Frontline Oracle

A new biography of America’s most beloved grunt reporter

Ernie Pyle, second from right, with members of the 191st Tank Battalion in Anzio, Italy, 1944 (U.S. Army Center of Military History/Wikimedia Commons)
Ernie Pyle, second from right, with members of the 191st Tank Battalion in Anzio, Italy, 1944 (U.S. Army Center of Military History/Wikimedia Commons)

The Soldier’s Truth: Ernie Pyle and the Story of World War II by David Chrisinger; Penguin Press, 400 pp., $30

 David Chrisinger’s The Soldier’s Truth is a road book suffused with a spirit of discovery and adventure. Perhaps no genre is better suited to its subject, the World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle, who could not stay home. Chrisinger asked himself what he might learn if he “roused the hibernating nomad buried deep inside me, and retraced Ernie’s steps through the war.” In the acknowledgments, he reveals his model: Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic. Horwitz’s wonderful book is, as many readers will recall, an odyssey through the landscape of Civil War memory. It took root in its author’s childhood encounters with a book of war sketches owned by his great-grandfather and with The Photographic History of the Civil War, a multivolume pictorial extravaganza from which his father read to him each night. The elders’ fascination catalyzed the boy’s curiosity; Horwitz’s book marked the culmination of a lifelong obsession.

Chrisinger’s connection to Pyle seems a product less of destiny than of happy accident. Pyle’s name meant almost nothing to Chrisinger before a 2016 trip to Okinawa, where a tour guide invited him to make a tracing of the most famous name etched on the island’s Cornerstone of Peace memorial. The guide’s gesture prompted Chrisinger to pick up Brave Men, one of several collections of Pyle’s wartime columns. And here a great enthusiasm was born.

Pyle comes into his life just when Chrisinger, the executive director of the writing workshop at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and the author of two previous books, most needs someone to reveal to him, humbly and plainly, “the hell that war brings.” Chrisinger had traveled to Japan because of an agonizing family history shaped by his grandfather’s wartime service in the Pacific:

I know what it looks like when a man comes home from war and never finds that path that could lead him to a life of peace. I know about the alcohol and the rage, the depression, and the thoughts of suicide. I know what it feels like when trauma reverberates throughout the generations of a family. … I know about bitterness and hopelessness. I know about silence. And lies.

The need to understand his grandfather’s debilitating war experience spurs Chrisinger’s decision to trace Pyle’s footsteps: “to uncover the stories beneath the stories Ernie told his readers.” The ensuing narrative shuttles between Pyle’s life in war and the author’s tracking of his newfound oracle.

Footstep books often begin fortuitously, and they run on a delicate mechanism, demanding both plausible pretext and thoughtful planning. Freya Stark’s Alexander’s Path and Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between come readily to mind. In The Soldier’s Truth, two worthy narratives—the public story of the most influential war correspondent in American history and the private tale of a family damaged by war—don’t fully cohere. The narrative switches back and forth with what struck me as unnecessary abruptness. Unfortunately, it is the latter story that suffers most. The deep satisfaction Chrisinger derives from his pursuit of Pyle is evident—he describes himself as “giddy” at finding himself where the correspondent once stood—but the family tragedy resists illumination.

To what extent was Pyle a propagandist? What were the stakes of his unwillingness to grapple with the war’s political, ideological, and strategic dimensions?

Chrisinger is at his best when discussing Pyle’s craft: on the subtlety of his celebrated piece “The Death of Captain Waskow,” for example, or on the tonal shift in the columnist’s work after the D-Day landings. Historian David Nichols has shown how Pyle developed the style that would characterize his war reporting in the columns he wrote while traveling across America in the 1930s, in which he carefully cultivated his authorial persona: “a Chaplinesque character forever beguiled by faulty zippers, lingering colds … and snake phobia … with an uncannily good ear for American idiom.” In counterpoint to this unmistakable public mode, Pyle’s uncensored private voice also finds its way into The Soldier’s Truth through Chrisinger’s excellent use of archival material.

Chrisinger draws on earlier studies of Pyle—including Nichols’s two collections of columns, Ernie’s America (1989) and Ernie’s War (1986); The Story of Ernie Pyle (1950), by Pyle’s editor, Lee G. Miller; and James Tobin’s more recent biography, Ernie Pyle’s War (1997)—in portraying his subject as a restless, hard-drinking hypochondriac who was burdened by the ongoing mental illness of his wife, Jerry, often depressed himself, and uncomfortable with a celebrity cemented by a war he found simultaneously repulsive and seductive. As Tobin writes in his conclusion, “In regarding him [Pyle] as a secular saint who only paid homage to the suffering soldiers, Americans misread his basic ambivalence.”

Chrisinger takes that ambivalence into account, yet his admiration abbreviates his consideration of the various professional and ethical cruxes Pyle’s career presents: To what extent was Pyle a propagandist? What were the stakes of his unwillingness (or inability) to grapple with the political, ideological, and strategic dimensions of the war? How did Pyle’s exclusive commitment to human-interest stories contribute to Americans’ selective and distorted remembrance of the war? Chrisinger focuses instead on the psychological injury done to Pyle by prolonged frontline reporting.

Ultimately, the book returns readers to the Pacific, where an exhausted Pyle spent the final months of his life as a guest of the Navy and where, after bearing witness to an inordinate amount of suffering and death, he was killed by a round from an enemy machine gun on the Okinawan island of Ie Shima in April 1945. Chrisinger quotes Pyle’s searing, elegiac, unsent last dispatch to great effect:

In the joyousness of high spirits it is so easy for us to forget the dead. … Dead men by mass production in one country after another, month after month and year after year. 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.

In an admiring essay published during the Korean War, New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling praised the candor of Miller’s 1950 biography of Pyle: “It is better for Ernie to be remembered as a man than as a hick character in a movie.” Pyle endured, Liebling recognized, as “the most imitated writer in America.” Chrisinger’s new book reminds us that, whatever else he may have been, Pyle was a writer whose complex legacy continues to demand our attention.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Elizabeth D. Samet is a professor of English at West Point. Her latest book is Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness.


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