Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Book review: "Here is Your War" by Ernie Pyle

War is more than just battles, bullets, and fighting. It's about soldiers who go for weeks without bathing, or even taking their socks off. It's about simple delights like when you find a nice foxhole without having to dig it yourself, or a fellow soldier shares his fresh eggs for breakfast. It's about making friends quickly and deeply, then never seeing them again.

This is the picture of war painted by correspondent Ernie Pyle in "Here is Your War: The Story of G.I. Joe." This fascinating book is a compilation of Pyle's newspaper dispatches from 1942-43 when he accompanied U.S. soldiers fighting in Algeria and Tunisia, and told their stories to the folks "back home."

Pyle is a masterful journalist; any reporter could learn from his careful attention to detail. Every page in "Here is Your War" is filled with stories and anecdotes that are brought alive by his colorful and nuanced observations.

He tells us, for example:
  • Soldiers constantly watched the sky; nothing scared them more than strafing planes.
  • A jeep going fast makes a humming noise that sounds distressingly like an incoming enemy fighter.
  • The less a soldier washed the less he was bothered by insects.
  • Repair crews improvised methods to keep planes flying that would have frightened the planes' makers
  • A tired soldier sometimes they would go for two or three days without a break could sleep right through an artillery shelling.
  • In war, "camouflage became second nature. Near the front no one ever parked a jeep without putting it under a tree. If there were no trees, we left it on the shady side of a building or wall. As we neared the front we folded our windshield down over the hood and slipped a canvas cover over it so it wouldn't glint and attract a pilot's eye."
Along with such details, Pyle introduces us to many dozens of the soldiers. Most of these are ordinary men who were living ordinary lives as doctors, carpenters, furniture movers, or some such occupation before the war. Now suddenly they're off on the biggest adventures of their lives. For each man, Pyle find a story or detail that makes him unique, then quickly moves on. There are no continuing characters in the book, other than the author himself, but that's the nature of war, Pyle explains:

"In wartime people leave without saying good-bye a fellow would be gone for three or four days before we realized his absence. It was no use to inquire. We just accepted it, and months later we were likely to be pumping his hand in some other foreign country. Or maybe we would never see him again. There was no telling."

A big strength of this book is that Pyle is just plain likeable. He's down-to-earth, self-deprecating and admittedly human. I especially liked when he confessed that he was too scared to go along with a bomber crew on a dangerous mission.

The book is filled with funny and offbeat anecdotes, and you'll no doubt gets some laughs from the book. But this is still war, and Pyle acknowledges that as the fighting goes on, it changes the men: "The most vivid change was the casual and workshop manner in which they talked about killing. They made the psychological transition from their normal belief that taking human life was sinful, over to a new professional outlook where killing was a craft. No longer was there anything morally wrong about killing. In fact, it was an admirable thing."

Despite the hardships and the dangers, Pyle finds a generally upbeat tone among the American soldiers. Sure, they might be homesick and hungry for a comfortable bed and Mom's cooking, but no one seems to question the war itself. The fact that that there's a clear goal and that the soldiers can see progress being made clearly helps their morale. 


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