Covering a war is not a calling for every journalist, but many do it, some at the cost of their lives. In the Iraq war alone, 126 journalists - two American, but most of them Iraqis supporting international media - have died. Mourning their loss does not diminish the deaths of tens of thousands of other Iraqi civilians, nor the loss of nearly 4,000 Americans in the military. When a journalist dies in a war zone, the rest of the world risks becoming a bit more removed from the horror.
Growing up in Indiana, I had the advantage of looking back at World War II history through the eyes of a native son and one of the greatest of war writers, Ernie Pyle. Archives of the syndicated column he wrote six times a week for three years took me from the bomb shelters in London to the beaches of Normandy and the North African coast to Pacific islands. Ernie Pyle left the stories of the MacArthurs and battle architects to others. He was a soldier's reporter.
His missives read like letters home. He made the war somehow seem matter of fact - atrocious and matter of fact. He wrote about the pain of trench foot, about GIs raffling a coveted bottle of Coke and raising $6,000 to adopt an Italian orphan, about coming under such ceaseless shelling in Tunisia that he wondered, "What the hell am I doing here, anyway?" But he knew that Americans needed him exactly where he was, however dangerous or unpleasant that was.
Death was everywhere, in "monstrous infinity." When a beloved officer, Capt. Henry Waskow, died on the Italian front lines, the account of the tenderness of his men was palpable and heartbreaking. One held the captain's hand for five minutes without speaking, "then got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone."
Pyle was so widely read that when he died - shot by a Japanese sniper in April 1945 - President Truman led the nation in grieving.
A long overlooked Associated Press photograph of Pyle surfaced last week, showing him just after he was killed. In it, his body is so respectfully arranged, hands folded on his chest, that he appears to be napping. Under fire, his companions found time to give him some fitting dignity in death. That was just days before the end of the war in Europe. In a drafted final column, found in his pocket, he said he hoped "the end of the war could be a gigantic relief, but not an elation. In the joyousness of high spirits, it is easy for us to forget the dead."
In a different time, in a very different war, the intimate and hard telling of it was embraced by a nation.