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Jewish World Review Feb. 19, 2002 / 7 Adar, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

'You are little boys
again, lost in the dark' -- ONE of the great unreported stories of the war on terrorism is the war itself -- at least the part being waged far from the United States.

The Pentagon has been successful in severely limiting the scope of the coverage. The ground rules for correspondents in Afghanistan have been restrictive; the days of reporters accompanying the troops wherever they go, with unlimited access to the soldiers, are virtually gone.

Part of this is because of the nature of the air war; much of it is because the Pentagon does not really trust the press -- and because much of America probably agrees with the Pentagon. Since Vietnam, there has been this vague feeling that the press is part of the enemy -- that the press, by doing its job, may work against America's interests.

This makes for a sad state of affairs. Some of the people cheated most by the absence of reporters living in the midst of troops are the combat soldiers themselves. They are risking their lives every day and every night -- and someone should be there to chronicle what they are going through. Not just the strategic decisions by the generals -- but the unvarnished dailiness of the soldiers' existence. The country should know.

As a reminder of what America -- and its soldiers -- are missing by the shutting out of true coverage, here are a couple of passages written by the greatest war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, as he lived with the troops during World War II. This first passage is from Tunisia, filed on May 2, 1943:

"I love the infantry because they are the underdogs. They are the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end they are the guys that wars can't be won without.

"I wish you could see just one of the ineradicable pictures I have in my mind today. In this particular picture I am sitting among clumps of sword-grass on a steep and rocky hillside that we have just taken. We are looking out over a vast rolling country to the rear.

"A narrow path comes like a ribbon over a hill miles away, down a long slope, across a creek, up a slope and over another hill.

"All along the length of this ribbon there is now a thin line of men. For four days and nights they have fought hard, eaten little, washed none, and slept hardly at all. Their nights have been violent with attack, fright, butchery, and their days sleepless and miserable with the crash of artillery.

"The men are walking. They are fifty feet apart, for dispersal. Their walk is slow, for they are dead weary, and you can tell even when looking at them from behind. Every line and sag of their bodies speaks their inhuman exhaustion.

"On their shoulders and backs they carry heavy steel tripods, machine-gun barrels, leaden boxes of ammunition. Their feet seem to sink into the ground from the overload they are bearing.

"They don't slouch. It is the terrible deliberation of each step that spells out their appalling tiredness. Their faces are black and unshaven. They are young men, but the grime and whiskers and exhaustion make them look middle-aged.

"In their eyes as they pass is not hatred, not excitement, not despair, not the tonic of their victory -- there is just the simple expression of being here as though they had been here doing this forever, and nothing else.

"The line moves on, but it never ends. All afternoon men keep coming round the hill and vanishing eventually over the horizon. It is one long tired line of antlike men.

"There is an agony in your heart and you almost feel ashamed to look at them. They are just guys from Broadway and Main Street, but you wouldn't remember them. They are too far away now. They are too tired. Their world can never be known to you, but if you could see them just once, just for an instant, you would know that no matter how hard people work back home they are not keeping pace with these infantrymen in Tunisia."

This next passage was written on April 27, 1943. Pyle was living in the field with the American troops during days and long, terrible nights of fierce artillery assaults by the Germans:

"You lie and think of the graveyards and the dirty men and the shocking blast of the big guns, and you can't sleep.

"`What time is it?' comes out of the darkness from the next cot. I snap on the flashlight.

"`Half past 4, and for G-d's sake go to sleep!'

"Finally, just before dawn, you do sleep, in spite of everything.

"Next morning we spoke around among ourselves and found one by one that all of us had tossed away all night. It was an unexplainable thing. For all of us had been through dangers greater than this. On another night the roll of the guns would have lulled us to sleep.

"It's just that on some nights the air becomes sick and there is an unspoken contagion of spiritual dread, and you are little boys again, lost in the dark."

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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