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A Democracy 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 monotonous.

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 heroes

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 entitled, "Journalists 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 implicating himself.

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 consumption.

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 loved."

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 officer.

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.

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