'Reporting World War II': Ah! the days when war was virtuous and the written word reigned.

October 22, 1995|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Distant realities have been prisoner of television now for going-on two generations. Who can recall the sensations of a time when events you did not witness directly were known about entirely from words and pictures printed on paper?

The chasm between those two methods of achieving awareness divides the personal culture of Americans born before roughly 1945 and all those born after. Virtually nothing in the lives of either of those two tribes is unaffected.

Now comes a splendid publishing accomplishment that plunges the heart of that division, and among many other virtues and attractions, offers a mighty bridge over that chasm.

It is "Reporting World War II: American Journalism," edited by Samuel Hynes, Anne Matthews, Nancy Caldwell Sorel and Roger J. Spiller (New York: Library of America. Volume One, 1938-1944. 912 pages. $35; Volume Two, 1944-1946. 970 pages. $35.)

Long ago I promised myself I would not write about books I have not read in full. I am violating that here. A total of 1,882 pages of something like 500 words per page - almost 1 million words altogether - reaches well beyond a digestible week's consumption even for an enthusiast.

But more's the point: These are not books to be read straight through, though doing so might very well constitute the most informing and balanced education in the impact of World War II on the American people.

Mainly this is a work to have and to hold. To dip into for an hour, an evening, perhaps from time to time to graze for an entire gray day.

Short and heady

There are 191 separate articles by 80 writers, mainly fairly short newspaper dispatches, though interspersed with some magnificent long pieces from the New Yorker and other heady magazines.

Included are the full texts of John Hersey's "Hiroshima" and "Up Front," by Bill Mauldin, which begins: "My business is drawing, not writing, and this text is pretty much background for the drawings." The drawings, all reproduced here, are among the most humanely redeeming war documents ever put on paper, and the clarity and power of the text belie Mauldin's modesty.

The collection as a whole brings alive a sweeping array of intense experiences in a manner that I believe no considered and re-interpreted work of history possibly can do.

Those experiences begin with the people who are written about: First of all, they are the soldiers and the sufferers, the victims and the victorious (and many fit all four categories).

But at times even more dramatic are the experiences of the writers, themselves courageous and terrified, awed and appalled, moved and benumbed by war and its capacity to dehumanize and inspire, sometimes coincidentally.

And finally, the collection is about the experience of the American people writ large, for except for the men and women who were in combat, it was through these very words and images that the United States knew and thus fought this enormous and all-absorbing war.

There are jolts of reality all through the record here. The fourth piece in the first volume, by Sigrid Schultz, published in the Chicago Tribune of Nov. 10, 1938, describes Kristallnacht in vivid, coldly savage detail and reports among other things the arrest and disappearance of an estimated 20,000 Jews in Berlin alone in one day.

If there were any lingering doubt that the world had reason to be aware of what came to be called the Holocaust - certainly in intent and intensity if not yet in every detail - it should be swiftly and totally dispelled by this piece alone, published in a newspaper that was thought by many to be notoriously soft on the Nazis.

The most powerful impact, however, is in the evocation of direct human experience.

To read through Ernie Pyle's dispatches, which ran as columns carried by the Scripps-Howard wire service, is a revelation of the clarity of great and immediate reporting and of style.

Invisible style

His sentences are direct, short, often clipped, but the rhythms are perfect. It is a conversational kind of writing, and then you realize this is conversation that, like certain truly fine poetry, is doing exactly what it intends to do with such faultlessness that it seems spontaneous and informal.

Pyle again and again builds a brief newspaper column of 700 words or so to a final paragraph that can tear the heart from a marble statue. From Tunisia after a night full of far-distant artillery, he wrote of everyone in the camp being unable to sleep, nervous, unbearably edgy:

"Next morning we spoke around among ourselves, and found one by one that all [of] us had tossed away all night. It was an unexplainable thing. For all of us had been through dangers greater than this. On another night the roll of the guns would have lulled us to sleep.

"It's just that on some nights the air becomes sick and there is an unspoken contagion of spiritual dread, and you are little boys again, lost in the dark."

The work is all about World War II, of course, that "good war" in which everybody was on the right side, except for those on the other side, of course. And this is American journalism; the other side does not speak, neither do the Allies.

But it is not about The War, so much as it is about war. For all the magnificences of novels, drama, poetry, even paintings and music grasping for the heart or horror that is the methodical and FTC collective and disciplined slaughter of fellow human beings and the anonymity of facing death oneself, nothing I have ever read is more graphic, more convincing, more evocative of every emotional response that war has ever been said to induce than these pieces, taken individually and collectively.

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