11 November 2005

On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month of the year 1918...

...the guns of World War I went silent. Today is Veterans' Day. As a history teacher this has always been one of the most important days of the school year, a day where I put aside the curriculum and talk about the reality of history. I am no longer a history teacher, and I struggle this morning with that fact. How can I fold this day into World Literature? Two of my classes are going to the library this morning for research, and three of them will be reviewing for a Tuesday test. How shall I stop and remember?

At the least I shall leave you with this selection from chapter 18 from Ernie Pyle's Here is Your War. The book is finally back in print. Buy it and laugh and cry and, most of all, remember. You can also go here to read some of his columns online. The chapter that follows is the last in that book and concerns the wrap up of the North African campaign, the first major campaign involving Americans in the European theater. The last two paragraphs are the most moving paragraphs of war writing that I have ever read, skip to them if you don't have time to read the entire post.

It is hard for you at home to realize what an immense, complicated, sprawling institution a theater of war actually is. As it appears to you in the newspapers, war is a clear-cut matter of landing so many men overseas, moving them from the port to the battlefield, advancing them against the enemy with guns firing, and they win or lose.

To look at war that way is like seeing a trailer of a movie, and saying you’ve seen the whole picture. I actually don’t know what percentage of our troops in Africa were in the battle lines, but I believe it safe to say that only comparatively few ever saw the enemy, ever shot at him, or were shot at by him. All the rest of those hundreds of thousands of men were churning the highways for two thousand miles behind the lines with their endless supply trucks, they were unloading the ships, cooking the meals, pounding the typewriters, fixing the roads, making the maps, repairing the engines, decoding the messages, training the reserves, pondering the plans.

What I have seen in North Africa has altered my own feelings in one respect. There were days when I say in my tent alone and gloomed with the desperate belief that it was actually possible for us to lose this war. I don’t feel that way any more. Despite our strikes and bickering and confusion back home, America is producing and no one can deny that. Even here at the far end of just one line trickle has grown into an impressive stream. We are producing at home and we are hardening overseas. Apparently it takes a county like America about two years to become wholly at war. We had to go through that transition period of letting loose of life as it was, and then live the new war life so long that it finally became the normal life to us. It was a form of growth, and we couldn’t press it. Only time can produce that change. We have survived that long passage of time, and if I am at all correct we have about changed our character and become a war nation. I can’t yet see when we shall win, or over what route geographically, or by which of the many means of warfare. But no longer do I have any doubts at all that we shall win.

The men over here have changed too. They are too close to themselves to sense the change 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 the 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 out-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 the war or else, and that it can’t be worn 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 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 in color-when a man is living almost wholly wherever he is. His life has caught up with his body, and his days become full way days, instead of American days simply transplanted to Africa.

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 their need for female companionship, and the gentling effect of femininity upon a 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 of their own hard-earned possession. It is often necessary to abandon equipment they can’t take with them; the urgency of war prohibits normal caution in the handling of vehicles and supplies. One of the most striking things to me about war is the appalling waste that is necessary. At the front there just isn’t time to be economical. Also, in war areas where things are scarce and red tape still rears it delaying head, a man learns to get what he needs simply by “requisitioning.” It isn’t stealing, it’s the only way to acquire certain things. The stress of war puts old virtues in a changed light. We shall have to relearn a simple fundamental or two when things get back to normal. But what’s wrong with a small case of “requisitioning” when murder is the classic goal?

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. The day will come when they’ll look back and brag about how they learned a little Arabic, and how swell the 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 their foreign-tinged views, I cannot conceive of our nation ever being isolationist again. The men don’t feel very international right now, but the influences are at work and the time will come.

Your men have been well cared for in the war. I suppose no soldiers in any other war in history have has such excellent attention as our men overseas. The food is good. Of course we’re always yapping about how wonderful a steak would taste on Broadway, but when a soldier is pinned right down he’ll admit ungrudgingly that it’s Broadway he’s thinking about more than steak, and that he really can’t kick on the food. Furthermore, cooking is good in this war. Last time good food was spoiled by lousy cooking, but that is the exception this time. Of course, there were times in battle when the men lived days on nothing but those deadly cold C rations our of tin cans, and even went without food for a day or two, but those were the crises, the exceptions. On the whole, we figure by the letters from home that we’re probably eating better than you are.

