I knew a trial lawyer once who had won hundreds of cases in his time, and who had -- as anyone does who primarily makes his living talking -- a few really memorable quotes, culled from various places over the years, and very useful for making certain points to juries and his peers. Here's the best one I remember of those, which I've had opportunity to use myself over the years since. It's allegedly from the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, and it basically says, "Even a dog knows the difference between being kicked, and being tripped over." All too true. And all the persuasion in the world isn't gonna convince you otherwise -- if you're the dog, that is.
The world at large may always be able to debate, fairly inconclusively, whether a journalist is, or even should be, a thoroughly impartial observer to others' suffering - and what changes if and when the journalist becomes part of the story. That indisputably great humanitarian of our time, Oprah Winfrey, started as a broadcast journalist, but had to give it up when she realized she was more interested in holding a victim's hand and comforting them than, say, aggressively interviewing them for the "story." It makes sense, given what she was able to morph into being, that she would have had her misgivings about being there "just for the story." Journalists like Daniel Pearl (sadly), and Zoriah (lately) can inadvertently become the subject of a story themselves, when circumstances present themselves or change so that they become the focus of the news, instead of reporting on the news. Fundamentally, though, journalists are witnesses -- witnesses to history, of which they are often writing the alleged "first drafts" -- given that they're on the scene at the time.
Now here's someone interesting who basically confirms the paradigm of the journalist as witness/observer, but explodes the myth of being the impartial onlooker: Ernie Pyle. Ernie Pyle is known as the greatest war correspondent who ever lived, and the reality is, he earned that accolade for many reasons. But perhaps the biggest was this: he took a genuine interest in his subjects who -- like the celebrated dog in the quote above -- certainly knew the difference.
In the introduction to Ernie's War: The Best of Ernie Pyle's World War II Dispatches, David Nichols writes:
"Ernie Pyle covered World War II the way the infantry soldier fought it: on the ground and on the move, subject to fear, filth and the capricious fates that dealt death to one man, life to another. Pyle was a novelty as a war correspondent. Only rarely did he write about the so-called 'big picture.' Rather, Pyle focused on the individual combatant -- how he lived, endured by turns battle and boredom, and sometimes how he died, far from home in a war whose origins he only vaguely understood."
Ahhh, I think I'm in love with him already...
"It is an exquisite irony that this journalist became celebrated for celebrating the non-celebrated. It is further irony that his deeply moving pieces became dis-remembered at war's end. So did the war, for that matter. We may be the richest country in material things and possibly the poorest in memory."
But, he continued:
"Ernie Pyle was painfully aware of this. In writing of the footsloggers, the grunts, Bill Mauldin's Willie and Joe, he let us know it: "All the war of the world has seemed to be borne by the few thousand front-line soldiers here, destined merely by chance to suffer and die for the rest of us." He sensed immediately what [war poet] Wilfred Owen, who died in some other war, called Chance's strange arithmetic. [Editor's note: In an resonance across the generations, some of the Recon Marines in Evan Wright's Generation Kill discuss a similar phenomenon that they call 'the sacred geometry of chance.']
"He knew, too, that it was neither God nor Flag nor Mother that impelled a pimply faced kid to risk, to lose his life in an obscene adventure. He did it for the kid next to him; he couldn't let him down. They needed one another so bad. 'I lay there in the darkness ... thinking of the millions far away at home who must remain forever unaware of the powerful fraternalism in the ghastly brotherhood of war'.
"When they found Ernie's body on Ie [an island in the Okinanawan chain, where the battle was being fought], they came across a rough draft of a column [that he had with him.] Fragments: '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 of figures."
When Ernie Pyle died in combat, the whole country reached out to offer their condolences:
President Harry Truman said,
"No man in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man as American fighting men wanted it told. He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen."
Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal said,
"With deep regret, the Navy announces the death on Ie Shima (Island) of Ernie Pyle, whose reporting of this war endeared him to the men of the armed forces throughout the world and to their families at home.
"He was killed instantly by Japanese machine-gun fire while standing beside the regimental commanding officer of Headquarters Troop, Seventy-seventh Division, United States Army. At the time of his death he was with the foot soldiers, the men for whom he had the greatest admiration.
"Mr. Pyle will live in the hearts of all service men who revered him as a comrade and spokesman. More than anyone else, he helped America to understand the heroism and sacrifices of her fighting men. For that achievement, the nation owes him its unending gratitude."
Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall said,
"Ernie Pyle belonged to the millions of soldiers he had made his friends. His dispatches reached down into the ranks to draw out the stories of individual soldiers. He did not glorify war, but he did glorify the nobility, the simplicity and heroism of the American fighting man. The Army deeply mourns his death."
And according to an AP report at the time, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said of Pyle, "The GI's in Europe--and that means all of us here--have lost one of our best and most understanding friends."
The Colonel who was with him in the jeep when they were shot at, and Pyle was killed -- who in fact had just met him, yet instantly had fallen under his spell -- was reported to say, with tears in his eyes:
"I was so impressed with Pyle's coolness, calmness and his deep interest in enlisted men. They have lost their best friend."
(All the last five comments, starting with President Truman's, are from the New York Times' obituary of Ernie Pyle -- whose exceptional length testifies to the nation's love for him. That obituary is linked here.)
One, we'd be hard-pressed to find a journalist today who could fill even a portion of Pyle's shoes, and be thought of - by veterans themselves - as their greatest friend.
And two, it's incredible what a difference one man's empathy for his fellow man, journalist to soldier, meant for communicating what combat veterans were experiencing to those who were safe at home. I wish we had such a journalist today. In the thicket of journalists and bloggers filled as it is with surfacey reflections and reflexive back-patting about how wonderful they are, generally without confirming evidence to support that point of view, I really don't see anyone who combat veterans would consider their authentic, genuine friend. And without a voice like that, I wonder how well their causes and concerns are really being communicated. Not in a "want list" for legislative action -- that's being done powerfully by groups like the IAVA and VoteVets -- but in simple, human terms: communicating the cost of war by those who are paying it. I sure miss Ernie Pyle, even though he was long gone before I ever heard of him.