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Ernie Pyle | The Nation

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Ernie Pyle

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Amid the carnage of Okinawa, America also lost its greatest reporter.

About the Author

He wrote like none of the rest. The official, pressagent, advertising-agency writing that fills the newspapers, magazines, and radio with its hearty reassuring lies, its mechanical and heartless superlatives; the rhetorical, sensational, and professional pieces of ordinary Time-Life journalism &mdash the same no matter what the subject, who the writer; the condescending, preoccupied work of "real writers" officially pretending to be correspondents for the duration: all this writing about the war that by its quality denies the nature and even the existence of the war, he neither competed with nor was affected by. He was affected by, obsessed with, one thing &mdash the real war: that is, the people in it, all those privite wars the imaginary sum of which is the public war; and he knew that his private war, his compulsive obligation, was to write what he had seen and heard and felt so that neither those who had felt it nor those who had not could ever again believe that it was necessary for anyone to be ignorant of it. He was their witness; and he looked not to find evidence for his own theories or desires, to condemn, to explain away, to justify, but only to see, and to tell what he saw. What he cared about was the facts. But facts are only facts as we see them, as we feel them; and he knew to what a degree experience &mdash especially in war &mdash is "seeing only faintly and not wanting to see at all." The exactly incongruous, the crazily prosaic, the finally convincing fact &mdash that must be true because no one could have made it up, that must be Pyle because no one else would hive noticed it &mdash was his technical obsession, because he knew it was only by means of it that he could make us understand his moral obsession: what happens to men in our war. (A few reporters cared almost as much and tried almost as hard; but their work is hurt by emotional forcing, self-consciousness, the hopeless strain between their material and their technique. To the reporter's trained consciousness there is something incidental, merely personal, almost meretricious, about his exact emotions or perceptions or moral judgments; these things are not part of "the facts," and he professionally supplies only as much of their generalized, familiar equivalents as his readers immediately demand and immediately accept. These things, for many years, had been the only facts for Pyle.) Pyle did not care how he told it if he could make us feel it; there is neither self-protectiveness nor self-exploitation in his style. What he saw and what he felt he said. He used for ordinary narration a plain, transparent, but oddly personal style &mdash a style that could convince anybody of anything; but when his perceptions or emotions were complex, far-reaching, and profound, he did his utmost to express their quality fully &mdash at his best with the most exact intensity, at his worst with a rather appealingly old-fashioned spaciousness of rhetoric. It is easy to be critical of some of these last passages, and of the flat homeliness of others: he possessed few of the unessential qualities of the accomplished writer but &mdash at his rare best &mdash many of the essential qualities of the great writer. It was puzzling and disheartening to read some of the reviews of his books: the insistence that this was not "great" reporting, the work of a "real" writer, but only a good reporter, a good man &mdash nobody missed that &mdash reproducing what the "G. I. Joes" felt and said. (Some writers seemed compelled to use about him, as they do about all soldiers who are at the same time enlisted men, the words simple, plain, or little &mdash so disquieting in their revelation of the writers' knowledge and values.) And yet all of us knew better. We felt most the moral qualities of his work and life; but we could not help realizing that his work was, in our time, an unprecedented aesthetic triumph: because of it most of the people of a country felt, in the fullest moral and emotional sense, something that had never happened to them, that they could never have imagined without it &mdash a war.

