Saturday, April 18, 2015

70 Years Ago Today - Ernie Pyle and the Death of Real Combat Journalism

Ernie Pyle shares a smoke with Marines on Okinawa.
He would be dead within a week.

Much of how warfare has been conducted historically has been determined by communications technology. From runners on foot and horseback to unreliable field radios, from short wave telegraphy to digital satellite voice comms, what can be done tactically has often been determined by what could be communicated, and how quickly. The same has also been true of the journalism of warfare.

World War II sat on the cusp, at the nexus of the primitive and the advanced. It was a cataclysmic event that demanded journalists try to find a way to tell the stories, but it was so big, both in numbers and in geography, and at the same time so localized, small unit battles with limited central control, that the press had to try to decide how they could best cover it. The common choice was to report the big picture, the battles, the armies, the advances, the setbacks. Later, photos and film would arrive from the front, to fill in the blanks and offer the people a view - subject to censorship - of the fighting up close.

Ernie Pyle had a different idea. He didn't think the story was the events of the war, exactly, but rather the regular, dirty, hungry, sick Americans in far-flung lands fighting the battles, the skirmishes and the conditions. Pyle had been a correspondent for the Scripps-Howard papers from 1935 to 1942, traveling around the Americas and writing about people and places from a very close, intimate standpoint.

He told the stories that soldiers saw, up close. Their relationship with death, their exhaustion, their gentleness and their savagery. He talked about sleeping with the dead laid out alongside the road outside, and he talked about the fear and loathing of the enemy on Okinawa.

He traveled with the front line from North Africa to Anzio to Normandy to Okinawa, and then, finally, on a road 300 meters from the beach on Ie Shima island off the coast of Okinawa, he looked over a trench-line and caught a machine gun round behind the left eye, killing him instantly. The one voice that could try to make people understand the cost and the brutality of infantry combat had been silenced in the most prosaic, pointless manner. Death in Pyle's world was quick and meaningless, and that ultimately included his own.

Pyle represented the high-water mark for war correspondents - the eloquence and immediacy of the written word telling not just the stories, but conveying something more important - the value of the lives being lost, and the savage human cost paid by the survivors. Indeed, after covering the liberation of Paris in August 1944, he wrote a column apologizing to his readers that he had "lost track of the point of the war" and he hoped that a few weeks rest at home would prevent his hospitalization for 'war neurosis'.

By Vietnam, it wasn't about newspapers - Vietnam would be a television war. Correspondents were still completely unfettered, but it had become much more about images than words. And after Vietnam, the American military opted for very tight control over the press, resulting in the worthless, sanitized propaganda we've been getting since we first invaded Iraq in 1991.

It would be easy, and glib, to say there will never be another Ernie Pyle. In a sense, that is self-evidently true - if for no other reason than there will never be another World War II. It's true that his conversational style, his eye for detail and his sense of humanity made him the best at his craft, but his legacy lives on on the web, carried by the likes of David Axe and his contemporaries.

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