Thursday, April 19, 2012

Here is Your War

Another plane throbbed in the sky, and we lay listening with an awful anticipation. One of the dogs suddenly broke into a frenzied barking and went tearing through our little camp as if chasing a demon. My mind seemed to lose all sense of proportion, and I got jumpy and mad at myself.

Concussion ghosts, traveling in waves, touched our tent walls and made them quiver. Ghosts were shaking the ground ever so lightly. Ghosts were stirring the dogs to hysteria. Ghosts were wandering in the sky peering for us cringing in our hide-outs. Ghosts were everywhere, and their hordes were multiplying as every hour added its production of new battlefield dead. We lay and thought of the graveyards and the dirty men and the shocking blast of the big guns, and we couldn’t sleep.

“What time is it?” came out of darkness from the next cot.

I snapped on the flashlight. “Half past four, and for [expletive] sake go to sleep!”

Finally just before dawn we did sleep, in spite of everything. Next morning, we spoke around among ourselves and found that all of us had tossed away all night. It was an unexplainable thing. For all of us had been through greater danger. On another night the roll of the guns would have lulled us to sleep. It was just that on some nights the air became sick and there was an unspoken contagion of spiritual dread, and we were little boys again, lost in the dark.

Fear without using the word. Fear through repetition of congruous imagery. Fear that brings us back to that world of little boys, spooked in the familiar surroundings of their neighborhood, their back yard, by an unexpected light or shadow or sound that ordinarily would not have bothered them. For me, the sound is that of a cat in heat. Never bothered me during the day, but at night, that eerie cry like that of a baby, bothered me terribly.

 This is the writing of Ernie Pyle, World War II combat correspondent, describing the creeping fear he and his fellow soldiers felt during battles in Algeria and Tunisia in 1942-43, collected in his book "Here is Your War." Pyle writes in an astringent manner, but occasionally lets fly with what John Steinbeck would describe as a bit of hooptedoodle, such as what is duplicated above. He handles the hooptedoodle well, filling in the space between his fits with spare, riveting reporting of the war that today’s correspondents might do well to emulate.

Emulation, however, might be a difficult situation. It’s clear where Pyle’s loyalties lay, and today’s journalists’ loyalties are far from his. I’m not discussing objectivity – Pyle could certainly tell horseshit from reality – but rather I’m wondering if today’s war correspondents would even consider reporting in this manner, as a soldier-correspondent, not as a reporter dropped in for a day, a few days, a week, and then outta there before the real hot stuff begins. No matter. For World War II buffs, reading Pyle’s tales is a requirement.

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