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The Beat of War

Ernest Hemingway has never seemed more attractive than in August 1944, when he and a band of maquis were on their way to the retaking of Paris, and twenty-five years of profligacies with his supply of courage took their effect and he had charmingly to confess to Collier’s that a patrol the day before had “scared the pants off me,” that by afternoon his mood was “increasingly apprehensive” and that, he was at last free to concede, he “had never been a great lover of contact anyway.”

A.J. Liebling had sustained le trac, “which means a complete funk,” that ran through Paris when it was announced that the Germans had taken Arras. He had been strafed and bombed at a forward airstrip in Tunisia with so few remissions that he “stared at the parallel furrows the Messerschmitt cannons had plowed down the runway, as if they had been the teeth of a rake and ourselves the field mice between them.”

By the time the LCI carrying Liebling and a Navy beach battalion touched ground at Omaha Beach on the appointed D-Day, H-hour plus 65 minutes, the breath from the hot gates was still sufficiently searing to satisfy every demand of honor and Liebling chose to stay with the ship where the perils, however drastic, were lighter than those ashore.

On the afternoon of D-Day plus two, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Richard Stokes came aboard. He was sixty-one years old and this day was his initiation. Liebling fixed a practiced gaze at the shell puffs on the beach and suggested, “Mr. Stokes, it seems to be pretty rough in there.”

He didn’t have even a blanket to sleep on, and he didn’t have the slightest idea whom he was going to look for when he got in; he was just going ahead like a good city reporter on an ordinary assignment.

Stokes watched two boatloads of infantrymen fill up and start for the beach and then said, “Mr. Liebling, I have made up my mind” and “scrambled aboard…[and] got ashore all right and did some fine stories. A couple of weeks afterward he told me, ‘I couldn’t stand being within sight of the promised land and then coming back.’ ”

Liebling had, of course, been to the promised land and would defer his next visit until this particular patch of Eden stopped shooting at him.

3.

Marvelous as his companions in these pages are, Ernie Pyle emerges as almost a miracle of nature, born and come of age unshadowed by the curse of bravado and equipped to take his courage for granted as simply as Lee Miller and Margaret Bourke-White did theirs. Because he had never blustered, he would never confront the awful moment of shock at having to quail. He could go again and again wherever the worst extremes waited, the unconscripted man bound to the comradeship of conscripts and enduring by choice what they were forced to endure by necessity.

Not even the erosions of hard use could change Pyle; and his only reference to the effects of wear was spoken when he had arrived at Okinawa for the last of all his D-Day landings. A marine asked him what he thought of the war in the Pacific and he replied, “Oh, it’s the same old stuff all over again. I am awful tired of it.”

He was killed a week later in a backwater skirmish on an off-island, and four volunteer litter bearers crawled across open and still contested terrain to bring out his body. Reporting World War II is graced with Pyle’s obituary written by Evan Wylie in the spare and moving key of his own preference and printed in Yank, the Army weekly, which was just where he would have wanted most to be remembered.

Wylie’s death notice includes a citation that defines for good Pyle’s heroic resistance to the worst spiritual damage war does to those stuck in it for too long. On Okinawa another correspondent had asked him how he felt when he saw a dead Japanese soldier, and “Pyle said dead men were all alike to him, and it made him feel sick to look at one.”

When I myself was newly overseas, a comrade older in the traces did me the kindness to explain some things I’d better be ready for and one was the spectacle of the dead: “When you see a dead Nip, you won’t care,” he said. “But no matter how many times you see a dead Yank, you’ll never get over it.”

That sight would not all that often come my way; and yet, when it did, my response was pretty much what he had said it would be, which is why Pyle, who had looked upon hecatombs for every dead body I would see, seems most remarkable for having escaped the coarsening of sensibility that must be the hardest price war extorts this side of wound or death.

The New York Times’s Otto D. Tolischus rode with the German forward elements advancing toward Warsaw; and his distaste for their cause did not prevent his reporting that, before their artillery cut loose, they showered the city with leaflets “calling on the city to surrender, promising soldiers would be sent home instead of being made war prisoners, and that in view of their brave defense, officers would be permitted to keep their swords.” So then at the outset even the German troop commanders wanted to be thought chivalrous and may even have imagined that nature and Nazism could allow them to be.

