During the Iraq invasion, war critics blamed the American media for declining to focus their coverage on footage of American dead and civilian casualties. Some of them evoked the ghost of World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle, who wrote unflinchingly about the brutality and death of battle, about "friendly fire" casualties and blundering bureaucracies. They reminded us that Pyle won his Pulitzer for a column that described the glamorless death of a U.S. Army captain.
Those people should have read more Ernie Pyle, or read him more carefully. Perhaps people already have forgotten that Pyle was the model the U.S. military held up to refractory Vietnam War correspondents for how a well-behaved war reporter ought to write.
The itch behind the call for more blood in the Iraq coverage is a desire to turn people's stomachs, and turn their loyalties away from the war to liberate Iraq and now the struggle to rebuild it. That was not where Pyle would have been. I can only imagine what he would have made of the Michael Moore call for more American corpses.
There are no more Ernie Pyles because our wars now take place on television. There is a world of difference between what Pyle did with his Corona typewriter and what a camera does as it pans across an embattled city street. It is the difference between Pyle's abstract, if unflinching, description of the dead in Italy and the torn-open bodies oozing blood in the Mideast dust. Pyle said he wanted "to make people see what I see." But Arthur Miller wrote that Pyle "told as much of what he saw as people could read without vomiting," which is probably closer to the truth.
Pyle and the World War II correspondents who worked in his vein "gave Americans about all the realism they wanted," James Tobin wrote in "Ernie Pyle's War" . "To tell much more was to risk shock, anger, rejection, not to mention censorship. To weave a myth of sacrificial suffering instead was to do one's bit for the war. Pyle's G.I. myth -- not an untruth, but a way of bending reality into a sensible and bearable shape -- helped Americans through history's most grotesque and deadly ordeal ..."
[Another difference between Pyle's war and ours is that the media, which now means TV, is global. There is no notion of "doing one's bit" among the camera crews, because CNN is competing for market shares in a world audience, not informing a domestic one. If there are Ernie Pyles left anywhere, they are among the magazine correspondents. One of them, Michael Kelly, left dispatches worthy of Pyle before he died in Iraq.]
It was a balanced path. If Pyle stood one step back from the untellable horror of war, he also kept a footing in its grit. Pyle never published a single sentence tainted by blind jingoism. If he had, it would have been scorned by the soldiers whom he moved among and derided by his fellow war correspondents. It would have disappointed most of the people who read him at home, who relied on him to show them "their" war.
But Pyle could write as he did, grimly and honestly, because no one ever doubted whose side he was on. No one ever doubted whether he thought America ought to persevere, or to win. The deaths of so many good young men were a god-damned sin. But he never hinted that they died for nothing. Pyle didn't have to say in so many words that our cause is just, nor did he dehumanize the enemy.
He wrote about the ordinary GI, with an unabashed and unglamorized manly affection for that class of solider. The everyday bravery and decency of the soldiers, which Pyle, too, embodied, is what we like to see in ourselves. "Ernie and his G.I.'s had made America look good," Tobin wrote. "The Common Man Triumphant, the warrior-with-a-heart-of-gold -- this was the self-image Americans carried into the post-war era."
I picked an Ernie Pyle column, almost at random, and found one that has many contemporary echoes. It's uncharacteristic in its broad view of the war. He is reporting to America that the campaign underway is tougher than they think, that casualties are higher than they know. That the people they think they are liberating in many cases resent them and that there are many relics of the old regime left, stirring up trouble.
Political Situation in Africa Was Ticklish and Confusing
Notice, too, what he doesn't write. Nowhere, for instance, does he insinuate that Roosevelt's re-election hinges on success in North Africa.
ALGERIA, JANUARY, 1943: Men who bring our convoys from America, some of whom have just recently arrived, tell me the people at home don't have a correct impression of things over here.
Merchant Marine officers who have been here a couple of days are astonished by the difference between what they thought the situation was and what it actually is. They say people at home think the North African campaign is a walkaway and will be over quickly; that our losses have been practically nil; that the French here love us to death, and that all German influence has been cleaned out.
