Morris: Ernie Pyle and the History of War
by Leo Morris
Reading up on my journalistic hero Ernie Pyle, I came across this startling paragraph near the end of a mostly laudatory article about him in American Heritage magazine:
“Ernie Pyle had some off days in his wartime columns. Sometimes he laid on the Hoosier folksiness a bit too heavily. Sometimes the GI’s came off just a little too good to be true, not only rugged and brave but also unfailingly good-humored in adversity and kind to children and dogs. Moreover, he, like other World War II reporters, has been criticized for giving an incomplete picture of the war — for leaving out the incompetent generals, the strategic blunders, the looting and atrocities. Though Pyle didn’t always depict a smoothly running war machine, there is some truth in such criticism. Indeed, he wasn’t above partaking of a bottle of looted cognac himself, and he, like other correspondents, did suppress some distressing stories, such as the Patton slapping incident.”
That’s startling because what we mostly know about Pyle, the closest thing to a universally revered journalist this nation has ever produced, is the remarkable stuff he put into his columns, not the things he left out.
We’ve been told for 50 years now that one of the reasons the American people turned against Vietnam was that it was the first “television war.” It was the first time in history that we experienced the horrors of war every day in our living rooms in all its gory reality.
That is nowhere near the truth. Pyle’s World War II dispatches also thrust the gritty reality of war into American homes, describing in minute detail the day-to-day misery and terror of the average soldier and, many times, the sense of futility and hopelessness the unrelenting carnage produced. Near the war’s end, he was appearing in 300 weekly newspapers and six days a week in 400 dailies.
Not only did his graphic reporting not turn the country against the war, some critics argue that it was one of the unifying forces keeping Americans focused on a common enemy and a shared purpose. The soldiers in the field considered him one of their own, and people on the home front read his columns like disturbing but friendly letters from a beloved relative. He became something of a hero, and when a Japanese bullet claimed him in 1945, the nation truly mourned.
Consider, by contrast, the unrelentingly bloody and violent scenes sent to us from Vietnam. War correspondents there did cover the kind of negatives Pyle overlooked, in excruciating detail – the incompetent generals, the self-serving politicians, the greed and brutality of some soldiers, the innocent civilians torn apart by friendly fire.
And if Pyle focused on the nobility of the American war effort and slighted some of its baser components, Vietnam-era journalists wallowed in the evil, and it seldom occurred to them to acknowledge that we might have entered Southeast Asia with good intentions and that some people still considered patriotism more than the last refuge of scoundrels. Little wonder, when one of the most powerful symbols of the war became a screaming, naked little girl trying to run away from her napalm burns, that many Americans could see their own soldiers as the enemy.
It’s tempting to attribute the difference in coverage to a failure of journalism, or at least a difference in how it is defined.
But it’s a little more complicated than that.
Pyle was a product of his times. The nation was unified in purpose, so Americans followed a journalist who helped them define and appreciate their sense of mission. In Vietnam we were divided, and we followed the journalism that underscored our sense of discontent.
August is pretty much “revere Ernie Pyle” month in Indiana. Thanks to a resolution by Ind. Sens. Todd Young and Joe Donnelly, the U.S. Senate declared Aug. 3 as National Ernie Pyle Day. A special day of celebration was designated for Aug. 9 in the tiny southwest Indiana town of Dana where he was raised. Indiana University, where he almost got a journalism degree, is honoring him with special ceremonies.
I think it’s worth considering that in Vietnam, such a remarkable wartime record would not have been possible. And today, when we have separated ourselves into unforgiving tribes that follow only the chroniclers of our own prejudices, he would likely even be the object of scorn and ridicule.
He’s still the reporter I admire the most and one of the best our profession has ever produced, so I don’t mean to knock him off his pedestal.
But he was no saint, journalistic or otherwise. He simply understood who his audience was and knew how to speak to it. And when Walter Cronkite looked into the TV camera and blandly told us that Vietnam was lost, he was not, as some have claimed, bringing about the loss of a war we could have won. He was, however, demonstrating that he exactly understood his audience and knew exactly how to speak to it.
We may not, as has been said of leaders, get the journalists we deserve. But we do get the ones we can accept.
Which came first? I wonder. Are we divided because journalism has become a divisive enterprise? Or has journalism become a divisive enterprise because it reflects the society it sprang from?
I ask not because I know the answer, but because it is an eternal question. And one of the most striking symbols of eternity, I recall, is that of a snake eating its own tail.
Somehow, I find that symbol grotesquely appropriate.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is this year’s winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.