourse.
After the outbreak of war, Pyle followed the Army to North Africa and then to the Italian campaign, the point at which the Captain Waskow piece takes place. Still later in the war, he joined a select group of correspondents in covering the invasion at Normandy and stayed in France long enough to visit newly liberated Paris. His point of view may be inferred from this short excerpt:
AS USUAL, those Americans most deserving of seeing Paris will be the last ones to see it, if they ever do. By that I mean the fighting soldiers. Only one infantry regiment and one reconnaissance outfit of Americans actually came into Paris, and they passed on through the city quickly and went on with their war. The first ones in the city to stay were such non-fighters as the psychological-wartime and civil-affairs people, public-relations men and correspondents. I heard more than one rear-echelon soldier say he felt a little ashamed to be getting all the grateful cheers and kisses for the liberation of Paris when the guys who broke the German army and opened the way for Paris to be free were still out there fighting without benefit of kisses or applause. But that's the way things are in this world
These excerpts and many others are now available on the internet. Indiana University has put some of Pyle's columns on line at http://www.journalism.indiana.edu/news/erniepyle/index.html.
When you read Ernie Pyle's stories from the war, an empathy for the fighting soldier comes through. The sadness over the death and destruction is there, but along with it there is pride and support for a job being done well in a cause that is accepted without question.
In this post-Viet Nam era, it would be hard to imagine journalism of this sort. Even in the campaign against the Taliban, there was nothing quite comparable. Perhaps this is a function of technology, the speed with which information is brought home, or perhaps it was a function of the stealthy nature of that conflict, but when it comes to the conflict in Iraq where a hundred thousand citizen-soldiers represent us, there is little to compare with this empathetic, accepting sort of prose. The fact that our current generation did not experience the mass mobilizations of the World Wars but rather an era when the military draft came under fire may be the better explanation.
It is a remarkable thought that in the current era, only Col. Hackworth made much of an effort to write for and about the fighting soldier - the gripes, the morale issues, the lack of spare parts and armor - that would have been a direct concern to millions of Americans in an earlier day. We seem to have a different attitude towards the military profession than ever we did before, and it comes across bluntly and blatantly in our journalism and our literature.
Col. Hackworth's tone is directly opposite to that of Pyle. "Hack," as he was universally known, was caustically critical of higher command and contemptuous of our political leadership. What Sgt. Ernie Pyle and Col. David Hackworth have in common, though, is some understanding of how wars are fought, and a strong kinship with the people who have to fight them.
It is a curious thing that in this angry and vengeful country, there is so little that is supportive of the military and respectful towards the common soldier until we look back at the past.