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Blood, Tears and Sand

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The truth be known I am emotional and pretty damned squeamish, so when it comes to aspects of life that touch heavily on both – like war – I try pretty hard to concentrate on the macro view and not get too caught up in the micro, where it ALL just looks awful. But the up-close awfulness doesn’t alter my conviction that sometimes war is necessary, as I believe unswervingly that it is in this case.

But just because I don’t want to deal with the blood and tears doesn’t mean I shouldn’t deal with them, and last night I was caught off guard and absorbed a large ration of both.

Terry Gross came on while I was taking my son to his bass lessons and I became completely engrossed in her inteview with author James Tobin, biographer of the great WWll correspondent Ernie Pyle, considered by many the finest war reporter ever.

Tobin read excerpts of Pyle’s alternately gritty and lyrical columns from among the grunts of the army infantry, including the heartbreaking, ultimately uplifting story of a beloved captain killed in battle and his men saying goodbye.

Pyle’s personal letters revealed a dark chasm opening in his soul as the relentless grind of death, grievous injury, fear and danger took their toll, though Pyle never doubted the rightness, nor the necessity of our participation in “The Good War.”

Pyle was killed in the Pacific in April of 1945 – here is an excerpt from Tobin’s book:

    Ernie Pyle’s body lay alone for a long time in the ditch at the side of the road. Men waited at a safe distance, looking for a chance to pull the body away. But the machine gunner, still hidden in the coral ridge, sprayed the area whenever anyone moved. The sun climbed high over the little Pacific island. Finally, after four hours, a combat photographer crawled out along the road, pushing his heavy Speed Graphic camera ahead of him. Reaching the body, he held up the camera and snapped the shutter.

    The lens captured a face at rest. The only sign of violence was a thin stream of blood running down the left cheek. Otherwise he might have been sleeping. His appearance was what people in the 1930s and ’40s called “common.” He had often been described as the quintessential “little guy,” but he was not unusually short. In fact, at five feet eight inches, his frame precisely matched the average height of the millions of American soldiers serving in the U.S. Army. It was his build that provoked constant references to his size — a build that once was compared accurately to the shape of a sword.

The Tobin interview ended as we got home, and there was Ted Koppel, looking calm and tough in desert combat gear, embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division, The Tip of the Spear that pierced through Iraq from the south:

    Looking back, you can see how things went right, and where they didn’t – sometimes even why they didn’t. Looking back, you can see where some fears were misplaced – and others were taken just a shade too lightly.

    There are things we can tell you now that we couldn’t share at the time for security reasons. But otherwise, this is the story of a period covering precisely three weeks. It’s a very short period of time, although it hasn’t seemed so. But we will tell you that story as we experienced it – one day at a time.
    This story is far from over. Some of its more difficult passages may still lie ahead. But every story has to begin somewhere.

    This one begins in a tent in the northern Kuwaiti desert.

In a remarkable hour, Koppel moves with the troops through sandstorms, the desolation of the desert, the danger and tentative welcome of small towns, strategy, interviews with soldiers who express awe, humility, pride of service, a surreal sense of dislocation, dead injured and captured soldiers of every stripe, a riveting “joyride” through Baghdad, and an epiphany at the end: the reasons the US military is winning this war are superb training, awesome technical superiority, tactical acumen, and the tremendous morale of the American service men and women.

He sees symbols of this morale in three “trivial but not frivolous” iterations: good food to keep the body nourished and satisfied, baby wipes to keep a semblance of personal hygiene three weeks removed from a shower, and the ingenuity of a soldier walking off into the desert with toilet paper and a beach chair with a hole cut in the middle of the canvas – it’s the first time a toilet has put a lump in my throat.

These two hours combined were disturbing, wrenching, sobering, but ultimately inspiring – war is hell, but sometimes necessary, and there is no one better at it than Americans.

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About Eric Olsen