In war the contradictions of our world, latent or overt, are fantastically exaggerated; and what in peace struggles below consciousness in the mind of an economist, in war wipes out a division on atolls on the other side of a planet. So in Pyle war is the nest of all contradictions; the incongruous is the commonplace homogeneous texture of all life. All of them know it: a cannoneer, playing poker by two candles in a silent battery, says to him "as though talking in his sleep," "War is the craziest thing I ever heard of." A man builds a raft to float oh the water of his foxhole; another goes to sleep, falls over in the water, and wakes up, until he finally ties himself by a rope to a tree; four officers of a tank company fix themselves a dugout with electric lights, a pink stove, an overstuffed chair, and "a big white dog, slightly shell-shocked, to lie on the hearth." Men in shallow foxholes, under severe strafing, try to dig deeper with their fingernails, are commonly "hit in the behind by flying fragments from shells. The medics there on the battlefield would either cut the seats out of their trousers or else slide their pants down, to treat the wounds, and they were put on the stretchers that way, lying face down. It was almost funny to see so many men coming down the hill with the white skin of their backsides gleaming against the dark background of brown uniforms and green grass." Pyle "couldn't help feeling funny about" fighter pilots who had just strafed a truck convoy, and who, "so full of laughter... talked about their flights and killing and being killed exactly as they would discuss girls or their school lessons." Soldiers pile out of their jeeps for an approaching bird, thinking it a Stuka ("I knew one American outfit that was attacked by Stukas twenty-three times in one day. A little of that stuff goes a long way"); and a digger testifies, with utter magnificence: "Five years ago you couldn't have got me to dig a ditch for five dollars an hour. Now look at me. You can't stop me digging ditches I don't even want pay for it; I just dig for love. And I sure do hope this digging today is all wasted effort, I never wanted to do useless work so bad in all my life. Any time I get fifty feet from my home ditch you'll find me digging a new ditch and, brother, I ain't joking. I love to dig ditches." And yet it is a war where "few ever saw the enemy, ever shot at him, or were shot at by him"; where "physical discomfort becomes a more dominant thing in life than danger itself"; where everything is so scarce that passing soldiers, stop Pyle six times in a day to borrow a pair of scissors to cut their nails &mdash "if somebody had offered me a bottle of castor oil I would have accepted it and hidden it away." Pyle is always conscious of the shocking disparity of actor and circumstance, of the little men and their big war, their big world: riding in a track in the middle of the night, so cold he has to take off his shoes and hold his toes in his hands before he can go to sleep, he feels shiveringly "the immensity of the catastrophe that had put men all over the world, millions of us, to moving in machine-like precision through long nightsmen who should have been comfortably asleep in their warm beds at home. War makes strange giant creatures out of us little routine men that inhabit the earth." And, flying from the Anzio beachhead to D-Day in the Channel, passing at sunset over the peaks of the Atlas, he thinks longingly of the worlds inside the world: "Down below lived sheep men &mdash obscure mountain men who had never heard of a Nebelwerfer or a bazooka, men at home at the end of the day in the poor, narrow, beautiful security of their own walls." His column describing the apotheosis of another world, the debris of the Normandy beachhead, is so extraordinary in its sensitivity, observation, arid imagination that I wish I could quote all of it; but, taken at randon from "this long thin line of personal anguish": from the sleeping, dead, and floating men; from the water "full of squishy little jellyfish in the center of each of them a green design exactly like a fourleaf clover"; from the ruined tanks, truths, bulldozers; half-tracks, typewriters, office files, steel matting, and oranges &mdash a banjo and a tennis racket; from the dogs, Bibles, mirrors, cigarette cartons (each soldier was given a carton of cigarettes before embarking), and writin-gpaper of that universe where "anything and everything is expendable," here are two objects:

I stooped over the form of one youngster whom I thought dead. But when flooked down I saw that he was only sleeping. He was very young, and very tired. He lay on one elbow, his hand suspended in the air about six inches from the ground. And in the paint of his hand he held a large, smooth rock.

I stood and looked at him for a long time. He seemed in his sleep to hold that rock lovingly, as though it were his last link with a vanishing world...

As I plowed out over the wet sand, I walked around what seemed to be a couple of pieces of driftwood sticking out of the sand. But they weren't driftwood. They were a soldier's two feet. He was completely covered except for his feet; the toes of his G.I. shoes pointed toward the land he had come, so far to see, and which he saw so briefly.

