at War: Farewell, Ernie Pyle
May 8, 2002
By Christian Dewar
Many people from the baby-boom generation may not know of
Ernie Pyle but their parents most certainly do. He was one
of the best loved and most popular figures of his generation.
A modest, humble man, Pyle was a journalist. As a young boy,
he envied friends who went to serve in World War I, "The
War to End all Wars." He had envisioned it as an adventure,
a path to glory and a chance to see the world.
Later in his life, he felt that it was his calling to cover
the second world war. As a war correspondent, Pyle was with
the green, inexperienced American troops during their retreat
from Rommel's troops at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. He was
with them at Anzio. He marched with the infantry in Africa,
Italy, France, Sicily and in the Pacific. Pyle went ashore
on the second day of the invasion of Normandy Pyle was with
America's citizen soldiers at the breakout from Saint-Lo when
U.S. bombers mistakenly dropped their ordinance on American
positions, killing hundreds of our troops.
The correspondence of Ernie Pyle covered not so much the
'big picture', but rather the daily life of the individual
soldier. He lived among the troops in the mud and rain, the
snow and slush, and the intense heat of the North African
desert. He risked his life and was exposed to the same hazards
as his comrades. He endured artillery barrages, strafing and
torrents of small-arms fire.
Pyle saw the suffering of these men first hand. He knew their
elation and despair and shared their emotions. He once wrote,
"the war gets so complicated and confused; on sad days it's
almost impossible to believe anything is worth such mass slaughter
and misery; and the after-war outlook seems to be so gloomy
and pathetic for everybody." He hated the war and, like all
of the troops, wanted to return to America. As a civilian,
he could have, but he felt to do so was tantamount to abandoning
his comrades. "[At home] you feel like a deserter and a heel
-- not so much to the war effort, but to your friends who
are still over there freezing and getting shot at."
His coverage of the war for many Stateside readers was their
insight into the hardship and sacrifice of the U.S. men and
women serving overseas. They regarded him with adoration and
respect. He spoke for a unified nation. He told the soldier's
stories truthfully and pulled no punches. The columns he sent
back to the States reflected the sheer horror and loss of
war. They were graphic and explicit. Although censored by
the military for any details that might aid the enemy, his
reports were brutally honest and the readers back home respected
him for it. He described "the unnatural sight of cold dead
men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along
the high rows of hedges throughout the world." And he described
how the naive young boys from America's heartland were transformed
into professional killers, and how they could become so hardened
to the carnage around them.
He once described the unrelenting death of the war:
Dead men by mass production-in one country after another
- month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter
and dead men in summer.
Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become
Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost
to hate them... These are the things that you at home
need not even try to understand. To you at home they are
columns and figures...
Pyle covered America's heroes at a time when the nation needed
Ernie Pyle was to become one of the most popular and beloved
men of his generation. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for
excellence in war correspondence. The army presented him with
a Purple Heart and he won the Medal for Merit. Buildings were
named for him. He was greeted by throngs of cheering soldiers
when he appeared at their posts. The Saturday Evening Post
wrote that Pyle "was probably the most prayed for man with
the American troops...". Pyle would be remembered and honored
as America's son for covering a 'Democracy at War'. Now, that
democracy has changed.
Jessica Hodgson recently wrote an article for The Guardian
fight 'hidden war' in Afghanistan." She reported that
"The U.S. military and the Northern Alliance may have colluded
to keep journalists away from areas in Afghanistan where special
forces were operating." She quoted Frontline Television director
and cameraman, Vaughan Smith, who felt that journalists may
have intentionally been isolated from the battlefields and
that the Afghanistan campaign was virtually unknown by broadcast
journalists. "This was a hidden war that we didn't see", he
said, calling the coverage "misleading". He described U.S.
network coverage as "almost McCarthyist in approach." Hodgson
also quotes BBC diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendell,
who said that the coverage, at times, was a "farce".
Smith said that some journalists would ask Afghans to pose
and fire their weapons and would then submit it as war footage.
Soldiers from the Northern Alliance claimed they had fired
more bullets for the journalists than they had in battle.