Murrow’s broadcasts from Luftwaffegrieved London in September 1940 still touch our admiration fifty-five years later because he never departed from celebrating the stoicism of those done unto to distract himself with deploring the bestiality of those who were doing it. His closest approach to a breach of this exemplary containment was to describe the German air tactic as the “terror bombing” it indisputably was and meant to be.

Three years later, Murrow sat in one of the fifteen Lancasters that flew through shrapnel-ridden skies to turn Berlin into a “city of dreadful night” and, when his plane turned homeward, looked back upon a “kind of orchestrated Hell.”

Men die in the sky while others are roasted alive in their cellars. Berlin last night wasn’t a pretty sight. In about thirty-five minutes it was hit with about three times the amount of stuff that came down on London in a night-long blitz. This is a calculated, remorseless campaign of destruction.

Terror-bombing was still a solemnizing sight for Murrow, but by now it left him, on balance, satisfied. Put the wheel of war to grinding along and it will sharpen even a nature as gentle as his to the edge of a knife.

By April of 1943, Pyle could already notice the “vivid change” in American troops from the original state of innocence they had brought to Algeria only five months before to the “casual and workshop manner in which they now talk about killing…[with] a professional outlook to which killing is a craft.”

To them now there is nothing morally wrong about killing. In fact it is an admirable thing.

I think I am so impressed by this new attitude because it hasn’t been necessary for me to make this change along with them. As a non-combatant, my own life is in danger only by occasional chance or circumstance. Consequently I need not think of killing in personal terms, and killing to me is still murder.

All the same, however dangerously far his heart might turn toward ice, the combat soldier’s head was spared the tumblings into abstraction that end with an image of the Enemy as a whole people whose guilt extends to the last neonate. He was engaged fire-to-fire against men in arms, worse-weaponed than he in the Japanese case, better in several ways in the German, but in too many instances more skilled and purposeful than himself.

Pyle watched the infantry squads struggling with the Normandy hedgerows and understood that each one’s endeavor was a “separate little war, fought under different circumstances.” The soldier walking or riding in armor knew little of the sweeps of the war map beyond the grid coordinates that identified the small patch for which he fought. What inspired him and the comrades around him was not the rhetoric of the cause but the intimate dependence of each upon the other.

The bomber crews were bound as close; but as the Luftwaffe wore down and Japanese pilots were left no useful function that was not also suicidal, the Strategic Air Command controlled the skies so nearly immune that the balance of heroic opportunity shifted more and more from the bombers to the bombed.

William L. Laurence, chief science writer for the New York Times, was a passenger on the plane freighting to Nagasaki history’s second atomic bomb—“a thing of beauty to behold.” Laurence contemplated the anti-aircraft puffs hopelessly too far below a cabin pressurized to “the temperature of a comfortable air-conditioned room,” essayed small talk with “our genial bombardier,” and ruminated:

Does one feel any compassion for the poor devils about to die? Not when one thinks of Pearl Harbor and of the Death March on Bataan.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the last two of the targets that the vicissitudes of war had so deprived of effective defense that the crews assigned to flay them further took to referring to their missions as milk runs.

Laurence’s vision of himself and his fellow travelers in their triumphal serenity sends the mind back through these pages to the day but two years earlier and to Lt. Col. Beirne Lay, Jr.’s, recollection of the terror that was the common estate of the targeteer and his targets when 150 B-17s struck upon Regensburg and Schweinfurt.

All the voices here ring with valor; but since Lay was a bomb commander, he speaks uniquely, not from uneasy observation but from fearsome combat. He had felt stripped so bare in “the cluttered wake of a desperate air battle” that it was a relief when his co-pilot signaled him to take over the controls and he could “concentrate on flying instead of sitting there watching fighters aiming between your eyes…. The fear was [still] unpleasant, but it was bearable.” Now that Lay had a task, “my nerves were steady and my brain working…. I knew that I was going to die, and so were a lot of others.”