Yet their war's grotesque unnaturalness finally becomes for them a grotesque naturalness, all that they have known or done &mdash except for that endlessly dwelt-on fantasy that was before and may be after the war, their civilian lives and families and home. Pyle one night &mdash back in one world after weeks in the other &mdash "never wide awake, never deeply asleep," thinks fitfully: "One world was a beautiful dream and the other a horrible nightmare, and I was a little bit in each of them. As I lay on the straw in the darkness they became mixed up, and I was not quite sure which was which." From his long experience of front-line troops, divisions used steadily for months or years, he creates calmly and objectively and prosaically &mdash under their jokes and addresses and grammatical errors, the speech of the farms and garages of America &mdash their extraordinary suffering: the "endlessness of everything," their "state of exhaustion that is incomprehensible... past the point of known human weariness... one dull, dead pattern &mdash yesterday is tomorrow and Troino is Randazzo and when will we ever stop and, God, I'm so tired." He and an officer look at some muddy, exhausted troops and decide "they haven't been up in the line at all." They don't have "that stare" of front-line troops. Pyle continues: "It's a look of dulness, eyes that look without seeing, eyes that see without conveying any image to the mind. It's a look that is the display room for what lies behind it &mdash exhaustion, lack of sleep, tension for too long, weariness that is too great, fear beyond fear, misery to the point of numbness, a look of surpassing indifference to anything anybody can do." Nobody else makes you feel so their long dreary suffering, everything going on past not only their own lives but the lives of their replacements, until a whole division is "only a numbered mechanism through which men pass"; you remember Mauldin's bearded and filthy soldier, so exhausted he looks middle-aged, staring at his rifle and saying to it slowly: "I've given you the best years of my life."

And these are not professional soldiers but only ordinary people: we feel behind every word the ironic pathos of what they are doing and what they are, of the threadbare shiny scraps that are all that remain to them of the old life they hope their way back to, from this dream where they lie "shooting at the darkness from out of the dark." These scraps &mdash jobs, families, and states &mdash repeated with the same perpetual heart-breaking plainness to the listening Pyle, are a bridge pushed back shakily to their real lives; and he understands and puts down what they tell him, always; and the foolish think it a silly habit of his. Even his generals seem human, as he tells how one is waked: the sentry kneeling beside the general, asleep on the ground in his long underwear, repeating softly, "General, sir, general, sir." The desperate antinomies of war are held together by their common ground, the people who endure them: in the foreground, overshadowing the great convulsions, the appalling strengths, are always "the individual cells of that strength" &mdash their stubbornly and precariously stable commonplaceness, their wonderful pathetic persistence in all they can keep of their old understanding and lives and world. If there are few of the regular heroes, there are many of Pyle's: men chosen by chance, sent out "across the ageless and indifferent sea," doing determinedly and unwillingly what they have to do, heroic if they have to be, and not for a public cause but for their own private moral obligations &mdash fighting "for... for well, at least for each other." So Pyle stays with them year after year and finally dies with them, because of them &mdash the lives that, with their pets, their dreams of after and before, their pictures of their children and wives and girls, their intermittent unending exhaustion and suffering and despair, inch out their marginal existence under the 88's.

Nobody else in the world but Pyle makes you feel so intensely sorry for them, makes you feel how entirely against their will and aside from their understanding it all happens. The terrible particulars of their misery, of this catastrophe beyond anything they could have deserved or even imagined, drive home to anybody who can understand anything the final moral contradiction of such a war: that though from it come, along with suffering and brutality and death, courage and stubborn endurance and sacrifice, people's real love for one another &mdash all these things have their price; and this price is so much too great that it is absolutely incommensurable. Though our victory in this war is better than our defeat, though there is a difference between the two sides that is essential, still what has to be done, the actual substance of the war, is almost entirely evil. The sergeant says to Pyle about the replacements: "I know it ain't my fault they get killed, and I do the best I can for them. But I've got so I feel like it's me killing 'em instead of a German. I've got so I feel like a murderer." For Pyle, to the end, killing was murder: but he saw the murderers die themselves.