One American journalist who approached a war zone to try and
determine the number of civilian casualties encountered U.S.
soldiers who threatened to kill him if he continued. It has
been reported that some American troops have encouraged soldiers
from the Northern Alliance to menace and thwart journalists
trying to cover the war.
Why is it that this administration and the military want
to shroud this war in secrecy? Reporters are not seeking any
information that would compromise national security. The press
has historically cooperated with the military authorities
to restrict information that could help the enemy. Virtually
all of the spies and traitors who have betrayed U.S. secrets
have come, not from the media, but rather from the CIA, the
FBI or the military itself. It certainly is not to keep from
offending the sensibilities of Americans. Ernie Pyle has shown
that the American people can handle the graphic, horrendous
accounts that are the staple of war. It did not undermine
American morale when Pyle described the gruesome aftermath
of battle and the deaths of U.S. soldiers.
Ever since Vietnam, all news coverage of America's war have
been censored or stage-managed. Pools of selected reporters
are chosen to visit sites carefully picked by military brass.
Often, reporters are forbidden to cover battles until well
after they have taken place. Disinformation is planted in
the media for consumption by our citizens.
This administration and the military know that the media
coverage of events in Vietnam did undermine that war effort
and the Pentagon resolved to never have that happen again.
Photos of the wounded Vietnamese children fleeing the napalming
of their village made Americans at home wonder how the war
was being conducted. Pictures of a South Vietnamese general
summarily executing a Viet Cong prisoner in the street showed
Americans the realities of war. The footage of besieged U.S.
compounds under fire by the Viet Cong during the Tet offensive
made civilians question whether they were being told the truth
about the inevitability of our victory. The publication of
the Pentagon Papers made people realize that their government
was lying to them.
Years later, some of the chief architects of that bloody
debacle, such as Robert McNamara, came forward to say that
we had made a terrible mistake in going to war. Recently released
tapes of Lyndon Johnson dramatically point out that the precipitating
event for our incursion there, the supposed attacks on U.S.
ships at the Gulf of Tonkin, may have never taken place. Johnson
is heard on the tapes confiding about his doubts that we could
ever win the war, even as he was escalating the hostilities.
(It was recently revealed that Richard Nixon went behind Lyndon
Johnson's back to sabotage his peace negotiations with North
Vietnam in order to undermine LBJ's reelection. By the time
Nixon withdrew American troops with no more favorable terms
than those Johnson had secured, around twenty thousand more
U.S. troops had been killed.)
Tragically, anyone who who had studied the disastrous rout
of the French at Dien Bien Phu could have told the military
planners that their strategy was flawed and thus saved the
lives of 59,000 U.S. troops, perhaps three million Vietnamese
and billions of dollars of the taxpayer's money. The opponents
of the war were vindicated by history, but this would not
keep the military from censoring the rest of our bad wars.
When the U.S. invaded the Grenada Colossus and vanquished
their somewhat leftist leader, the military purposely tried
to stifle coverage. Accurate reporting of that tremendous
victory would have undoubtedly shown it to be the one-sided,
fish-in-the-barrel, turkey shoot that it was. When the Pentagon
decided to oust the dictator (former U.S. ally, Bush crony
and CIA asset) Manuel Noriega from Panama, reporters were
blocked from covering the campaign. The number of civilian
deaths was impossible to calculate, although they have been
estimated at being between two and three thousand. The bungling,
ineptitude and stupidity of the military planners that resulted
in needless American deaths went unreported.
The secret war of the Reagan/Bush administration in Nicaragua
was in violation of the Boland Amendment and an end-run around
democracy and our constitution. When Congress cut off funding
for the Contras, Reagan, who was convinced that Sandanistas
were poised for an invasion of Texas, diverted profits from
the sale of U.S. weapons and missiles to Iranian terrorists
to fund the illegal war. The administration launched a massive
cover-up and propaganda campaign to keep Americans and our
representatives from knowing about their crimes.
The current Bush administration has now rehired several of
the officials from his father's administration who lied to
the press, the American people and our elected representatives
about that campaign. Otto Reich, who appears to have assisted
in the recent efforts to topple the democratically elected
president in Venezuela, was heavily involved in propaganda
activities to hide the Contra war. Negroponte lied and tried
to cover up atrocities committed by right wing soldiers supported
by Reagan's secret warriors. Elliott Abrahms, who also appears
to have been involved in the planned coup in Venezuela, was
convicted of lying to congress. Poindexter was also convicted.
