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The New Yorker Book of War Pieces.

The New Yorker Book of War Pieces. Anthology. Schocken Books, $12.95. One is tempted by the democratic urge to say that war reporting is no different than any other kind of reporting. But it wouldn't be accurate. True, you ask the same species of questions you ask when covering a story at city hall-who did what to whom, what were the motives, who's covering up information and why, etc.-and you employ the same skills of curiosity, doggedness, cunning, and occasionally arrogance to try to find out what's going on behind the official announcement. Yet when the story is about fellow humans being maimed and killed in large numbers, about whole nations thrown into disoriented confusion as they mobilize against imminent invasion, about cold fear as a constant in daily life and everyone struggling against it to achieve the appearance of normalcy, then the reponing does indeed take on a different quality-not least because the traditional teaching instilled in journalists to stay removed, not be touched, hold all emotion in check, finds itself, in wartime, thoroughly challenged and often stripped away.

Where traditional journalism speaks in a language that is controlled and sometimes veiled, reporting on war does not remit such remoteness. It demands intimacy. And it is this closeness, this attention to humanness, that makes the recent republication of The New Yorker Book of War Pieces, a collection of World War II articles from the magazine that was first issued in 1947, an occasion for applause. For while every piece in this anthology is not equally vivid or memorable, the overall aura of the book is one of distinguished, at times classic, journalism.

The collection also serves to remind us that magazines of quality like The New Yorker give writers a freedom they do not always enjoy on, say, newspapers, where too often the qualities of liveliness and flavor and the juice of real life are squeezed out of the copy in the rote-invoked names of objectivity and discipline. I myself, when I was overseas for a newspaper, had gifted editors who encouraged me to breathe, and I therefore suffered no such suffocation. But I think the norm on newspapers generally lies elsewhere-in homogenized forms more inhibiting than these chronicles of the second great war.

Here, as an example, is A.J. Liebling from Paris in the summer of 1940, as the German army draws closer and he is forced to make hasty plans to depart: "From the Spanish Consulate, I went to the Prefecture of Police, where I asked for a visa that would permit me to leave France. A woman police official, a sort of chief clerk, said, 'Leave your passport and come back for it in not less than four days.' 'But by that time, Madame,' I said, 'the Germans may be here and the Prefecture may not exist.' Naturally, I didn't leave the passport, but I was foolish to question the permanency of the Prefecture. The French civil servants are the one class unaffected by revolution or conquest. The Germans were to come, as it turned out, but the Prefecture was to stay open, its personnel and routine unchanged. Its great accumulation of information about individual Frenchmen, so useful for the apprehension of patriots and the blackmailing of politicians, was to be at the disposal of the Germans as it had been at PhillipeEgalite's and Napoleon the Little's and Stavisky's. The well-fed young agents were to continue on the same beats, unaffected by the end of the war they had never had to fight in. Yesterday the Prefecture had obeyed the orders of M. Mendel, who hated the Germans. Now it would obey Herr Abetz, who fiated Jews. Change of administration. Tant pis."

In a more violent setting later in the war, Walter Bernstein, a writer who was not an accredited war correspondent but instead a foot soldier assigned to a reconnaissance platoon in a regiment that was pushing north through Italy, is walking down a hill when he encounters, climbing up from the other direction, four G.I.'s carrying a wounded man on a blanket stretched between them:

"He lay very still, The men came slowly toward me, carrying the blanket with great care. . .their eyes were deep in their sockets. . .one of the two front men said, 'You know where the medics are?' His voice was too tired to have any expression; it seemed to come from a long distance. I said I didn't know. 'We got to find the medics,, the soldier said. 'We got a man hurt bad.' I said they would have to climb the hill and then maybe they could send down from the observation post for one of the first-aid men at the C.P. The soldier was silent for a while, then he said again, 'We got to find the medics.' The three other men stood silent, looking at the one who was talking. The blanket was stiff with caked blood. The wounded man was scarcely breathing. Once in a while his fingers twitched and tapped weakly on the blanket... .'Thank you,' the man who had spoken to me said. . . .They began to walk again, synchronizing their steps so that they wouldn't shake the blanket. . . .They moved up the path slowly, like sleepwalkers, and I watched until they turned the corner and were out of sight. Then I went on along the path, following the trail of blood they left."

And then there is Guy Remington, a paratrooper lieutenant making a jump into Normandy on D-Day, in the dark, amid withering fire from the ground. He wrote"The green light flashed on at seven minutes past midnight. The jump master shouted, 'Go!' I was the second man out. The black Normandy pastures tilted and turned far beneath me. The first German flare came arching up, and instantly machine guns and 40-millimeter guns began firing from the corners of the fields, striping the night with yellow, green, blue, and red tracers. I pitched down through a wild Fourth of July. Fire licked through the sky and blazed around the transports heaving high overhead. I saw some of them go plunging down in flames. One of them came down with a trooper, whose parachute had become caught on the tailpiece, streaming out behind. I heard a loud gush of air; a man went hurtling past, only a few yards away, his parachute collapsed and burning. Other parachutes, with men whose legs had been shot off slumped in the harness, floated gently toward the earth." Remington, his chute riddled, somehow survives the crossfire and lands in a garden. He examines himself and cannot believe his miracle: "There were four tracer holes through one of my pants legs, two through the other, and another bullet had ripped off both breast pockets, but I hadn't a scratch."

