Sixty years ago, with victory over Japan in sight, Ernie Pyle, America’s greatest World War II correspondent, was killed by a sniper while covering the war in the Pacific. For a nation still reeling from President Roosevelt’s death, the loss of Pyle six days later came as a terrible shock.
In this year of tributes to the aging vets of the Second World War and disputes over the war in Iraq, it is important to remember Pyle, not only for what he meant to the nation in dark times but for the perspective he sheds on today’s war reportage, with its embedded correspondents and its muckraking coverage of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
What F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels were for the 1920s and John Steinbeck’s for the 1930s, Ernie Pyle’s reportage was for the 1940s: a generational mirror. At its peak Pyle’s column appeared in more than two hundred daily newspapers and four hundred weeklies. Two collections of his columns, Here Is Your War and Brave Men, were best-sellers. Time put Pyle on its front cover. Hollywood did a movie, The Story of G.I. Joe, based on his European reportage, and in 1944 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
But in the years since his death, Pyle’s reputation has plummeted. In The First Casualty, his history of war correspondents from Crimea to Vietnam, Phillip Knightley does what nobody from Pyle’s generation would have: he dismisses Pyle’s concern for the individual soldier as sentimentality. “No detail about life for the G.I. in Europe was too insignificant to report,” Knightley writes patronizingly of Pyle. “No complaint too minor to mention, no message too mundane to relay. His column became the inarticulate G.I.’s letter to his folks back home.”
Knightley’s disdain for Pyle and for a style of war reportage that parallels the thirties writing of Steinbeck, an outspoken Pyle admirer, reflects the degree to which Pyle does not fit our current image of a war correspondent as a reporter who gets close to the action and then exposes the government’s lies about the war it is waging. Pyle seems too trusting of the military, too cozy with his readers for our contemporary tastes. In contrast to fiction writers of his generation, such as Joseph Heller in Catch-22 or Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five, who remain popular today, Pyle does not lead us to the antiwar novels and reportage that since Vietnam have become a staple of American literature.
In writing off Ernie Pyle, we have, however, lost a historic perspective as valuable as the antiwar vision we now honor. We have lost a sense of what it means for a frontline correspondent to write thoughtfully, yet with undisguised partisanship, about a war he and the nation believe that we are all in together.
Like Bill Mauldin, whose “Willie and Joe” cartoons he so admired, Pyle wrote about World War II from the bottom up. He did not worry, as a professional historian would, about failing to provide a strategic ...
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