If you think that, it is because we newspapermen here have failed at getting the finer points over to you.
Because this campaign at first was as much diplomatic as military the powers that be didn't permit our itchy typewriter fingers to delve into things internationally, which were ticklish enough without that. I believe misconceptions at home must have grown out of some missing part of the picture.
It would be very bad for another wave of extreme optimism to sweep over the United States. So maybe I can explain a little bit about why things over here, though all right for the long run, are not all strawberries and cream right now.
IN TUNISIA, for instance, we seem to be stalemated for the moment. The reasons are two. Our Army is a green army, and most of our Tunisian troops are in actual battle for the first time against seasoned troops and commanders. It will take us months of fighting to gain the experience our enemies start with.
In the second place, nobody knew exactly how much resistance the French would put up here, so we had to be set for full resistance. That meant, when the French capitulated in three days, we had to move eastward at once, or leave the Germans unhampered to build a big force in Tunisia.
So we moved several hundred miles and, with the British, began fighting. But we simply didn't have enough stuff on hand to knock the Germans out instantly. Nobody is to blame for this. I think our Army is doing wonderfully -- both in fighting with what we have and in getting more here -- but we are fighting an army as tough in spirit as ours, vastly more experienced, and more easily supplied.
So you must expect to wait a while before Tunisia is cleared and Rommel jumps into the sea.
OUR LOSSES IN MEN so far are not appalling by any means, but we are losing men. The other day an American ship brought the first newspaper from home I had seen since the occupation, and it said only 12 men were lost in taking Oran.
The losses, in fact, were not great, but they were a good many twelves times 12.
Most of our convalescent wounded have been sent to England. Some newly arrived American feel that, if more of the wounded were sent home it would put new grim vigor into the America people. We aren't the sort of people from whom wounded men have to be concealed.
THE BIGGEST PUZZLE to us who are on the scene is our policy of dealing with Axis agents and sympathizers in North Africa. We have taken into custody only the most out-and-out Axis agents, such as the German armistice missions and a few others. That done, we have turned the authority of arrest back to the French.
The procedure is that we investigate, and they arrest. As it winds up, we investigate period.
Our policy is still appeasement. It stems from what might be called the national hodgepodge of French emotions. Frenchmen today think and feel in lots of different directions. We moved softly at first, in order to capture as many French hearts as French square miles. Now that phase is over. We are here in full swing. We occupy countries and pretend not to. We are tender in order to avoid offending our friends, the French, in line with the policy of interfering as little as possible with French municipal life.
WE HAVE LEFT in office most of the small-fry officials put there by the Germans before we came. We are permitting Fascist societies to continue to exist. Actual sniping has been stopped, but there is still sabotage.
The loyal French see this and wonder what manner of people we are. They are used to force, and expect us to use it against the common enemy which includes the French Nazis. Our enemies see it, laugh, and call us soft.
Both sides are puzzled by a country at war which lets enemies run loose to work against it.
THERE ARE AN astonishing number of Axis sympathizers among the French in North Africa. Not a majority, of course, but more than you would imagine. This in itself is a great puzzle to me. I can't fathom the thought processes of a Frenchman who prefers German victory and perpetual domination rather than a temporary occupation resulting in eventual French freedom.
But there are such people and they are hindering us, and we over here think you folks at home should know three things:
That the going will be tough and probably long before we have cleaned up Africa and are ready to move to bigger fronts. That the French are fundamentally behind us, but that a strange, illegal stratum is against us. And that our fundamental policy still is one of soft-gloving snakes in our midst.
The blogger Solomon has a thoughtful piece on the difference between Pyle and modern war correspondents.
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.
Which is right on, except I'd go even further and say, at least at this point in the Iraq struggle, the guys and gals in uniform on our side have disappeared from the coverage entirely. You want to see the difference between Ernie Pyle and today? Here's a chunk of today's New York Times story out of Najaf:
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.
