From: bought at a used book sale a long time ago
In a nutshell:
Ernie Pyle was a war correspondent in World War II who was well-known and well-loved for his columns that depicted the war experiences of the ordinary soldier.
Pyle was an embedded reporter, preferring to do his job near the front and pitching his tent right alongside the infantrymen. Here is Your War chronicles the American troops at the North African front – primarily Algeria and Tunisia. The book starts with the convoy trip from London to Africa and ends with the victory in Tunisia.
From what I can tell, Here is Your War is an edited collection of his dispatches from that time, so they are a bit more organized and melded together than just a straight-up collection of newspaper columns.
I’ve been absent from my blog for the past few weeks because I just moved to a new apartment to be closer to my job. With no library books around, I delved into my own books, including Here is Your War. I’m so glad I picked it up as I really loved Ernie Pyle’s style and his observations.
As I said when I reviewed Lost in Shangri-La, it’s refreshing to read World War II books that are set outside of Europe. This is war in the desert and among the Arab people and the colonial populations (mostly French). Unlike Lost in Shangri-La, Here is Your War was written at the time these events were happening. So Here is Your War functions like a time capsule, though filtered through Ernie Pyle’s own particular worldview. It was a time where the word “holocaust” was used to describe the carnage of battle and not to what was happening behind German lines in the death camps. It was a time where the addresses of soldiers would often be printed alongside their names when they were mentioned in the dispatches.
(As an aside, here’s an allusion in the book which I didn’t know how to interpret: Ernie Pyle describes meeting a nurse named Mary Ann Sullivan who, along with other nurses, had been saving sugar for Pyle ever since reading a London dispatch where he complained about the lack of sugar. The sugar was lost when the nurses’ ship sank. Pyle writes that Mary Ann feels bad about this and breaks out “a hospitable commodity which both censorship and the ethics of war forbid me to mention. So our meeting was not without a certain rare delicacy to put in our mouths.” What I want to know is what did she give him? Was it a drug? If I was a reader in the 1940’s, would I know which drug it referred to? Help me out if you know.)
Pyle’s audience consisted of the American readers back home and he addresses them with frank assessments of the soldier’s life but also reassurances when he can give them. He writes of how cold the nights were, what kind of letters soldiers enjoyed, how war was changing the men irreparably. I agree with another review I saw where someone mentioned Pyle’s obvious pride in the American troops.
I can see why his readers and the soldiers liked him so much. I especially love his self-deprecating humor. Here is one passage from Pyle’s visit to the Algerian city Sidi-bel-Abbes, headquarters of the French Foreign Legion. Pyle and five American army officers drop in at a bar to talk to some Legionnaires:
Max spoke German, and this was how it wound up: Max and the Swiss in one huddle talking German; Lieutenant Deschenes and the proprietor’s daughters in another huddle speaking real French; Colonel Cowan with a little group around him telling about hunting elephants in Indo-China; Art Nillen standing in the doorway shouting, “Zid, yalla, you little —-” at all the passing Arab kids; Lennie and the sergeant in another huddle speaking pidgin and making motions, and me sitting all alone in a corner ordering my breakfast in Spanish, over and over to myself.
Breakfast words happened to be the only Spanish I knew, and damned if I wasn’t going to talk some kind of foreign language amidst all that international sewing circle, even if I had to keep ordering hypothetical breakfasts all afternoon.
Here is Your War does an excellent job of conveying the complicated logistics of war, as seen from the ground. Where does their food come from? How often do flights go out, and how long should the pilots go without rest from their missions? How do they protect their captured port from bombing?
Pyle states flatly that he doesn’t go out of his way to get into danger, but he has close calls anyway. Like the soldiers, he always has an ear and eye out for the planes, in case they should turn out to be German planes on a strafing run.
Pyle writes about the costs of war very movingly. The last chapter and especially the last two paragraphs were just about perfect so I’ll include them whole here. They were especially poignant to read knowing that Ernie Pyle was later killed by Japanese machine-gun fire on April 18, 1945 while covering the Pacific front.
On the day of final peace, the last stroke of what we call the “Big Picture” will be drawn. I haven’t written anything about the “Big Picture,” because I don’t know anything about it. I only know what we see from our worm’s-eye view, and our segment of the picture consists only of tired and dirty soldiers who are alive and don’t want to die; of long darkened convoys in the middle of the night; of shocked silent men wandering back down the hill from battle; of chow lines and atabrine tablets and foxholes and burning tanks and Arabs holding up eggs and the rustle of high-flown shells; of jeeps and petrol dumps and smelly bedding rolls and C rations and cactus patches and blown bridges and dead mules and hospital tents and shirt collars greasy-black from months of wearing; and of laughter too, and anger and wine and lovely flowers and constant cussing. All these it is composed of; and of graves and graves and graves.
That is our war, and we will carry it with us as we go on from one battleground to another until it is all over, leaving some of us behind on every beach, in every field. We are just beginning with the ones who lie back of us here in Tunisia. I don’t know whether it was their good fortune or their misfortune to get out of it so early in the game. I guess it doesn’t make any difference, once a man has gone. Medals and speeches and victories are nothing to them any more. They died and others lived and nobody knows why it is so. They died and thereby the rest of us can go on and on. When we leave here for the next shore, there is nothing we can do for the ones beneath the wooden crosses, except perhaps to pause and murmur, “Thanks, pal.”
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Joel from goodreads.com – “Through Pyle’s writings he has a clear love and admiration for the soldier and it drips from every page and is highly contagious.”
Journeys and Essays – “With unequaled humanity and insight, Pyle tells how people from a cross-section of America—ranches, inner cities, small mountain farms, and college towns—learned to fight a war.”
Sandra T from goodreads.com – “It’s really a series of loosely-connected vignettes, but Pyle provides a very clear image of the American mindset and the day-to-day facts of warfare.”