This past week I had one of those travel experiences that seems to happen all too often with modern airline travel. However, the fifteen hours I spent shuttling between four airports and two different airplanes gave me an opportunity to read “Ernie’s War: The Best of Ernie Pyle’s World War II Dispatches” compiled and edited by David Nichols. I picked up this book as I left the house for this trip because I had just seen the bio-pic made about Ernie during World War II – “The Story of G.I. Joe” starring Burgess Meredith as Ernie Pyle (based upon Ernie’s first World War II book, “Here is Your War”). I can only say that if you really want to find some insight into the world and the experiences of the infantry soldier, you have to read Ernie’s columns. His World War II writings were compiled into two books – the already mentioned “Here is Your War” recounting his experiences and those of the American G.I.s in North Africa, while “Brave Men” was based upon his reports from his time in Europe. (And by the way, reading of their experiences in war makes the obstacles and challenges of modern air travel fade into at worst minor annoyances!)
I feel a close kinship with the infantry, even though my own limited military training was as an armored scout observer. However, my training company captain may have known something more about the subject than I did at the time. I once in jest asked him why in the age of mechanized infantry (such as my home National Guard unit) we had to walk so much. He explained that in the U.S. Army, being mechanized infantry meant that you got to carry a P-38 (this P-38 being the Army issue can opener essential to opening the tins that our C-rations came in). Having come relatively late in life to reenacting, I find I have come home to the infantry whether it be Billy Yank, Johnny Reb, Tommy Atkins, or G.I. Joe.
Ernie Pyle wrote that “I love the infantry because they are the underdogs. They are the mud-rain-frost-and wind boys. They have no comforts , and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end they are the guys that wars can’t be won without.” Ernie Pyle spent much of his time as a war correspondent during World War II with the infantry in Europe and in the Pacific (with the Marines). While he spent time with the other services and branches of our armed forces, his writings make evident his bond with and affection for “the poor bloody infantry” whether G.I.s or Marines.
Years ago, a friend shared with me a short text he had found that also spoke of the infantry that I was reminded of while reading Ernie’s columns. The links between its words and those of Ernie seemed to speak of the universal and eternal experience of the infantry soldier. It was reportedly written as a practice piece for Egyptian scribes learning the art of writing in hieroglyphics, while also serving as a warning of what might befall them if they were not diligent in that practice and failed to win a scribe’s position.
“Come, [let me tell] you the woes of the soldier, and how many are his superiors: the general, the troop-commander, the officer who leads, the standard-bearer, the lieutenant, the scribe, the commander of fifty, and the garrison-captain…..He is awakened at any hour…..His march is uphill through mountains. He drinks water every third day; it is smelly and tastes of salt. His body is ravaged by illness. The enemy comes, surrounds him with missiles, and life recedes from him. He is told: "Quick, forward, valiant soldier! Win for yourself a good name!" He does not know what he is about. His body is weak, his legs fail him…..Be he at large, be he detained, the soldier suffers. If he leaps and joins the deserters, all his people are imprisoned. He dies on the edge of the desert, and there is none to perpetuate his name. He suffers in death as in life. A big sack is brought for him; he does not know his resting place.”
Even in the 21st Century, the poor bloody infantry (in a phrase whose origin is almost as ancient and obscure) constitute the sub-atomic particles of the military machine. Ultimately, each and every individual in uniform with their personal weapon is an infantryman. Any armed force that fails to remember this will find itself at a serious disadvantage when confronted by another force that did not thus fail.