Of course, the journalistic approach has it shortcomings. Since its practitioners often lack deep learning in the area under study, their work sometimes falls prey to conventional wisdom, and seldom encompasses the best of new academic thinking. Still, if there is a better future for the past in America, it probably lies in the hazy territory between the print journalists and the professional historians, an amalgam that might promise both rigor and style to hungry readers.
The alternative—a mating of the scribes and the Tube—is served by We Were There. I’ve got to admit that to most palates, it will taste just fine: like caramel corn, virtually addictive. Whatever other shortcomings this book may have, it’s a great read. After all, it is human interest that interests humans, and this collection serves it up in copious quantities.
Sized for snacking—typically around three to five pages—almost all the accounts are exceedingly well written. So much so that a short vignette by Anne Frank, whom I remember as being a pretty good writer, seems almost flat by comparison. There are plenty of these nuggets, too, more than one hundred and fifty, on virtually every topic with a record of having stimulated a popular response at the time: an unbeatable formula for gluing eyes, including my own, to the page. There is an abundance of journalism, but also frequent dollops of diaries, memoirs, poems, songs, and novels to add a bit of complexity to the concoction.
None of this gets at the really seductive quality of We Were There. That is embedded in the text itself, among the chilling turns of phrase, the macabre details, the outlandish circumstances, the weird responses to catastrophe, the casual recounting of death. Being what it is, the book left me with just a series of impressions, a bunch of jagged particulars that stick in the mind like grit.
Consider some of these. A gust of wind destroying the Wright Brothers’ machine at the end of flight’s first day. A polar explorer on his way to a polite suicide: “I am just going outside and may be some time.” Dating tips from the Albanian highlands, circa 1909: “Abduction of a girl demands blood, as does of course adultery.” The battered crew of the dreadnought Warspite being jeered as cowards upon limping home from Jutland. The musings of a chaplain during an all-nighter with a deserter set to be shot at dawn. The response of a House of Morgan partner to Black Thursday: “It seems there has been some disturbed selling in the market.” A journalist considering his prospects in Guernica: “[T]here hadn’t been a war in eighteen years, long enough for the ones who went through the last one to forget, and for a generation and a half who knew nothing of war to be interested.” The fact that in 1936, Mao had the world’s heftiest reward—$250,000—on his head. A Spitfire pilot about to strike a gaggle of Junker 88s during the Battle of Britain: “I’ll have your guts for garters.”
And that’s not all. There’s the consternation of a journalist upon discovering that Ernest Hemingway had already emancipated the bar of the Hotel Ritz, a key booze-related contribution to the Allied liberation of Paris. The fact that the mushroom cloud at Bikini atoll was 23,000 feet high and 11,600 feet in diameter. A South African judge not sentencing Nelson Mandela to death. The words of an American general in Vietnam: “I don’t know how you think about war. The way I see it, I’m just like any other company boss, gingering up the boys all the time, except I don’t make money. I just kill people, and save lives.” The results of Saddam Hussein’s 1988 chemical-weapons attack on Halabja: “Near by, a family of five who had been sitting in their garden eating lunch was cut down—the killer gas not even sparing the family cat, or the birds in the tree which littered the well-kept lawn.” A bit later, it’s Tutsi corpses littering the streets of the Rwandan capital Kigali. Then it’s two lovers, Serb and Muslim, four days dead on the pavement, cut down by sniper bullets in Sarajevo. The scene slides to New York and 9/11: “And then, within an hour, as my wife and I watched from the Brooklyn building’s roof, the south tower dropped from the screen of our viewing; it fell straight down like an elevator, with a tinkling shiver and a groan of concussion distinct across the mile of air. We knew we had just witnessed thousands of deaths .” Enter the War on Terror and on and on and on and on.