Finding the War

It is common to hear that part of what contributed to victory in World War II, and the overwhelming sense that it was the right thing to do, was that nobody at home knew how awful it was for the soldiers fighting it abroad. For many years now, , , and have been editing the popular story about the war, revealing its singular brutality and the myriad of motivations that led the powers that be to fight it as they did. This has led to a bit of a crumbling of World War II's image as America's last good war, due to both those hoping to complicate its simple popular moral equation and those hoping to give a clearer picture of just what the soldiers' sacrifice entailed. Yet the idea that, from 1939 to 1945, the people were sheltered from the war's horrors persists—an idea that I found myself questioning when I read Ernie Pyle's , a collection of the war correspondent's dispatches from 1943 to 1944, when he covered the war in Italy and then the Allied push through France to Berlin. The 1944 edition of the book is a fascinating artifact of the time period: Along with the copyright, an eagle-emblazoned seal states that this is a Wartime Book: "books are weapons in the war of ideas," the sash fluttering from the eagle's beak proclaims. The seal goes on to state that "this complete edition is produced in full compliance with the government's regulations for conserving paper and other essential materials," and it's easy to see the result: It's printed on very thin paper (that nonetheless has held up remarkably well—even wartime cost-cutting seems to have produced a better-quality book than today's mass-market paperback printers do) and with a clear regard for cramming as much text onto the page as possible without rendering it illegible. For me, a grandchild of those who lived through World War II, the effect of the book is to recall the stories I'd heard of who in my family served in the war, what they did, and where; and also, what the lives of the women who stayed behind were like, waiting for their husbands to come home, raising small children who had no recollection of their fathers.

Pyle, like the cartoonist , is celebrated for his honest yet dignifying depictions of the soldiers that he met, and Brave Men certainly gives you a lot of that. But Pyle's vision of the war does more than that: By giving us what he saw in Europe at the height of combat, and by making the soldiers he met human—naming them, talking about the meals he shared and the combat he experienced with them—Pyle undermines the idea of World War II, or any war, as good. Consider his description of an air battle he witnessed from the ground:

Someone shouted that one of the planes was smoking. Yes, we could all see it. A long faint line of black smoke stretched straight for a mile behind one of them. And as we watched there was a gigantic sweep of flame over the plane. From nose to tail it disappeared in flame, and it slanted slowly down and banked around the sky in great wide curves, this way and that way, as rhythmically and gracefully as in a slow-motion waltz. Then suddenly it seemed to change its mind and it swept upward, steeper and steeper and ever slower until finally it seemed poised motionless on its own black pillar of smoke. And then just as slowly it turned over and dived for the earth—a golden spearhead on the straight black shaft of its own creation—and disappeared behind the treetops. But before it was down there were more cries of, "There's another one smoking—and there's a third one now." Chutes came out of some of the planes. Out of some came no chutes at all. One of white silk caught on the tail of a plane. Men with binoculars could see him fighting to get loose until flames swept over him, and then a tiny black dot fell through space, all alone.

Or his description of soldiers approaching a firefight:

The men didn't talk amongst themselves. They just went. They weren't heroic figures as they moved forward one at a time, a few seconds apart. You think of attackers as being savage and bold. These men were hesitant and cautious. They were really the hunters, but they looked like the hunted. There was a confused excitement and a grim anxiety on their faces.

They seemed terribly pathetic to me. They weren't warriors. They were American boys who by mere chance of fate had wound up with guns in their hands, sneaking up a death-laden street in a strange and shattered city in a faraway country in a driving rain. They were afraid, but it was beyond their power to quit. They had no choice. They were good boys. I talked with them all afternoon as we sneaked slowly forward along the mysterious and rubbled street, and I know they were good boys. And even though they weren't warriors born to the kill, they won their battles. That's the point.

He goes on to describe all of them—their names, their addresses, and a epigram about them that makes them suddenly, startlingly real ("his New England accent was so broad I had to have him spell out 'Arthur' and 'Auburn' before I could catch what he said"; "Eddie was thirty, he was married, and used to work in a brewery back home; he was a bazooka man, but his bazooka was broken that day so he was just carrying a rifle."). Always giving them their dignity.

I like to think it was this dignifying impulse, and not the work of censors, that made Pyle use a kind of synecdoche when he described the beaches at Normandy just after the fighting was over. He lets the soldiers tell you what the actual assault was like themselves, the things that happened to them then, but he never pretends he was there with them. And when he takes a walk along the beach himself, he tells us that "men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn't know they were in the water, for they were dead." But he lingers much longer on the mangled machinery, "empty life rafts and soldiers' packs and ration boxes, and mysterious oranges," and at last, "in a jumbled row for mile on mile were soldiers' packs." He goes on:

There were socks and shoe polish, sewing kits, diaries, Bibles, hand grenades. There were the latest letters from home, with the address on each one neatly razored out—one of the security precautions enforced before the boys embarked.

There were toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families back home staring up at you from the sand. There were pocketbooks, metal mirrors, extra trousers, and bloody, abandoned shoes. There were broken-handled shovels, and portable radios smashed almost beyond recognition, and mine detectors twisted and ruined.

There were torn pistol belts and canvas water buckets, first-aid kits, and jumbled heaps of life belts. I picked up a pocket Bible with a soldier's name in it, and put it in my jacket. I carried it a half a mile or so and then put it back down on the beach. I don't know why I picked it up, or why I put it back down again.

There are other things he sees that day, ironic and funny and pitiful and heartbreaking. And though Pyle himself never questions why they fought—if no war is good, fighting against Nazi Germany was certainly just—the overwhelming impression you get from the soldiers is that they're just trying to do their jobs and then get back home. If they believe in the cause, it's not so much for the lofty reasons that came out of the mouths of politicians, but because what they went through damn well better have meant something.