Ernie Pyle Helps us Through July 4th

BY Herschel Smith
8 years, 1 month ago

A ragged copy of Ernie Pyle’s “Here is Your War? sits on one of my library shelves. Its cover is decimated and the pages are falling out. At the time of purchase, it cost 50 cents. It is an original, and one of the most prized possessions in my library (right alongside Carl Becker, “Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers? that I got for a dollar at a library sale; the librarian – wink, wink – apparently did not know what she had). Today, the Fourth of July, we celebrate our Independence, and I wanted to do it in a rather different way. I want to celebrate our fighting men, and more specifically, to remind people of what war does to men who engage in it. I quote now from “Here is Your War? at some length, from the incomparable Ernie Pyle (there will never be another like him).

The men over here have changed too. They are too close to themselves to sense the change, perhaps. And I am too close to them to grasp it fully. But since I am older and a little apart, I have been able to notice it more.

For a year, everywhere I went, soldiers inevitably asked me two questions: “When do you think we’ll get to go home?? and “When will this war be over?? The home-going desire was once so dominant that I believe our soldiers over here would have voted – if the question had been put – to go home immediately, even if it meant peace on terms of something less than unconditional surrender by the enemy.

That isn’t true now. Sure, they all still want to go home. So do I. But there is something deeper than that, which didn’t exist six months ago. I can’t quite put it into words – it isn’t any theatrical proclamation that the enemy must be destroyed in the name of freedom; it’s just a vague but growing individual acceptance of the bitter fact that we must win this war or else, and that it can’t be won by running excursion boats back and forth across the Atlantic carrying homesick vacationers.

A year is a long time to be away from home, especially if a person has never been away before, as was true of the bulk of our troops. At first homesickness can almost kill a man. But time takes care of that. It isn’t normal to moon in the past forever. Home gradually grows less vivid; the separation from it less agonizing. There finally comes a day – not suddenly but gradually, as a sunset-touched cloud changes its color – when a man is living almost wholly wherever he is. His life has caught up with his body, and his days become full war days, instead of American days simply transplanted to Africa.

That’s the stage our solders are in now – the ones who have been over since the beginning, I mean. It seems to take about that long. It’s only in the last weeks that I’ve begun to hear frequent remarks, said enthusiastically and sincerely, about the thrill it will be to see Paris and to march down the streets of Berlin. The immediate goal used to be the Statue of Liberty; more and more it is becoming Unter den Linden. When all of our Army has bridged that gap we shall be in the home stretch.

Our men can’t make this change from normal civilians into warriors and remain the same people. Even if they were away from you this long under normal circumstances, the mere process of maturing would change them, and they would not come home just as you knew them. Add to that the abnormal world they have been plunged into, the new philosophies they have had to assume or perish inwardly, the horrors and delights and strange wonderful things they have experienced, and they are bound to be different people from those you sent away.

They are rougher than when you knew them. Killing is a rough business. Their basic language has changed from mere profanity to obscenity. More than anything else, they miss women. Their expressed longings, their conversation, their whole conduct show the need for female companionship, and the gentling effect of femininity upon man is conspicuous here where it has been so long absent.

Our men have less regard for property than you raised them to have. Money value means nothing to them, either personally or in the aggregate; they are fundamentally generous, with strangers and with each other. They give or throw away their own money, and it is natural that they are even less thoughtful of bulk property than their own hard-earned possessions.

Our men, still thinking of home, are impatient with the strange peoples and customs of the countries they now inhabit. They say that if they ever get home they never want to see another foreign country. But I know how it will be. They day will come when they’ll look back and brag about how they learned a little Arabic, and how swell girls were in England, and how pretty the hills of Germany were. Every day their scope is broadening despite themselves, and once they all get back with their global yarns and foreign-tinged views, I cannot conceive of our nation ever being isolationist again.

And from one of his columns:

The most vivid change is the casual and workshop manner in which they now talk about killing. They have made the psychological transition from the normal belief that taking human life is sinful, over to a new professional outlook where 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 noncombatant, 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.

Even after a winter of living with wholesale death and vile destruction, it is only spasmodically that I seem capable of realizing how real and how awful this war is. My emotions seem dead and crusty when presented with the tangibles of war. I find I can look on rows of fresh graves without a lump in my throat. Somehow I can look on mutilated bodies without flinching or feeling deeply.

It is only when I sit alone away from it all, or lie at night in my bedroll recreating with closed eyes what I have seen, thinking and thinking and thinking, that at last the enormity of all these newly dead strikes like a living nightmare. And there are times when I feel that I can’t stand it and will have to leave.

And from the same commentary:

But to the fighting soldier that phase of the war is behind. It was left behind after his first battle. His blood is up. He is fighting for his life, and killing now for him is as much a profession as writing is for me.

He wants to kill individually or in vast numbers. He wants to see the Germans overrun, mangled, butchered in the Tunisian trap. He speaks excitedly of seeing great heaps of dead, of our bombers sinking whole shiploads of fleeing men, of Germans by the thousands dying miserably in a final Tunisian holocaust of his own creation.

In this one respect the front-line soldier differs from all the rest of us. All the rest of us – you and me and even the thousands of soldiers behind the lines in Africa – we want terribly yet only academically for the war to get over. The front-line soldier wants it to be got over by the physical process of his destroying enough Germans to end it. He is truly at war. The rest of us, no matter how hard we work, are not.

And finally, this:

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, as 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.

Remember our boys in your prayers this Holiday.


You are currently reading "Ernie Pyle Helps us Through July 4th", entry #74 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) War & Warfare and was published July 3rd, 2006 by Herschel Smith.

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