Laurence’s safety, although not his smugness, makes a gratifying contrast; but he would never know the tactile presence of war as suffering beyond all prior conception, and as a rising up beyond the self that the Marines had found at Tarawa and that their and other soldiers’ victories would finally transform war’s bitter but not unredemptive properties into an exclusive possession for the Rev. Mr. Tanimoto and the sharers of his healing spirit at Hiroshima.

4.

It seems somehow curious that these reporters and those who bore genuine combat with them did not play a larger part in the history of the America to which they returned. There were political careers for a number of officers whose dosages by fire had not been small. George Bush had been shot down in two Navy fighters; and George McGovern had flown a crippled bomber back to base. Bush would be elected and McGovern nominated for president; and, in the key their times had by then ordained, Bush would be widely disdained as a wimp and McGovern dismissed as a sissy.

I cannot think of an enlisted man, tried in the line and certified a hero, who was ever afterward rewarded with large honors in peacetime. To read the citations for the Congressional Medal of Honor is to be filled with awe for human possibility; and yet Commando Kelly was thereafter but fleetingly conspicuous and then as a failed strike-breaker, and Audie Murphy, once Hollywood wearied of him, trailed pathetically off to be shill and dupe for teamster racketeers. Since war so often reserves its glory for those it has already treated worst, mightn’t we suppose, as I earlier did, that its processes teach them never again to take themselves so seriously as to be fit for the vainglorious postures so often demanded for success as a politician?

Doughty and cheerful baggage-bearer though A.J. Liebling showed himself to be from Tunisia through Normandy, his reports from these fields may be the single and certainly the least-expected disappointment in Reporting World War II. We too frequently sense the craftsman’s hand and sometimes even the stage manager’s devices. There is too much of the tableau in his scenes and too little of juice in the talk of his soldiers and perhaps too far a distance between his birth in 1904 and theirs in the Twenties.

All the same, whatever small defeats Liebling may have suffered in his engagement with the authentic are magnificently recouped whenever he steels his eye to confront the fraudulent. Fix his attention on the rear echelons of Supreme Headquarters AEF-London and he is off on a grand assault:

The Public Relations situation reached a high point in opera buffa absurdity in London in the spring [of 1944] before the invasion of France. There were at one time nine separate echelons of Public Relations in London at once: P.R.O. SHAEF; P.R.O. Twenty-First Army Group (Montgomery’s Command); P.R.O. FUSAC (First Army group)… P.R.O.First Army; P.R.O. ETOUSA (European Theatre of Operations, US Army), which handled the correspondent’s mail, gave out ration cards, did publicity for Services of Supply, and tried to horn in on everything else, [etc., etc….]

The P.R.O.s, mostly colonels and lieutenant colonels (a major, in this branch of service, was considered a shameful object, to be exiled to an outer office), had for the most part been Hollywood press agents or Chicago rewrite men in civilian life. They looked as authentic in their uniforms as dress extras in a B picture, but they had learned to say “Army” with an unction that Stonewall Jackson could never have achieved…. The one point on which [all of them] united was their detestation of the field army [emphasis added].

With this one thunderingly glorious roar Liebling had described the class that would inherit the America whose future it had done the least to preserve, and he had adumbrated the postwar national will all the way to the penultimate semi-colon in its final codicil.

But such is the way the world appoints its run. Why should we bother to rail against it when we can raise our eyes to Ed Cunningham’s report for Yank on the auxiliary soldiers put to the breach to meet the terminal Panzer counterattack in the Ardennes?

They were headquarters cooks and clerks and radiomen and behind-the-lines MPs. They were assembled and deployed by a T-4 from Special Services (Music and Art). At the first brush with fire, they retreated, and then regrouped for the next one, and then, Cunningham sparely and beautifully says, “This time the cooks and clerks held fast.” These unapprenticed neophytes had held a salient that would have been overrun without them, and with it a Belgian village and an immeasurable stretch of Belgium to its rear.

The day, Cunningham notes, had been salvaged by “Americans who never received a Combat Infantry badge.” They would have but one historian to mark their great moment; and they were luckier than most for even as much notice. That is an oversight that could scarcely matter to them then or now.

They had formed themselves at a place piled high with potential reasons to apologize and they had stood and come through without ever having to. What more could the men and women in these pages have needed to ask from life, except, of course, hearth and home?

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