Saturday, March 20, 2004
Ernie Pyle, the great WW2 correspondent, had a way, a certain way, of conveying the story of war. From his first-person view, often having put his own life on the line, he narrated a tale from the perspective of the individual soldier - no grand strategy here - and he pulled no punches. No, somehow he was able, even at a time in our history when the press wasn't allowed to show pictures of dead American soldiers, Pyle was able to convey all the suffering, the blood, the agony, and yes, the death and maiming that go along with the practice of warfare. Pyle didn't hesitate to tell the background story of some fellow, how he grew up, what a fine, well liked person he was, how he excelled in school and sports and was wed to his sweetheart before shipping out...and how he was killed on some nameless field in France, and how his buddies grieved at his loss. No, Pyle let us in on the story. He brought us along with the troops and let us share their triumphs while never forgetting to remind us of their sacrifice.
Yet somehow, Pyle was able, by doing so, not to call into question the cause in which the men and women fought, but to ennoble it. Pyle could write about a bunch of infantrymen living in a muddy foxhole for two weeks hoarding cigarettes and make it sound like the god-damned noblest sacrifice any person ever made for any other since a certain man from the Levant stumbled down a Jerusalem street to a hill just outside of town. His was not just a war of horror and sacrifice. His was a war of horror, sacrifice and purpose. "Look," he seemed to say to us, "look at what these people are doing for you. Look at what this dreadful and important task is requiring of them, so you better appreciate it, damn it."
Sure, Pyle would tell us about the screw-ups and the SNAFU's. He would write about the 8th Air Force accidentally bombing the stuffing out of our own guys in an early attempt to use strategic bombers in a tactical manner and having almost predictably bad results. Thing is, when Pyle wrote it, he didn't mean it as a condemnation of the Army, or a personal indictment of the leadership, or a call to an investigation or an underhanded way of asking, "Why are we fighting, let's bring the boys home." Yes, it was a screw-up, but he didn't dwell on it. He put it into its proper perspective, and by doing so, we appreciated our guys' sacrifice all the more. We had faith the Army learned its lessons, and we knew, we just knew, we'd do better next time.
In Pyle's world, his was not to reason the why's and wherefore's - those things were already decided. Who was he to question? No, Pyle's work was to help us understand, through the lens of the guy on the ground, just how important the job was by showing us just how much those guys were willing to sacrifice to do it. Get it? That's important right there. His writing showed us how tough our guys had it, and thereby challenged us once again to go up to the big picture level for another look-see at the importance of their Earth-transforming mission, and understand once again, if we needed any reminder, of "Why We Fight." It showed them to us, and demanded that we honor their sacrifice by asking ourselves what we've done to fight Fascism ourselves today.
How different today's press is.
Today's journalists tend to take a top-down approach. Every reporter thinks it's his or her own duty to make us question anew what it's all about. Only after they present this framework do they tell us about what our guys and gals are doing - how tough they have it, how much they're sacrificing. That's the framework. First the questioning, then the story of strife. They say they want us to support our troops, but the dissonance is strong. How can you support our guys, really, truly give them the moral support they need when you don't really support what they're doing? It shows through. You can feel it like a sickness creeping into even the best-intended articles.
No, the feeling we get is one of pity rather than exultation. It's cause to falter, to question, and to turn against the mission. For today's journalist, the troops aren't the story, they're the excuse. They're the wedge to make the point the author really wants to make. They may be the subjects of any given story, but for many of today's writers, they're just props for the real performance.
I admit to more than a bit of trepidation in writing a post like this. I know I risk being accused of all sorts of things - "keyboard bravery" and the like. The truth is that neither I, nor anyone close to me is in harm's way at the moment. I can only guess at what must go through the minds of those who serve and their families. My only answer is that if the paid press can write what they do for money, I can write what I do for free, and with the best of intentions for those who are serving - honest opinions, sincerely held. It seems to me, if I were to suffer some loss, at the very least I'd want to know it counted for something, and I don't think I'd be very appreciative of anyone who claimed to have my interests at heart while sticking a knife in the things I believe in.
It's been a year since the invasion of Iraq. It's been a year since our armed forces put it all on the line, left families at home, risked and sometimes lost life and limb overthrowing the regime of monster, and striking a blow at the heart of terrorism in the person of an Arab demagogue. Do the newspapers report on the great successes we've been experiencing? The mass graves? The close of the rape rooms? The torture chambers? The whisper of Democracy blowing through the Arab world? How the world has been changed and is changing for the better?
No. Today the press reports "Thousands rally against the war..." That is today's only context.
The Boston Globe's front page carries this headline:
Now it is right, and it is good, and it is wholly appropriate to report on the costs of this war. For a thousand reasons it's right. And it can be done in such a way, as Ernie Pyle's work attests, that it honors the sacrifice and doesn't endanger the memory of their deeds or their comrades' mission going forward. Context means so much.
And what is the context of what appears on the surface to be a sensitive piece on two damaged men and two damaged families? [I have clipped the names from the piece. For whatever reason, it just doesn't feel comfortable in this instance to use them for this post, nor is it necessary.]
...and further down...
Just a few examples of the editorial voice of the narrator inserting itself to ensure we take the context correctly. On this day, a year and a day after the start of the invasion that these men gave so much for, this is what the Globe puts on the front page. Again, it's not wrong that these men have their story told. It's not wrong that it be on the front page, but must every article be so obsessed with "balance" that even a story like this be editorialized to put doubt in our minds? And should it be the only story on the front page today under the heading "A Year In Iraq?" I think not. It can be said to be an important part of that year certainly...without necessarily defining it.
Ernie Pyle had his own doubts on occasion. Here's a bit of a letter he wrote to his boss at Scripps-Howard over a year before the final period was put on his life:
Stars & Stripes this morning carried a two-column piece about Ray Clapper being killed. I'm just floored by it. Somehow it had never occurred to me that anything would ever happen to him. What a waste of intelligence and character - as the whole war is. It gives me the creeps.
The whole thing is getting pretty badly under my skin, Lee. I've got so I brood about it, about the whole thing, I mean, and I have a personal reluctance to die that is always in my mind, like a weight. Instead of growing stronger and hard as good veterans do, I've become weaker and more frightened. I'm alright when I'm actually at the front, but it's when I pull back and start thinking and visualizing that it almost overwhelms me. I've even got so I don't sleep well, and have half-awake hideous dreams about the war...
Pyle had his own self-doubts and weaknesses, doubts and weaknesses he'd never inflict on, nor use our guys to express. Yes, WW2 was a different kind of a war, but it's still Americans and our friends fighting, dieing and being hurt. It's still Americans with a mission to accomplish who need us to be on their side and let them know we not only support them, but we support what they're doing and will continue to support them through to the end. We can do that and our press can help us to do so and still be honest about it all.
Ernie Pyle was killed in 1945 on a small South Pacific Island by a Japanese bullet.
He's still dead.
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