LosingTheWar.doc

Campaign for life magazine but weirdest of all was

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campaign for Life magazine: “But weirdest of all was the sound of our artillery shells passing overhead. At this angle, probably just about under the zenith of their trajectory, they gave off a soft, fluttery sound, like a man blowing through a keyhole.” This seems to be out of another universe of literary style: compared with Pyle’s report, this is a sinuously Jamesian prose poem. But it has an unexpected point of resemblance. Hersey, like Pyle, calls the sound of a shell in flight “weird.” That word and its cognates recur countless times in American war reporting. The war was weird. Or it was haunted, or spectral, or uncanny, or supernatural. Battle zones were eerie; bomb craters were unearthly; even diplomatic conferences were strange and unreal. Here’s an elaborate example, from Edward R. Murrow’s famous radio broadcasts from London during the German air raids of September 1940. Murrow was standing on a rooftop at night, looking out on a blacked-out roof-scape lit up by flashes of antiaircraft fire and distant swarming searchlights. His eye was caught by an odd detail: “Out of one window there waves something that looks like a white bed sheet, a window curtain swinging free in this night breeze. It looks as though it were being shaken by a ghost. There are a great many ghosts around these buildings in London.” It’s worth following the implicit logic here in some detail. There’s an obvious meaning you would expect Murrow to find in the sight of a white sheet waving in the middle of an air raid: it’s a flag of surrender, a pathetic gesture of submission made to the unseen forces thundering across the night skies overhead. But that’s exactly what Murrow doesn’t say. There was a straightforward reason: he was passionately pro-British and wasn’t about to suggest that anybody in London was about to surrender — even metaphorically. But then what did the sheet look like? Now we get to that short circuit: another reason it didn’t look like a white flag was that a white flag was something you’d see in a battle — and this wasn’t like a battle. It was much too strange for that. It was more like a haunted house: some kind of border zone where the barriers between this world and the next were dissolving, and ghosts came fluttering up out of nothingness. It was certainly not a place where the traditional language of warfare had any meaning. As Murrow himself put it directly: “There are no words to describe the thing that is happening.” So what was this “thing” these reporters were seeing? Is there any way for us now to get a sense of what they were seeing?
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There was a battle soon after Pearl Harbor that may, better than any other, define just what was so strange about the war. Unlike most of the war’s battles, it was contained within a narrow enough area that it can be visualized clearly, yet its consequences were so large and mysterious that they rippled throughout the entire world for years afterward. It
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