They were, of course, pardoned by the elder Bush to avoid
The Gulf War was another Pentagon whitewash. The Iraq-gate
scandal that was so effectively contained involved the arming
of Iraq with sophisticated weapons and equipment for the manufacture
of weapons of mass destruction by Bush and his cronies. This
took place up until shortly before the Gulf War began! It
is thought that the Reagan/Bush government told Saddam Hussein
that is was of no consequence to the United States if he invaded
Kuwait and that we would not become involved. There is wide
spread speculation that Bush provoked the war by urging Kuwait
to poach Iraqi oil by slant drilling. The campaign was hailed
as a great victory and Bush as the conquering hero in spite
of the fact that Hussein was still in power, that the autocratic
rulers of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were still in place, that
we failed to protect our Kurdish allies from being massacred
by Saddam and the fact that tens of thousands of U.S. Troops
contracted the mysterious, debilitating 'Gulf War Syndrome'.
In the war in Afghanistan, reporters have to content themselves
with regurgitating whatever Rumsfeld wants them to know. The
Pentagon recently announced and then disavowed plans to create
an office to plant propaganda and misinformation in the media
of both friendly and antagonistic foreign countries. What
appears in U.S. newspapers has been airbrushed for consumer
It is a tragedy for this country that Americans now find
it necessary to read foreign newspapers to get accurate reporting
on this country's 'War on Terrorism'. Many U.S. citizens would
probably be mortified if they knew of some of the allegations
made about Bush's policies in the international press. They
might reconsider if they read about the circumstances of the
deaths of our fighting men or reports of the number of civilian
casualties. It is possible that they might question the conduct
of the war if they knew about the Bush administration's overtures
to the Taliban before 9/11 on behalf of U.S. oil companies,
to install a pipeline and that they threatened to go to war
with them if they didn't cooperate. It is difficult to say
how Americans would feel if they read about reports in European
papers that the World Trade Center bombing was merely a convenient
excuse to begin a war that they had already planned and that
the Taliban who they sought to legitimize were now the scapegoat.
How would our citizens react if they had known that the Bin
Laden family had invested in Bush's early failed oil companies
or that they had money invested in the senior Bush's Carlysle
investment group at the time of the WTC attacks? What would
they think if they knew of claims that the Bush administration
had thwarted the FBI from investigating Saudi and Taliban
links to terrorists in order to appease their business cronies?
What of the reports in the international press that this administration
had warning that a terrorist attack was imminent?
The reason why this is a 'hidden war' is because, like Vietnam,
Grenada and Panama, there are many aspects of this war that
are not just and the Pentagon fears that accurate media coverage
would show this to be the case. The American people have every
right to insist that the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks
of 9/11 be pursued and brought to justice. It could only strengthen
America's image as a democracy if these terrorists were given
a fair trial in an open court for all of the world to see.
But how did the search for these murderous terrorists morph
into a worldwide war? The actions of the United States seem
to be unresponsive to those attacks and completely out of
proportion. If fifteen of the World Trade Center terrorists
were from Saudi Arabia, why does is it appear that Bush wants
to limit any investigation into their complicity? Why does
he want to limit an investigation of the intelligence failures
and the causes of 9/11? Why is Bush now sending troops to
protect the pipelines of U.S. Oil companies in Columbia and
the Philippines? Why send troops to Yemen? Somalia? Why are
American troops now training soldiers in Georgia? The president
has threatened war against the "Axis of Evil". An invasion
of Iraq is planned for the very near future. It is open season
on "Evil doers" anywhere on earth. More innocent Afghan civilians
may have died from U.S. 'surgical strikes' than the number
of people who died in the World Trade Center.
Americans are now in an undeclared, open-ended war with no
exit strategy that is channeling billions of dollars to defense
contractors with close ties to the administration. Even the
conservative organization Judicial Watch is stunned by the
conflicts of interest of the Bush family cronies. Bush senior's
Carlysle group is poised to make obscene profits from the
war and even to sell the Pentagon obsolete, inappropriate
weapons systems such as the Crusader cannon which the generals
don't even want. It would not be appropriate or effective
in fighting the Afghan campaign.
