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The Beat of War

Life regrets that its photographer had come late to this scene and “yet, miraculously, it is not too late; miraculously the battle still goes on, and we can still see, in every line of action, why it is that American boys win.”

We can still sense the high optimism…[be] still aware of the relaxed self-confidence with which the leading boy ran into the sudden burst of fire—almost like a halfback carrying the ball….Yes, we can tell even on this distant shore that these are our boys, born of our women, reared in our schools, bred to our horizons….

In September 1943, Life‘s editors were furnishing three death-emptied heads on the beach at Buna with “green meadows stretching down from a white-washed barn…a stout, grayhaired woman pulling out of the oven an American apple pie…the sound of a girl’s voice when she told him, or the feel of her waist, or the memory of her promise.” A month later James Agee was writing in The Nation:

We suffer—we vaguely realize—a unique and constantly intensifying schizophrenia…. Those Americans who are doing the fighting are doing it in parts of the world which seem irrelevant to them; those who are not, remain untouched, virginal, prenatal, while every other considerable population on earth comes of age….

In every bit of information you can gather about breakdowns of American soldiers in combat, overseas, even in the camps, a sense of unutterable dislocation, dereliction, absence of contact, trust, wholeness, and reference, in a kind and force which no other soldiers have to suffer, clearly works at the root of the disaster.

Life‘s editors must have recoiled in disgust at Agee’s tone and he with scorn for theirs; and yet how like their voices are in the cadences that now and then, long after I could be of even as much service as I was when young, impelled me to think that, come another general war, I should have to re-enlist because I could not endure the company of American civilians. The quarrels of Agee with Life and of Life with Agee pale in the horrid glare of the affinities that bind each to each in the same ignorance, the same insistence on arguing from suppositious evidence, and the same apartness from the real thing that condemns them to substituting attitudes for the work that only the tactile can do.

But then, no matter how far those at home were irrecoverably and excusably remote from its facts, the war appears from these accounts to have worked upon civilians and soldiers alike to make good people better and bad ones worse. Mary Heaton Vorse lifts us up when she tracks the increasing kindness of the citizens of Elkton, Maryland, while they struggle with their engulfment by the country girls who flooded into the munitions plant prodigiously expanded by the Navy. Deton J. Brooks, Jr., casts us as far down when he canvasses the indignities dealt soldiers of color in Camp Forrest, Tennessee, and notes among the pettier but somehow the cruelest of all their complaints that on furlough “they often miss their train…because the clerks in the station won’t sell them tickets until after all the whites have been waited on.”

We could ask no more vivid evocation of the unforgettably long distance from the enlistee’s home and his stateside barracks than Walter Bernstein’s morning-after recall of the night he spent with the recreations catered by Phenix City, Alabama’s stump-joint-cathouse stews. The proprietrix victimizes the troopers and is victimized in her turn by State Liquor Control agents falling in to confiscate her stock. Once in a while, a party of Military Policemen arrives with its summons to one more unit to repair to quarters for shipment elsewhere, and Bernstein commences to feel the air around him grow fouler and fouler and ever less bearable. On his way out and toward his lonely bed at Fort Benning, he passes the two symbols of his deprivation, “a soldier being sick in a corner and the juke box screaming, ‘Goodby, Mama, I’m Off to Yokohama.’ ” It is scarcely a month since Pearl Harbor.

Two years later Bernstein bobs up again, restored to cheer on tour with the mountain troops in Italy. He is in the exuberant company of ski bums in the shrine of the democratic ideal that is the field where the colonel, short of artillery, communications, supplies, or even a sufficiency of manpower, hazards that “anyway we can send out patrols,” and the non-com answers that, on the other hand, “We can sit. I could use a little sitting.”

Bernstein must have been finding these hills as jolly as Phenix City had been dismal, and the difference would have been that in Phenix City he had nothing to do and that in the hills he had at least a sort of something. The soldier, however otherwise inferior in fortune, has the singular luck of access to the absurdities of existence while the civilian cannot often enough get clear of the absurdity of himself.

The witnesses to these testaments are so remarkable a lot that Ernie Pyle could not persuade us that he was the very best if he had not beyond all others unflaggingly proceeded from the premise that eye and ear have no hope to understand everything unless they refuse to shrink from anything. Once on night march in Italy Pyle began to reflect upon the infantrymen’s powers of endurance and arrived at the revelation that “a certain fundamental appreciation for the ridiculous carries them through.”

