Sunday, April 21, 2013

What is it good for?

I have finished  War: The Eighty Greatest Esquire Stories of All Time, Volume 2. It is a fine but depressing collection. From Pearl Harbour to Afghanistan, what have we learned? Nothing much, but read it anyway.
Men have always fought. And like no other magazine, Esquire has always chronicled war.

Writing in 1943, Lieutenant J.K. Taussig Jr., who commanded anti-aircraft batteries on the USS Nevada, chronicled the bombing of Pearl Harbor. "We were low on matches and I think somewhat more worried about running out of them, than about damage done to the ship." Taussig was writing from the U.S. Naval Hospital in Newport, Rhode Island. His leg had been crushed in the attack and he was still recuperating a year later. "Bombing seems to affect men this way," he wrote. "Little things become very important."

Two decades later, John Sack, one the original New Journalists, literally invented what the Department of Defense came to call "embedded journalism." In his 33,000-word "M," he followed a single Army company from basic training at Fort Dix to their first combat in the jungle of South Vietnam. The story, the longest ever printed in Esquire, filled nearly the entire October 1966 issue, and, abetted by the cover of that issue — the words "Oh my God — we hit a little girl" in stark white letters on an all-black background — it became emblematic of the war and what war journalism could be. Timely. Shocking. Compassionate. Extremely detailed and extremely close.

Sack set the stage for Michael Herr, whose "Hell Sucks," about Vietnam after the Tet Offensive, formed the foundation of what became one of the greatest books written about that war, Dispatches. Decades later, fighting an entirely different kind of war, Colby Buzzell wrote "The Making of the Twenty-First-Century Soldier," which formed the foundation of My War, the most riveting and raw book-length account to come out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Chris Jones's epic, National Magazine Award–winning story "The Things that Carried Him," from 2008, chronicled in unforgettable detail the death of Sergeant Joe Montgomery in the Iraqi desert and his journey home to the cemetery in Scottsburg, Indiana, where his body now rests.

In a 2006 story, Brian Mockenhaupt sits at the bedside of a fellow soldier whose skull, shattered by a bullet in Baghdad, is being rebuilt: "They sing to him. They pray and weep. And he does nothing."

Finally, William Broyles Jr.'s haunting essay from 1984, "Why Men Love War," puts it all together: Why men go to war — and why we continue to write about and read about war — for the madness, the horror, the fear, and the beauty that makes us understand something elemental about ourselves.

For Volume 1, see Icons Passim.

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