His condemnation of war seems to the reader more nearly final than any other, because in him there is no exaggeration, no hysteria, no selection to make out a case, no merely personal emotion unrecognized as such; he has nothing to prove. He has written down all that is favorable or indifferent &mdash his readers have noticed this most, the commonplace courage and endurance and affection of his soldiers; but after all this his condemnation is so complete, detailed, brought home to us so absolutely, that it is unforgettable and unarguable. This proper evaluation of things, his calm detachment, and objectivity (some of his most humorous and equable columns were written while he himself was in the depths of frustration and revulsion) help to give his work its serious truth.

Here are the soldiers of this war:

I was sitting among clumps of sword grass on a steep and rocky hillside that we had just taken, looking out over a vast rolling country to the rear. A narrow path wound like a ribbon over a hill miles away, down a long slope, across a creek, up a slop; and over another hill. All along the length of that ribbon there was a thin line of men. For four days and nights they had fought hard, eaten little, washed none, and slept hardly at all. Their nights had been violent with attack, fright, butchery, their days sleepless and miserable with the crash of artillery.

The men were walking. They were fifty feet apart for dispersal. Their walk was slow, for they were dead weary, as a person could tell even when looking at them from behind. Every line and sag of their bodies spoke their inhuman exhaustion. On their shoulders and backs they carried heavy steel tripods, machine-gun barrels, leaden boxes of ammunition. Their feet seemed to sink into the ground from the overload they were bearing.

They didn't slouch. It was the terrible deliberation of each step that spelled out their appalling tiredness. Their faces were black and unshaved. They were young men, but the grime and whiskers and exhaustion made them look middle-aged. In their eyes as they passed was no hatred, no excitement, no despair, no tonic of their victory &mdash there was just a simple expression of being there as if they had been there doing that forever, and nothing else.

This is how they die:

When a man was almost gone, the surgeons would put a piece of gauze over his face. He could breathe through it but we couldn't see his face well.

Twice within five minutes chaplains came running. One of those occasions haunted me for hours. The wounded man was still semi-conscious. The chaplain knelt down beside him and two ward boys squatted nearby. The chaplain said, "John, I'm going to say a prayer for you."

Somehow this stark announcement hit me like a hammer. He didn't say, "I'm going to pray for you to get well"; he just said he was going to say a prayer, and it was obvious to me that he meant the final prayer. It was as though he had said, "Brother, you may not know it, but your goose is cooked." Anyhow, he voiced the prayer, and the weak, gasping man tried vainly to repeat the words after him. When he had finished, the chaplain added, "John, you're doing fine, you're doing fine." Then he rose and dashed off on some other call, and the ward boys went about their duties.

The dying man was left utterly alone, just lying there on his litter on the ground, lying in an aisle, because the tent was full.

There are many passages in Pyle that, in their extraordinry intensity and exactness of observation and presentation, seem to the reader to have reached a pure truth of statement. (When we read his famous column about the dead Captain Waskow we are no longer separated from the actual event by anything at all.) In the hospital tent he sees that all the wounded and dying look alike, their faces reduced to a "common denominator" by dirt and suffering and exhaustion &mdash except for any extremely fair soldier, who looks like "a flower in a row of weeds." As the bombs from hundreds of our heavy bombers were falling toward Pyle (by that mistake that killed General McNair and hundreds of other Americans), he heard how "the universe became filled with a gigantic rattling as of huge ripe seeds in a mammoth dry gourd"; he and a stranger wriggled desperately under a farm wagon, and waiting for the bombs already exploding around them, he saw that "we lay with our heads slightly up &mdash like two snakes &mdash staring at each other." Is there any imaginable way in which the next quotation could be altered?

Our fighters moved on after the enemy, and those who did not fight, but moved in the wake of the battles, would not catch up for hours. There was nothing left behind but the remains- &mdash the lifeless debris, the sunshine and the flowers, and utter silence. An amateur who wandered in this vacuum at the tear of a battle had a terrible sense of loneliness. Everything was dead &mdash the men, the machines, the animals &mdash and he alone was left alive.