That was as much the point for Bill Mauldin, who was buoyant and boyish, as it became for Pyle, who was middle-aged, disposed to melancholy, and encumbered with the foreknowledge of the deaths awaiting those who hung about long enough with this stuff, and who nonetheless, when he caught a short respite from the fighting in Tunisia, apologized to his readers for having perhaps “unconsciously made war seem more awful than it really is” when “there is a good deal of gaiety in wartime” and “some of us, even over here, are having the time of our lives.”


The spirit that is never unaware of the horrors around it but still manages to have the time of its life is supremely affirmed in the journeyings of the women correspondents. Margaret Bourke-White wakes up when the torpedo strikes the transport that is taking her and SHAEF’s complement of secretaries, WACs, WAVES, and nursing sisters to Africa two nights before Christmas 1942. She retrieves two of her cameras, leaves the rest behind, and goes to the bridge to do her job until the last lifeboat goes over the side. And then she takes her seat, looks up at the silvery clouds, and reflects that, if that were the sun and not the moon, “this would be a perfect K-2 sky.” In the lifeboat all hands set to bailing and “People began joking now. The irrepressible Kay Summersby, Eisenhower’s pretty Irish driver, announced her breakfast order. She wanted her eggs sunny-side up and no yolks broken.”

Lee Miller, voyager for Vogue, thumbs an LST ride to St. Malo and the siege of its last German garrison, “a grandstand view of fortress warfare reminiscent of Crusader times.” She watches from the command post in the boy’s school across from the fort. The infantrymen commence their advance and “I projected myself into their struggle, my arms and legs aching and cramped.” Repulsed, they fall back with the German guns at them front and rear and their survivors trail back to a command post where “everyone was sullen…silent…and aching, like a terrible hangover.”

Lee Miller turns toward what relief the Hotel Victoria may have left to cater:

Stricken lonely cats prowled. A swollen horse had not provided adequate shelter for the dead American behind it…. Gunfire brought more stone blocks down into the street…. I sheltered in a kraut dugout, squatting under the ramparts. My heel ground into a dead, detached hand…and I cursed the Germans for the sordid ugly destruction they had conjured up…. I picked up the hand and hurled it across the street and ran back the way I’d come, bruising my feet and crashing in the unsteady piles of stone and slipping in blood. Christ, it was awful.

A year later, Martha Gellhorn sits on a stone wall beside the Elbe and “[we] watched the river and smoked and talked about nothing.” Then the Russian army began to cross the bridge:

The army came in like a sort of tide; it had no special shape; there were no orders given. It came and flowed over the stone quay and up along the roads behind us like water rising, like ants, like locusts. It was not so much an army as a whole world on the move…. First came men…. Then some trucks bumped over the bridge—God knows what sort of trucks or where manufactured…. A pack train now…. It was a honey. It consisted of very beat-up carts and wagons and strong but shabby horses…. After the pack train, something like the first locomotive appeared; it was short and had a huge smoke stack and it towed two huge wooden cars…. Men on bicycles pedaled across…. The noise was lovely, a sort of splendid Slavic roar and the clang of iron wheels on the cobbles and occasional shouts which may have been orders or curses.

Women like these contained within themselves as many powers to evoke as there are susceptibilities to possess: Margaret Bourke-White for gaiety in the companionship of dread, Lee Miller for the rawness of the horrid, and Martha Gellhorn for revelings in the spectacular, almost childishly delighted and all the while acutely and precisely observant. The men around them can, to be sure, be as open as they to being surprised into exultation in harsh circumstances; but the male memory of such bouts is seldom so free of embarrassment. In Christmas week of 1940, when Ernie Pyle gazed down from his balcony upon a London “ringed and stabbed with fires” and observed that “this old, old city was the most beautiful sight I have ever seen,” he hastened to add an apologetic “even though I must bite my tongue in shame for saying it.”

A marine awakes after a night of “slop and terror” on Guadalcanal, looks at the dawn and says to Hersey, “Anyone who can’t see beauty in that doesn’t deserve to live.” Time‘s Jack Belden treks with his fellow evacuees from Burma to where none can know. He makes room for a stranded Burmese nurse and, of a sudden, he welcomes and entertains the dream that he sees himself “in the movies…a tough sailor, cast up on a foreign shore…and finding a simple native girl…who make[s] him forget all his civilization. Melodramatic, yes; but a feeling of romantic melancholy stole over me as we wound slowly through that dry, dead jungle.”

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