A good diet and excellent medical care have made our army a healthy one. Statistics show the men in the mass healthier today then they were in civil life back home. Our men are will provided with clothing, transportation, mail, and army newspapers. Back of the lines that had Post Exchanges where they could buy cigarettes, candy, toilet articles, and all such things. If they were in the combat zone, all those things were issued to them free.

And then finally the Tunisian campaign was over, spectacularly collapsed after the bitterest fighting we had known in our theater. It was only in those last days that I came to know how any of the men who went through the thick of that hill-by-hill butchery could ever be the same again. The end of the Tunisian war brought an exhilaration, then a letdown, and later a restlessness from anticlimax that I can see multiplied a thousand times when the last surrender comes. The transition back to normal days will be as difficult for many as was the change into war, and some will never be able to accomplish it.

Now we are in a lull and many of us are having a short rest period. I tried the city and couldn’t stand it. Two days drove me back to the country, where everything seemed cleaner and more decent. I am in my tent, sitting on a newly acquired cot, writing on a German folding table we picked up the day of the big surrender. The days here are so peaceful and perfect they almost give us a sense of infidelity to those we left behind beneath the Tunisian crosses, those whose final awareness was a bedlam of fire and noise and uproar.

It may be that the war has changed me, along with the rest. It is hard for anyone to analyze himself. I know that I find more and more that I wish to be alone, and yet contradictorily I believe I have a new patience with humanity that I’ve never had before. When you’ve lived with the unnatural mass cruelty that mankind is capable of inflicting upon itself, you find yourself dispossessed of the faculty for blaming one poor man for the triviality of his faults. I don’t see how any survivor of war can ever be cruel to anything, ever again.

Yes, I want the war to be over, just as keenly as any soldier in North Africa wants it. This little interlude of passive contentment here on the Mediterranean shore is a mean temptation. It is a beckoning into somnolence. This is the kind of day I think I want my life to be composed of, endlessly. But pretty soon we shall strike our tents and traipse again after the clanking tanks, sleep again to the incessant lullaby of the big rolling guns. It has to be that way, and wishing doesn’t change it.

It may be I have unconsciously made war seem more awful than it really is. It would be wrong to say that war is grim; if it were, the human spirit could not survive two and three and four years of it. There is a good deal of gaiety in wartime. Some of us, even over here, are having the time of our lives. Humor and exuberance still exist. As some soldiers once said, the army is good for one ridiculous laugh per minute. Our soldiers are still just as roughly good-humored as they always were, and they laugh easily, although there isn’t as much to laugh about as there used to be.

And I don’t attempt to deny that war is vastly exhilarating. The whole tempo of life steps up, both at home and on the front. There is an intoxication about battle, and ordinary men can sometimes soar clear out of themselves on the wine of danger-emotion. And yet it is false. When we leave here to go on into the next battleground, I know that I for one shall go with the greatest reluctance.

On the day of final peace, the last stroke of what we call the “Big Picture” will be drawn. I haven’t written anything about the “Big Picture,” because I don’t know anything about it. I only know what we see from our worm’s-eye view, and our segment of the picture consists only of tired and dirty soldiers who are alive and don’t want to die; of long darkened convoys in the middle of the night; of shocked silent men wandering back down the hill from battle; of show lines and atabrine tablets and foxholes and burning tanks and Arabs holding up eggs and the rustle of high-flown shells; of jeeps and petrol dumps and smelly bedding rolls and C rations and cactus patches and blown bridges and dead mules and hospital tents and shirt collars greasy-black from months of wearing; and of laughter too, and anger and wine and lovely flowers and constant cussing. All these it is composed of; and of graves and graves and graves.

That is our war, and we will carry it with us as we go on from one battleground to another until it is all over, leaving some of us behind on every beach, in every field. We are just beginning with the ones who lie back of us here in Tunisia. I don’t know whether it was their good fortune or their misfortune to get out of it so early in the game. I guess it doesn’t make any difference , once a man has gone. Medals and speeches and victories are nothing to them any more. They died and others lived and nobody knows why it is so. They died and thereby the rest of us can go on and on. When we leave here for the next shore, there is nothing we can do for the ones beneath the wooden crosses, except perhaps to pause and murmur, “Thanks, pal.”

After reporting in Europe for several years, Pyle was exhausted by the war and came home, hoping to never return to the front. But he couldn't stay away. He went to the Pacific and reported from there. He was killed by Japanese machine gunners on the island of Ie Shima, just off of Okinawa in the last major battle of the Pacific campaign.

Thanks, pal.


1 comment:

fiorinda said...

Thanks, splitcat