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The Beat of War

Their sisters were then far from cheated of brothers in the same spirit. And yet, somehow, openness to horrors and wonders seems to inspire reactions more spontaneous and afterthoughts less guilt-burdened in the women correspondents than in the men. It is as though men have to think before they joke and as though women just joke.

When there is spread before us one of those scenes of shipwreck and abandonment that are in their essence melodramatic, and their narrator begs our pardon for owning up to the onsets of “romantic melancholy,” we don’t have to know Jack Belden’s name to recognize the voice of a man, because only a man could be half-ashamed to admit to a response that charms us so much more than it could possibly affront.

The women correspondents went to the wars, however, with the luck to bear shackles of emotional inhibition noticeably lighter than those clanking round their masculine colleagues. They may have owed that advantage to girlhoods spared the self-consciousness about courage unremittingly drilled into adolescent boys. They had grown up unencumbered with puzzlements about whether they would fight or flee the bridge and were therefore free to inherit courage as stuff taken for granted.

The experience of war can, of course, deal as savagely with this as with most assurances; and, if you protract it, you are apt to end, as Lee Miller did, running the blood and muck of St. Malo stunned under the sudden assault of reality. Even so, there is everything to be said for any undreamt-of failure of nerve that could raise its victim to the exact pitch of “Christ, it was awful.”

Lee Miller had been a model for Steichen, an actress for Cocteau, an intimate for Man Ray; and yet she would be but as dust now if she did not arise here as unknown angel of rescue for any old soldier who had come home weary of the game and wearier still of questions about it, and was unconscious that he had at hand, thanks to her, the only appropriate reply, which would have been, “I can’t tell you much about how it went, but you might try looking it up in the back issues of Vogue.”

Women like her are far too sensible to worry the threads of the mystery of courage; and we must seek our light upon the subject from the men, whose temperaments and conditionings tend to press them more insistently into self-examination. War isn’t often credited with redeeming features even when they are as palpable as teaching those intimately engaged never to take themselves quite seriously again and as affording them, if fortune is not terminally unkind, fewer causes for apology than they have probably picked up before and will acquire since. Its other instructional virtues are harder to see; but one of the plainest is that war keeps its richest lessons not for the gunner but for the gunned.

Its highest moments and most exiguous challenges come with the summons not to kill but to rescue. These correspondents were singularly placed to appreciate the difference because their status defined them as non-combatants and, as A. J. Liebling said of himself, “never destined to fight—just to get shot at.”

The nasty courses that Richard Tregaskis had run at Guadalcanal had earned him full exemption from precincts more perilous than the International News Service’s New York wire desk. Instead he shipped back out to Italy and there found the wound that is so often the price of risks over-extended. When he was hit, he tried to call out, “Can you help me?” to a nearby Ranger taking cover from the shells and could get out no more than “Can help?” and the soldier could manage no better than “I can’t help you. I’m too scared.” The medics arrived in time and bound Tregaskis’s wounds, and down the hill he went with a head full of the “Am I going to die?” that would be the first words he spoke to the doctor who bent over him at the field station.

To conceive the shame that must have thronged the mind of that recreant soldier on as many of the nights he survived to lie down in is to understand that Hiroshima had brought the Rev. Mr. Tanimoto not one but two miracles of salvation, the first when he escaped the bomb and the second when he broke the chains that until then had kept him tied to his fears.

What strikes us too in Tregaskis’s account of his plea and the Ranger’s denial is the complete absence of resentment in its tone. Perhaps Tregaskis would not complain because he could know just how many trials this man might have passed through before he had used up all his stock of honor and come to a point where, when asked for more, he could only turn away.

Reporting World War II‘s editors might or might not have intended irony when they chose to sit Tregaskis’s tranquilly absolving recollections of his abandoner in the closest possible proximity to Edward Kennedy’s report on the cursings and cuffings that Lt. Gen. George S. Patton visited upon an infantryman weeping on his hospital bed in Sicily. Tregaskis and Patton each had under his eye a soldier at the end of his tether, and neither could know the circumstances that had brought him there. That critical want of information mattered enough to Tregaskis to forbid him to blame and mattered too little to Patton to restrain him from condemning. Who then better knew the basic truths taught by war, the correspondent all but forgotten or the great commander of unfaded legend?