All the varieties of good war reporting are here-hometown stories about American soldiers like Caruso, "a small and very dark Italian with a big nose, who used to work for Bloomingdale's"; stories about English families bombed out of their homes who get on with it nonetheless ("So long as I get my old woman 'ome [from the hospital], everything will be all right. 1 don't worry about nothing else."); stories about abandoned European farmhouses where leftbehind personal papers tell of simple existences torn asunder by grievous casualties; stories about the hellish beaches on D-Day; stories about the Kamikaze raids on allied troops in the Pacific as they fought to take Okinawa and other Japanese-held islands; stories about victory celebrations in Paris and London and the Philippines ("Long live the Americans! Lovely Americans!" the Filipinos shouted); and, finally, John Hersey's exquisite and aching recounting of what it was like "at exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima"-told through the eyes of six Japanese survivors.

There is of course much that is ageless here; mostly, wars tend to change only in the refinements of lethal technology, which have enabled us to destroy targets and kill people more efficiently and in greater quantities. The chronicles of sacrifice and grief and loss and exultation remain much the same. Yet in reading a volume of war correspondence from a time that is now 50 years in the past, one is nevertheless struck by attitudes and modes of writing that, for better or worse, have fallen out of use and would not likely find their way into print today.

In much the same way that witnessing an execution can make the witnesses less enthusiastic about the death penalty, the arrival of the awfulness of war in our living rooms through television has made war itself as an instrument of state policy less acceptable than when it could only be read about on the printed page or listened to in radio dispatches. We don't, as commonly as we once did, talk about war in the jingoistic language of athletic competition-as in "Let's go bloody the Huns' noses!"

Also, we as Americans do not feel as heady and muscular and indomitable as we did after making our comeback and conquering fanatical foes in World War II. All enemies are not as clear cut and evil as was Hitler and his Third Reich.

Throughout the New Yorker collection, the identification of the reporters with American and allied troops is so complete-and appropriate-that the accounts abound with references like "it took us three hours to clean them out" or "as soon as our troops came in" or "while we were stalled." It does not suggest a diminution of patriotism to note that American journalists, since Vietnam , are not as likely to use "we" and "us" in such automatic fashion anymore. When the national interest becomes blurred, journalists tend to adopt a more independent voice. They ask more questions about the purpose of their government and do not so facilely indicate in their use of language that they have taken sides.

Some critics saw a lack of national spirit in the Vietnam reportage, or even disloyalty, but I reject this interpretation. I believe the journalists (including myself) were merely reflecting the malaise they found both in American troop units and at American embassies about what the United States was doing in Southeast Asia. Were we there because the national security was at stake? Or did we get mired there through poor judgment and then find ourselves absent the maturity to correct the mistake early on? In a curious way, it was America, not our Asian adversary, which was afraid to lose face.

Thus, as the world changed from a place where we saw right and wrong in bold relief into a place where the conflicts became murkier in their origins and purpose, the good guybad guy aspects of war reporting changed, too.

What has not changed is the stuff that makes for superior war correspondence, regardless of what country the reporter is from or what war he is covering.

Unlikely as it may sound, war reporting in the wrong hands can be just as tedious and dry as any other form of journalism. A story that merely compiles a list of troop movements, bridges blown, roads cut and reopened, casualty statistics, and meaningless pronouncements from the high command is no more readable than a story written in the same manner about the national trade deficit.

The difference is that a war story written this way is less forgivable than a lumpish fiscal story, because crisis situations place more truth on the surface that the reporter can have for the taking. When rockets are falling on civilian populations, the usual psychic devices that people use to disguise their true feelings fall away. There is little room for public faces or emotional camouflage when life is reduced to primal instincts-raw fright, protecting one's family, foraging for food, escaping the war zone. People, sophisticates and peasants alike, speak naked truth in these circumstances because there is no longer any place for sham. And the aware reporter can enter this primal world and, through his dispatches, draw his distant safe-at-home audience into its feral texture in a gritty, electric way that is possible in few other settings. The war reporter's goal as he sits down at his typewriter day after day must be to paint a word picture for the reader that says: "This is exactly what it was like, without frills of euphemism, where I was today." It is this transference of the reader to the unsanitized theaters of war the New Yorker collection achieves with exceptional heart and skill.

-Sydney H. Schanbe
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Author:Schanberg, Sydney H.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1989
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