The wars of the United States are now sanitized for viewers'
consumption. Watching 'surgical strikes' on bunkers, trenches
and hospitals on television and hearing of the mangled bodies
of civilians referred to as 'collateral damage' make war seem
less gruesome. By labeling buildings, dams, schools and power
plants as 'infrastructure', the war becomes more palatable.
The images of pinpoint accurate, laser-guided, smart bombs
destroying air planes and fortresses shown to us by Pentagon
briefers seem less graphic than the simulated war games on
our Nintendo sets or Play Stations. We can generate the same
visuals on our computers and manipulate the joy stick to annihilate
endless virtual enemies. We have become numb to war.
Historian Howard Zinn described the disconnect between dropping
bombs from his plane over Germany during World War II and
the realization that they were leaving the dismembered bodies
of soldiers and civilians in their wake. Kurt Vonnegut wrote
about being a POW on the receiving end of U.S. incendiaries
dropped during the fire bombing of Dresden. In the book, Bat-21,
an officer observing the war from a plane is shot down and
sees the consequences of the war from ground level. By not
witnessing the violence and the consequences of war, it is
as if it is not really happening.
Ernie Pyle was killed by a Japanese sniper's bullet on the
island of Ie Shima, near Okinawa. He was mourned by his nation.
His friend, Bill Mauldin, who sketched cartoons of America's
G.I.s for the army's newspaper Stars and Stripes said
of him, "The only difference between Ernie's death and the
death of any other good guy is that the other guy is mourned
by his company. Ernie is mourned by his army."
After his death, some people wanted to construct a multi-million
dollar cemetery with memorials and lakes. His wife adamantly
opposed the idea. It was "entirely out of keeping with everything
Ernie did or said or thought or was", she stated. He had been
buried with the other war dead on the island where he was
killed. His remains were eventually relocated to the Punch
Bowl National Cemetery for veterans in Honolulu. She said,
"Ernie is lying where he would wish to be, with the men he
Today, the modest Pyle house in Albuquerque is a library.
Neighbors come to visit with the staff and exchange books.
Dogs wait patiently on the porch for their masters. Book clubs
meet regularly. Children come for 'story time' on Fridays.
They are on a first name basis with the librarians. The garden
is well tended by volunteers. There is a tombstone that was
erected on the side of the house for Ernie's dog, Cheeta.
Graying, stooped veterans make the pilgrimage to the Pyle
home which they revere as a shrine. He is remembered by these
old soldiers. They speak in awe of the man and they try to
impress upon listeners just how important Ernie was to the
war effort. After more than half a century, they talk in hushed
tones about what he meant to the unity and morale of this
country in one of it's darkest hours.
In his book Brave Men, one of Ernie Pyle's most poignant
and best known articles described the death of a well loved
The Death Of Captain Henry T. Waskow
Another man came. I think he was an officer. It was hard
to tell officers from men in the dim light, for everybody
was bearded and grimy. The man looked down into the dead
captain's face and then spoke directly to him, as though
he were alive, 'I'm sorry, old man.'
Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer and
bent over, and he spoke to his dead captain not in a whisper
but awfully tenderly, and he said, 'I sure am sorry, sir.'
Then the first man squatted down and he reached down
and took the captain's hand, and he sat there for a full
five minutes holding the dead hand in his own and looking
intently in the dead face. And he never uttered a sound
all the time he sat there.
Finally, he put his hand down. He reached over and straightened
the points of the captain's shirt collar, and then he
sort of rearranged the tattered edges of the uniform around
the wound, and they he got up and walked away down the
road in the moonlight, all alone.
We no longer have this caliber of war correspondence. The
reason why the military and the soldiers loved Ernie Pyle
was because he was reporting on a 'Democracy at War'. There
is no reason to censor a just war conducted on behalf of a
that form of government. What the Bush Administration and
the Pentagon do not want us to know is that we are no longer
a 'Democracy at War'. We are just at war.
Farewell, Ernie Pyle.