In the destructive element immerse,” Stein told Marlow in Lord Jim. The lessons that lodge in the destructive element are, we must suppose, profounder for those who are buffeted than for those who buffet there. In all probability the pointless and promiscuous firing of his weapons that marks the soldier’s initiation into combat is prompted less by fear than by an urgency of need to put it out of his mind. To shoot and shoot again in the empty air ahead is to feel safe from harm, anyway up to the dreadful moment when your clips are empty and you naked before the guns. Since they went unarmed, the correspondents were denied such transient illusions of invulnerability; and their continual awareness of being targeted makes them powerful witnesses to the ultimate test of courage that is the decision to die if you must in order to help somebody worse off than yourself.

NBC’s Robert St. John and three of his colleagues had underestimated the speed of the German surge into Greece in April 1941, and, having tarried too long in Patras, had no resource for escaping encirclement except the last train to Corinth. En route the train was strafed and the New York Post‘s Leigh White immobilized in the ruin of his right thigh. An evacuation was ordered, and St. John and Russell Hill of the New York Herald Tribune carried White off. He was too heavy and too helpless for his bearers to bring him to the comparative safety of the hills; and they improvised a litter, struggled up to a highway, and were picked up by a Royal Air Force truck. Back came a German plane for more play, and the truck halted and all occupants not too far disabled by wounds ran for cover except St. John and Hill, who felt it their duty to stay with White as soon as he explained that his pain was already too awful to stand being made even worse if he were moved.

And so St. John and Hill lay with this disabled comrade in plain view of the Luftwaffemensch’s guns; and when he had finished his pass with unexpectedly small damage, the RAF driver came back to his cab and, before starting on, advised St. John and Hill not to be quite so foolishly brave the next time round. Once more the German plane returned and, upon its appearance, St. John and Hill deferred to the driver’s wisdom, and hastened to the shelter of a stone wall while White lay in vulnerable sight on the back of the truck.

I didn’t feel at all right inside,” St. John lastingly remembered.

I could see the truck through a hole in the wall. White and the other wounded men looked as if they were dead already. I was sorry that I had left them in spite of all the driver had said. The driver was right, but I felt mean and selfish. I felt that I’d always be ashamed of running away like that, even though I couldn’t have done anybody any good by staying on top of the truck.

Martha Gellhorn had started out for Bastogne and paused at a fallen German gun position to ask directions of an infantry squad. The sergeant in command replied that he wouldn’t go up that road if he were she.

Anyhow,” [he] went on. “They’re making a counter-attack. They got about thirty tanks, we heard, coming this way.”

What are you going to do?” I said.

Stay here,” said one of the soldiers….

War is lonely and individual work; it is hard to realize how small it can get. Finally it can boil down to ten unshaven gaunt-looking young men, from anywhere in America, stationed on a vital road with German tanks coming in….

It seemed shameful to leave them.

Jack Belden walks with the troops falling back from the Ardennes near Christmas in 1944 and comes to Cheneux, whose townspeople had rejoiced in liberation in September and were standing now “in the roads, alarm plainly stamped on their faces.”

I noticed in myself a feeling that I had not had for some years,” Belden wrote. “It was the feeling of guilt that seems to come over you whenever you retreat. You don’t like to look anyone in the eyes. It seems as if you have done something wrong. I perceived this feeling in others too.”

Robert St. John had done nothing worse than obey the dictates of common sense and only after he had needed prompting to act upon them. Martha Gellhorn and Jack Belden were no better placed than he to “do anybody any good.” Nonetheless each of them speaks to us from the shame that has no foundation in reason and thus belongs with bravery and universal compassion and the other peculiar virtues that make little sense to the worldly until they are called up and supremely tried in war.

The gods, it would appear, dole out their allotments of courage in unequal shares and then as a fixed account that each of us must draw down without hope of replenishment. Every brave deed represents a capital expenditure.

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