Jewish World Review August 30, 2001 / 11 Elul, 5761
The model embed had a 'worm's-eye view'
On U.S. Highway 36, barely a dozen miles from the Illinois line, the town of Dana sits quietly in the middle of Indiana cornfields. From the highway, you see little more than a cluster of buildings, some silos nearby and a scattering of farmhouses. No billboards bid the motorist to pull off the straight shot of a road. Only a small green sign modestly informs the passing public that this was the birthplace and childhood home of Ernie Pyle.
The name no longer rings many bells. Media celebrities are as evanescent as fireflies, and Pyle would have loathed the idea of his even being a celebrity. But 60 years ago, when the United States was in a different and much larger war, Americans everywhere knew Ernie Pyle. That war was being fought on two fronts, one in Europe, the other in the Pacific, and no journalist was so thoroughly "embedded" with the troops as Pyle. Much of what Americans knew of that war they knew from reading the dispatches that Pyle wrote for the Scripps-Howard wire service. He was read in almost every paper in the country.
Times change, as they must, and so now we learn about the latest skirmish in Iraq from a cavalcade of cable correspondents, a few of them as eager as Richard Halliburton to tell us what wonders they have seen. From channel to channel, they are a parade of camera-ready faces and familiar names, from the peripatetic Christiane Amanpour to the unflappable Wolf Blitzer. And then, there are a few who are rather too familiar: Peter Arnett, who is never out of a job for long, is in Baghdad, just as he was 12 years ago; why, even Geraldo was briefly on the scene, rattling on the other night about the Code of Hammurabi.
A war is going on -- make no mistake about that -- but the means of conveying its uncertainties and its mortal dangers have taken on the trappings of theater. Beneath the surface, the reporting of war has always had a certain romance. Now it's become vaguely glamorous -- a very different thing.
There are also, to be sure, scores of print journalists, and a few are filing stories of analytical depth and literary sophistication. From both a journalistic and a literary standpoint, the war in Iraq is producing reportage of a high standard.
But most Americans are spectators, not readers, and so they watch it on television, catching snatches here and there in the morning or evening. For them, it's virtually a live performance, even when the subject is death.
Television is about immediacy. It is also about color and urgency, graphics and nonstop commentary. Thus, the retired generals and colonels offering their expert analyses, like so many old quarterbacks or coaches on a Sunday afternoon in the fall. Airtime is filled with talk, much of it about strategy.
Pyle never wrote of force multipliers or tactics, and he didn't write much about generals. He wrote about ordinary soldiers -- some of them dying miserable deaths, others finding within themselves a courage they probably never knew they had. His focus was not the Big Picture but the little one. "He once referred to it as the 'worm's-eye view' of war," says Owen Johnson, a historian and journalism professor at Indiana University. Johnson is compiling a book of Pyle's letters, and so far has some 1,200.
Pyle was not, of course, the only journalist writing from the European or Pacific fronts in World War II. He was not even the most accomplished. The roster of correspondents in that war is an impressive one: A.J. Liebling, Hal Boyle, Ralph Barnes, to name a few. Yet none struck the chord that Pyle did.
He was a skinny little man easily given to melancholy. He both smoked too much and drank too much, and he had an unhappy marriage. There was nothing remotely glamorous about him; he was as ordinary as the soldiers he wrote about.
"He wasn't a grandstander and he wasn't a self-promoter, and soldiers saw that," says James Tobin, whose biography "Ernie Pyle's War" captures the essence of a man who spent most of his short life listening to others and typing newspaper columns.
"His style was simply to sit and chat, the way you'd do with a guy at a bar," Tobin says. "He didn't fly in and fly out. He had a credibility that I don't think you could have today." Soldiers trusted him and confided in him. They knew he understood them not just as soldiers but as men who were sometimes bored, often frightened and homesick, and who wanted badly to be anywhere but where they were.
Sitting at a little wooden table, tapping out the columns and stories that would appear a few days later in U.S. newspapers, Pyle gave the ordinary fighting man a humanity that no medal could.
In his most famous column, "The Death of Capt. Waskow," he all but immortalized both himself and his subject. Many people who know little about Pyle have read at least one of his columns, and more than likely this is the one.
Henry T. Waskow was a young officer from Belton, Texas, much beloved by his men, who died at the front in Italy. In his column of Jan. 10, 1944, Pyle wrote in part: "Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed to the backs of mules. They came lying belly-down across the wooden packsaddles, their heads hanging down on the left side of the mule, their stiffened legs sticking awkwardly from the other side, bobbing up and down as the mule walked."
It continued into the early morning hours. After midnight, Pyle wrote, "a soldier came into the cowshed and said there were some more bodies outside ... Four mules stood there, in the moonlight, in the road where the trail came down off the mountain. The soldiers who led them stood there waiting. 'This one is Captain Waskow,' one of them said quietly."
Soldiers came to look. Some cursed, others wept. One by one, they knelt to pay their respects: "God damn it," one said. "I sure am sorry, old man," said another.
At some point, the first man squatted, took Waskow's hand and held it gently in his own. For five minutes, he looked into the dead officer's face, saying nothing.
"And finally," Pyle wrote, "he put the hand down, and then he reached up and gently straightened the points of the captain's shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound. And then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone."
If there was sometimes an artlessness about Pyle's writing, the artlessness -- the lack of pretension, the simplicity and genuineness -- was precisely its appeal. "Somebody said Ernie Pyle wrote like somebody talking to you," Tobin says.
By 1945, Pyle had left Europe and was reporting from the Pacific. On April 18 -- six days after the death of Franklin Roosevelt -- he was struck by Japanese machine-gun fire on Ie Shima, a small island off Okinawa. He died instantly. His death was headline news across the country, and President Truman came on the radio to say, "The nation is saddened, again, by the death of Ernie Pyle." He was, despite himself, a celebrity.
It was all a long time ago, and people driving U.S. Highway 36 pass the little farm town in Indiana with their thoughts on other things -- a job that's not working out, a marriage whose fires have died, maybe even Iraq. He would have understood. Little more than an hour away, in Bloomington, sits Indiana University, which Pyle attended. He left in his senior year, but the university's distinguished journalism school is housed, fittingly, in Ernie Pyle Hall. As monuments go, it is as much as he would have wanted.
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Michael Skube teaches journalism at Elon University. He is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Comment by clicking here.
08/30/01: The Tyranny of Information
© 2003, Michael Skube