"The agreements in Fallujah and Najaf appear to reflect the Bush administration's urgency to bring a measure of at least apparent calm to the country for the June 30 handover."
And I'm sure, had the U.S. military done what it was fully capable of, and continued to pick apart those insurgents with lethal efficiency, we would pick up the Times today and read something like: "The show of force in Fallujah and Najaf appears to reflect the Bush administration's urgency to quell the uprisings before the June 30 handover."
But what's amazing about both the Times and AP versions of these stories is, they quote U.S. generals in Baghdad, and al-Sadr's militiamen in Najaf. Where are the G.I.s? The exact people Pyle put at the center of everything he wrote. The people most Americans are most interested in. The ones who performed splendidly, picking off the thugs without putting a scratch in the precious Shi'ite mosques. Where are they? There's not one of them in these stories.
Meanwhile, blogger Doug Patton imagines what Pyle would have written if he had been a modern TV war correspondent:
Dateline London – 6 June 1944
"Not an untruth, but a way of bending reality into a sensible and bearable shape." That's a poignant and pregnant phrase. Everyday heroes are not all that we are -- Pyle could be aggressive and irritable. He had mood swings. He cheated on his wife. He drank too much. So what? It does not taint the work he did to know that about the man. We're human. We do the best we can. Sometimes, to paraphrase Hemingway, we do better than we can. Tragically or not, those times often happen in war. Ernie Pyle knew that.
“This is Ernie Pyle, reporting for CNN from the front here at Omaha Beach. An unprecedented -– and some say unjustified –- invasion of France is under way at this hour. As you can see from the carnage behind me, American boys are dying on the beaches of Normandy –- perhaps your boy, Mr. and Mrs. America. This reporter can confirm that American troops are sustaining massive casualties, here and on Utah Beach, against heavily armed German fortifications. Of course, the question that will be asked is “why?” Why did it have to come to this? Why was it necessary to sacrifice so many young men –- the bright and shining future of America –- in an invasion that many said didn’t need to happen. Meanwhile, on the home front, Republican members of Congress are calling for an investigation into the intelligence failures that led to the Navy’s inability to prepare for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This is Ernie Pyle, reporting from the front, for CNN.”
He also knew that the reporter on the ground ought to tell the story in front of him, not ignore it and imagine what is going on in the opinion polls half a world away.
Ernie Pyle, however, likely would not have overlooked Marine Capt. Brian R. Chontosh. What's amazing, to me, is that we all can name at least three of the Abu Ghraib prison abusers, because their pictures and names have been in the news for weeks now. But nobody knows Capt. Chontosh, because his name hasn't been in the New York Times or the Philadelphia Inquirer, or my newspaper. Here's his story:
While leading his platoon north on Highway 1 toward Ad Diwaniyah, Chontosh's platoon moved into a coordinated ambush of mortars, rocket propelled grenades and automatic weapons fire. With coalitions tanks blocking the road ahead, he realized his platoon was caught in a kill zone.
Ernie would have told it straight, not much more than that. But he would have found a twist here and a touch there and brought a tear to your eye even as he took your breath away.
He had his driver move the vehicle through a breach along his flank, where he was immediately taken under fire from an entrenched machine gun. Without hesitation, Chontosh ordered the driver to advanced directly at the enemy position enabling his .50 caliber machine gunner to silence the enemy.
He then directed his driver into the enemy trench, where he exited his vehicle and began to clear the trench with an M16A2 service rifle and 9 millimeter pistol. His ammunition depleted, Chontosh, with complete disregard for his safety, twice picked up discarded enemy rifles and continued his ferocious attack.
When a Marine following him found an enemy rocket propelled grenade launcher, Chontosh used it to destroy yet another group of enemy soldiers.
When his audacious attack ended, he had cleared over 200 meters of the enemy trench, killing more than 20 enemy soldiers and wounding several others.