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Accumulated Blur: Ernie Pyle and Iraq
by Douglas Savage
30 April 2003

While U. S. cable networks exalted the successes of coalition forces on the ground and celebrated the liberation of the Iraqi people, precious little of the carnage of battle was shown.

Iraqi Flag

Sixty years ago, Americans rushed home to read Ernie Pyle’s columns written from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. Seven hundred, daily and weekly newspapers carried his war reports to 14 million kitchen tables. His combat reporting won him a Pulitzer Prize and the cover of Time magazine in July 1944. The Saturday Evening Post called him "the most prayed-for man with the American troops." But the ghastly carnage he saw on land, sea, and air, sickened him to the soul. "[T]he enormity of all these newly dead strikes me like a living nightmare," he wrote from Tunisia in a column datelined April, 22, 1943. "And there are times when I feel that I can’t stand it all and will have to leave."

On Sunday, March 23, 2003, the Arabic, Al-Jazeera cable television network reaped the whirlwind for airing video of captured and dead — perhaps executed — United States servicemen and women. Founded and funded by the emir of Qatar in 1996 and owned by the government of Qatar, the English-online and Arabic-language, satellite network aired the video to its 65 million, worldwide subscribers, 8 million of whom live in Europe. One hundred thirty-five thousand U. S. homes subscribe to Al-Jazeera. The video was horrific and it was aired days before the families of the captured and dead servicepersons could be properly notified. No United States network broadcast the video scenes, although some showed still photographs of the video frames with the faces edited out.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on CBS television declared that Al-Jazeera is "part of Iraqi propaganda and responding to Iraqi propaganda." U. S. Lt. General John Abizaid called the video "absolutely unacceptable" and "disgusting." After Al-Jazeera showed English dead, British Air Marshall Brian Burridge cautioned that "all media must be aware of the limits of taste and decency."

Jihad Ali Ballout, speaking for Al-Jazeera, defended his network by declaring that "the reality of war is horrible."

Among U. S. condemnations of Al-Jazeera was banishment from coverage of the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq.

Al-Jazeera has been accused in this country of overplaying Iraqi civilian casualties.

Al-Jazeera’s editor-in-chief, Ibrahim Hilal, said on March 28 that "War has victims from both sides." Al-Jazeera’s bureau chief in Washington is Egyptian-born, naturalized U. S. citizen Hafez Mirazi, who has a master’s degree from Washington’s Catholic University and who worked for Voice of America for 12 years. "If you leave it to politicians," he warned, "you won’t see anything."

On March 23, Secretary of State Colin Powell accused Al-Jazeera of "portray[ing] our efforts in a negative light." This is often true in so far as Al-Jazeera caters to its constituency as U. S. networks court theirs. But something must be said about Al-Jazeera’s effort to be fair when the Arabic network had its office in Amman, Jordan, closed by the government, had two reporters expelled from Baghdad by the Saddam Hussein government, and had reporters denied visas in pro-coalition Bahrain and Kuwait. Hafez Mirazi said that the "Bahraini information minister accused Al-Jazeera of being infiltrated by Zionist elements."

While U. S. cable networks exalt the successes of coalition forces on the ground and in the air of Iraq and celebrate the liberation of the Iraqi people, precious little of the carnage of battle is shown. When the networks agonized about broadcasting Al-Jazeera’s grotesque images of coalition prisoners and dead, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer noted that "There is always a delicate balance that has to be made." ABC News’ Charles Gibson grieved on the air that "Any time that you show bodies, it is simply disrespectful."

Ernie Pyle would have disagreed about sanitizing the horrors of war.

On April 27, 1943, after being bombed in Tunisia, Pyle described what he felt to his readers back home: "[O]n some nights, the air becomes sick and there is an unspoken contagion of spiritual dread, and you are little boys again, lost in the dark."

Although he rode bombers and sailed with the Navy, Pyle’s heart was always with the infantry. Writing from the D-Day beaches at Normandy on August 5, 1944, Pyle confessed in his column that "I went with the infantry because it is my love."

Ernie Pyle’s columns about death and pain and broken spirits would be called unpatriotic today.

By the fall of 1944, he had seen enough and had smelled enough of war. He had to leave, return to the States, and recover. "The hurt has finally become too great," he apologized to his faithful Stateside readers from Europe on September 5.

Ernie Pyle won his Pulitzer for his January 10, 1944, column that swept the nation, "The Death of Captain Waskow."

Captain Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas, was killed in action in Italy. His men loved the captain who was not out of his twenties.

Captain Waskow was brought down the mountain on the back of a mule.

"Dead men," wrote Pyle, " had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules. They came lying belly-down across the wooden pack-saddles, their heads hanging down on the left side of the mule, their stiffened legs sticking out awkwardly from the other side."

Has Al-Jazeera videotaped anything worse than what Ernie Pyle wrote?

Pyle watched the captain’s men bend over his body. "I sure am sorry, sir," one boy said. "God damn it to hell anyway," another soldier grieved.

"You feel small in the presence of dead men and ashamed at being alive," Pyle said of the scene, "and you don’t ask silly questions."

On August 19, 1944, Pyle wrote from Europe that "[t]he worst experience of all is just the accumulated blur and the hurting vagueness of too long in the lines ... and the constant march into eternity of your own small quota of chances for survival."

After his recuperation at home, Pyle sailed west to cover the war in the Pacific. He waded ashore on April 1, 1945, Easter Sunday, in the U. S. Marine invasion of Okinawa. On April 18 on the tiny island of Ie Shima, a Japanese sniper blew Ernie Pyle’s brains out.

In Pyles pocket, splattered with blood and brain tissue, Marines found an unfinished column. Pyle had scribbled random thoughts about his generation’s war:

"Dead men by mass production ... 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."

Did Ernie Pyle and does Al-Jazeera know something about war that our television anchormen and our military spokespersons would prefer that we not know?

Douglas Savage practiced law in Canton, Ohio, for 24 years. He has published six novels and seven nonfiction books. His nonfiction texts are about the Civil War.

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