I do not need to write about Pyle's humor and honesty and understanding, all the precious and "human" qualities &mdash this use of human seems an inexorable rationalization, a part of the permanent false consciousness of humanity &mdash that no reader has missed. Along with them there is the charm of those frailties which he insisted on so much. He told beautifully, and often, how seared he was (Lord, but I felt lonely out there); but his extraordinary courage &mdash no, his ordinary courage, the courage which, as he showed endlessly, had to be ordinary for millions of men &mdash his readers could only guess, from the long voluntary succession of those situations he was so scared in. His steady humility and self-forgetfulness &mdash without any of the usual veneration of the self for what it is forgetting &mdash were reinforced by his peculiarly objective amusement at his own relation to the world. (When he landed on Okinawa he borrowed a combat jacket with U.S. Navy on the back. Later a marine told him: "You know, when you first showed up, we saw that big Navy stenciled on your back, and after you passed I said to the others: "That guy's an admiral. Look at the old gray-haired bastard. He's been in the navy all his life. Hell get a medal out of this sure as hell.") His affectionate amused understanding and acceptance of all sorts and levels, of people come from his imaginative and undeviating interest in, observation of, these people; he is as unwilling to look away from them because they do not fit his understanding of them as he is to reject them because they do not satisfy the exacting standards he keeps for himself.

He was very much more complex than most people suppose, and his tragedy &mdash a plain fatality, hung over the last of his life, and one is harrowed by his unresigned I've used up my chances &mdash was not at all that of the simple homogeneous nature destroyed by circumstances it is superior to. People notice how well he got along with people and the world, and talk as if he were the extrovert who naturally does so; actually he was precisely, detailedly, and unremittingly introspective, and the calm objectivity of his columns is a classical device &mdash his own confused and powerful spiritual life always underlies it, and gives it much of its effect. This contridictory struggle between his public and private selves, between the controlled, objective selectivity of the pieces and his own intense inner life, one must guess from fragments or the remarks of those who knew him best; it is partly because this one side of him is incompletely represented in his work that one regrets his death so much.

His writing, like his life, is a victory of the deepest moral feeling, of sympathy and understanding and affection, over circumstances as terrible as any men have created and endured. By the veneration and real love many millions of people felt for him, their unexplained certainty that he was different from all the rest, and theirs, they showed their need and gratitude for the qualities of his nature, and seemed almost to share in them. He was a bitter personal loss for these people. Most of his readers could not escape the illusion that he was a personal friend of theirs; actually he was &mdash we meet only a few people in our lives whom we ever know as well or love as much. There are many men whose profession it is to speak for us &mdash political and military and literary representatives of that unwithering estate which has told us all our lives what we feel and what we think, how to live and when to die; he wrote what he had seen and heard and felt himself, and truly represented us. Before his last landing in the Ryukyus, he felt not only fear and revulsion, but an overwhelming premonition that he would die there: "repeatedly he said he knew he would be killed if he hit another beachhead. Before he finally settled the question of whether or not to go ashore in his own mind, he spent three sleepless days and nights. Then on the fourth day he made up his mind." He told a good friend, "Now I feel all right again"; to other people he said merely that he didn't want to go there, but he guessed the others didn't either. He had to an extraordinary degree the sense of responsibility to the others, the knowledge of his own real duty, that special inescapable demand that is made &mdash if it is made &mdash to each of us alone. In one sense he died freely, for others; in another he died of necessity and for himself. He had said after visiting the lepers in the Hawaiian Islands: "I felt a kind of unrighteousness at being whole and 'clean.' I experienced an acute feeling of spiritual need to be no better off than the leper."

After he died I saw, as most people did, a newsreel of him taken in the Pacific. He is surrounded by marines trying to get his autograph, and steadies on the cropped head of one of them the paper he is signing. He seems unconscious of himself and the camera; his face is humorous, natural, and kindly, but molded by the underlying seriousness, almost severity, of private understanding and judgment. I remembered what the girl in "The Woodlanders" says over another grave: "You were a good man, and did good things." But it is hard to say what he was or what we felt about him. He filled a place in our lives that we hardly knew existed, until he was there; and now that he is gone it is empty.

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