By way of my friend Steve, this piece of World War II reporting from Ernie Pyle: “This One Is Captain Waskow.”
“I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Captain Waskow down. The moon was nearly full, and you could see far up the trail, and even part way across the valley. Soldiers made shadows as they walked.”
The dispatch was written in Italy in 1943,during the battle of San Pietro Infine. The filmmaker John Huston, who was somewhere between making “The Maltese Falcon” and “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” was there, too, shooting a documentary about the battle. The battle isn’t widely remembered, but I remember seeing the movie in a film class in the mid-70s. From that, and from reading some Ernie Pyle dispatches someone handed me in high school, what I remember was that U.S. troops had been given the job of dislodging German forces from a nearly impregnable strategic position on a mountain. That, and that a lot of men died.
Go read the Captain Waskow piece. You won’t forget it. It makes me reflect on whether any of the wars in our era–and for me, that stretches back to the beginning of the Vietnam War–has produced a voice like Ernie Pyle’s. Someone who served so authentically as the chronicler of soldiers’ lives and deaths for the public back home. I think some great writing has emerged from our later wars–thinking about books like those by Michael Herr (“Dispatches“) and Tim O’Brien (“Going After Cacciato” and all the rest). But I can’t think of the journalist creating a contemporaneous record of the war as it unfolded the way Pyle did.
I think maybe the difference is partly that the nature of our wars have been different–conflicts with either no clearly defined enemy awaiting us on the battlefield (“Global War on Terrorism,” anyone?) or those that were elective affairs (Vietnam, the Gulf War, “Operation Iraqi Freedom”). Maybe the difference is partly due to the fact most Americans living today have grown up in a nation that doesn’t require military service; we give the most strenuous lip service to the importance of sacrifice, but we don’t live it and the reality of it barely touches most of us. Maybe that accounts for a fundamental divide between our soldiers and the men and women sent to report on them (see “When the Bodies Don’t Want to Be Shown“). And maybe the difference is that media and communications have moved far beyond the reporter filing from the front “by wireless”; our news/entertainment outlets create an illusion of immediacy, not to mention lots of light and noise, that can drown out the written word.