Crusade in Europe

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Author: Eric Sevareid

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Eric Sevareid

"That Is What War Is Like, This Sunday Afternoon"

[1945]

That is what the war is like, this Sunday afternon. That is, that’s what all those railed correspondents or commentators, analysts or observers, will be saying it’s like. They believe it, the listeners and readers understand it, and what we say is true enough—but only within our terms of reference, in the unreal language of standard signs and symbols that you and I must use. To the soldier, that isn’t what the war was like at all. He knows the real story; he feels it sharply, but he couldn’t tell it to you, himself. If I plucked one from his foxhole now and put this microphone before him, he would only stammer and say something like this: "Well, uh, I was lying there, and, uh, I saw this Jerry coming at me with a bayonet, and uh, well . . ." That’s how most of them talk. I know because I’ve tried them. If the soldier can’t tell you what happened to his stomach at that moment, what went on in his beating heart, why the German’s belt buckle looked as big as a shining shield—if he can’t tell you, no onlooker ever can.

The army treats all men alike, but the war does not. Not this war. It’s too big and far flung. It has a thousand faces and a hundred climates. It has a fantastic variety of devilish means for testing a boy’s brain, for stretching his nerves, for making him ashamed or making him proud, for exposing his heart or for burying his heart. It treats no two exactly alike; and so even two soldiers from the same front sometimes don’t understand each what the other is talking about.

Generals—and journalists—use big, standard words like "team-work" or "soldierly behavior," which are like interchangeable parts and can he fitted into the machine without thinking. But the soldier’s handbook gives little guidance on such matters as how to learn the patience of a saint, how to quench bitterness when his officers make a costly mistake, or how to master the homesickness that comes at sunset.

Who is to relate these things, which make up the real but secret story of the war? Who is to reconstruct, in scenes and acts, the drama of that American on the desolate airfield in the Gulf of Aden? The one who sat three hours, unmindful of the crashing heat, his eyes fixed upon a stone. He had been there eighteen months, and he didn’t talk to his comrades any more.

What about the soldier with the child’s face, who stumbled from the exploding field near Anzio with not a mark on his body but with his eyes too big, his hands senselessly twisting a towel, and his tongue darting in and out between his teeth?

What was it that had expanded in the soul of a young man I first knew when he was a press-agent lieutenant three years ago? Then, he was rather silly and talked too much, and his men smiled behind his back: I met him next in a French forest. He had learned control and dignity, He was a major commanding a fighting battalion, and the general was quiet when he spoke.

There was a regimental colonel at Anzio who received notice one night that he could leave next day for Des Moines, where his business was prosperous and his family large. His division had been decimated, but this man’s life was now assured. Why, at dawn, at his regular hour, did he risk the mortar shells and crawl on hands and knees from foxhole to foxhole, not missing one, just to speak a confident word to his men?

Who could really explain about that young corporal with the radio post deep in the Burma jungle? The one who rose suddenly from his bunk in the night and walked straight into the woods, walking westward.

Only the soldier really lives the war. The journalist does not. He may share the soldier’s outward life and dangers, but he cannot share his inner life because the same moral compulsion does not bear upon him. The observer knows he has alternatives of action; the soldier knows he has none. It is the mere knowing which makes the difference. Their worlds are very far apart, for one is free, the other a slave.

This war must be seen to be believed, but it must be lived to he understood. We can tell you only of events, of what men do. We cannot really tell you how or why they do it. We can see, and tell you, that this war is brutalizing some among your sons and yet ennobling others. We can tell you very little more.

War happens inside a man. It happens to one man alone. It can never be communicated. That is the tragedy—and perhaps the blessing. A thousand ghastly wounds are really only one. A million martyred lives leave an empty place at only one family table. That is why, at bottom, people can let wars happen, and that is why nations survive them and carry on. And, I am sorry to say, that is also why in a certain sense you and your sons from the war will be forever strangers.

If, by the miracles of art and genius, in later years two or three among them can open their hearts and the right words come, then Perhaps we shall all know a little of what it was like. And we shall know, then, that all the present speakers and writers hardly touched the story.

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Chicago: Eric Sevareid, "That Is What War Is Like, This Sunday Afternoon," Crusade in Europe in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed July 20, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=222IKZ2GUBU99BJ.

MLA: Sevareid, Eric. ""That Is What War Is Like, This Sunday Afternoon"." Crusade in Europe, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 20 Jul. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=222IKZ2GUBU99BJ.

Harvard: Sevareid, E, '"That Is What War Is Like, This Sunday Afternoon"' in Crusade in Europe. cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 20 July 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=222IKZ2GUBU99BJ.