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Liebling's War

Journalist A. J. Liebling reports from the front lines of the invasion of Normandy.

By Francis-Noël Thomas | HUMANITIES, January/February 2008 | Volume 29, Number 3

The idea that journalism is not “literature” is such a deeply entrenched prejudice that even writers and editors who have spent their lives in journalism and have achieved literary distinction as journalists sometimes speak as if what they write and edit is not literature. This prejudice can be viewed as a cultural successor to the one that despised novels—a prejudice current in Jane Austen’s lifetime and one she scoffs at in both her letters and her novels.

Reading almost any twenty consecutive pages of A. J. Liebling’s Second World War reportage offers an excellent demonstration of just how specious the distinction between journalism and literature can be, but it is a distinction that has helped to prevent Liebling from being recognized as the major American writer he is. Since his death in 1963, almost all of his books have—in the words of Fred Warner—slipped in and out of print. Warner, in an introduction to a volume of Liebling’s previously uncollected essays, asked a question that has probably occurred to most of his readers: “How can a writer this good not be better known?” Two or three efforts have been made to establish a reputation for him as a major writer, but, as I write, Liebling remains in the anteroom of literature, where his reputation remains ambiguous. He has neither passed altogether into obscurity nor achieved canonical status. His admirers have not, however, given up. The Library of America’s new volume devoted to Liebling’s Second World War reporting makes some of his best work readily available and puts Liebling in the right company; his war reporting is classic American literature.

Most of Liebling’s books are composed of articles—many of them revised, some rewritten, almost all of them originally published in the New Yorker. He remains a writer largely overlooked by scholarship, but his books have retained their power with every new generation of readers. None of his work falls easily into a conventional literary category, but a book such as The Road Back to Paris, published in 1944, is a masterpiece both of the literature of the Second World War and of twentieth-century American literature. Liebling is an early master of “the literature of fact,” and, once entrenched prejudice against journalism as literature is put aside, he can be seen as a serious and accomplished writer whose essential subject is the transitory nature of things seen from what might be called “street level.”

The Battle of France, as Liebling experienced it, began in New York newspapers: “On Sunday, September 3, 1939, everybody with the price of a newspaper knew that Great Britain and France were about to declare war on Germany, which had already invaded Poland.” The Road Back to Paris continues with a kind of fantasia on individual people Liebling had come to know in France during the summer of 1926 and the following academic year and how the war might affect them. And then he tells us he became a war reporter. One month after reading about the imminent declaration of war, Liebling went to France as a correspondent for the New Yorker, a weekly magazine, not a newspaper, and a magazine not encrusted with clichés about how a war should be reported. What follows is a remarkable account of the almost imperceptible gradations by which Paris passed from a state of formal war that had almost no effect on its everyday life to its abandonment by the French government. Liebling never shifts from the state of unconnected impressions, false expectations, confusion, and ignorance that he actually experienced to a knowledge available only in retrospect and only to a historian who has mastered a library of sources.

This point is so important to the kind of writing Liebling does that it is worth making an explicit contrast to a historian’s view of what might broadly be called “the same events” that Liebling treats as a war reporter. If Liebling’s war began with a newspaper account in New York, its climax is the successful landing of the Allied armies at Normandy. By that time, Liebling had long since passed from reading about the war to writing about his direct experience of it. His account of the Normandy landings is a classic of reporting, what is sometimes patronized as a first draft of history, but it is not a first draft of anything; it is a finished masterpiece of reportage. Its qualities depend on disciplined observation, not the mastery and synthesis of sources.

There are many excellent historical accounts of the Normandy Invasion; I will refer to just one: a masterpiece of military and political analysis juxtaposed with a compelling narrative of events by the British military historian John Keegan. Six Armies in Normandy was written long after D-day; it is a work of history, not reportage. Its detail—and it is rich in detail—is the result of research; its writing, sentence by sentence, is unobtrusively superb. The author is himself a kind of general making strategic rhetorical decisions and commanding with quiet mastery a seemingly endless assemblage of details, each one of which seems to have arrived just in time and to have found its optimal place without the least struggle. The details of what drew him to the subject or the details of how easy or difficult it was to gain access to the documents he used in writing about it have no place in his presentation of events—nor does his view of the war or of the parties to the war. He is everywhere and his sympathies are everywhere he is. This mobility—and the role of historian—adds an element of invention that gives historical writing its coherence and unity, and necessarily makes it false to the experience available to an individual.

Since Keegan is a historian, not a reporter, he can be everywhere the documents can take him. He would offer a deficient history of the Normandy Invasion if he were to acknowledge the limits of personal observation and offer an account of what happened on just one small section of just one of the landing beaches. In the event, he offers an account of all of the beaches, not just from the perspective of the invaders’ experience on D-day itself but from the perspective of their experience in the war leading up to the invasion and from the perspective of the defenders as well, moving smoothly and apparently effortlessly between planning staffs, command posts, and the actual battleground.

Juno was the name given to the beach assigned to the Canadian forces. Keegan’s account of the Canadian landing begins with a selective four-page account of Canadian military history and culture that includes references to points of history as remote from D-day as Vimy Ridge in 1917 and even St. Gotthard in 1664. This remarkably sure-footed sketch of military events in Canadian culture is followed by a slightly longer (almost five-page) review of the disastrous amphibious landing at Dieppe on 19 August 1942 in which the Royal Regiment of Canada, Keegan tells us, suffered a casualty rate of 94.5 percent. His account of that grim event is followed by a three-page consideration of the artillery support for the 2nd and 3rd Canadian divisions at Juno Beach, with a precise account of the ships, their placement, the types of guns in use—and a reminder of how all of this compared to the situation at Dieppe. He then turns to the German defenders at Juno before he begins his account of the bombardment, giving details of their number and their quality, details the Canadians who were actually there did not and could not have known. He moves from the initial reports the German command received—“Purpose of naval bombardment not yet apparent”—to how things looked to “the men in the beach bunkers [who] were all too aware of the purpose of the naval bombardment—the heaviest, though they could not know that, ever fired from ship to shore. It was designed to kill them.”

Keegan’s history meets high technical standards. There is always support for the detail he offers, although it is not always the same kind of support. When he says, “While it was still possible to look seaward, a few [of the German defenders] had seen looming through the dawn ‘countless ships, ships big and small, beyond comprehension,’” he is quoting an eyewitness, so the support is documentary. A sentence later, he adds,

After 7 a.m., H-Hour minus forty-five, it was no longer possible to see and very dangerous to look, for the whole of the sea front boiled with the smoke and debris of explosions and the crash of aimed fire rang inside of the concrete of the bunkers. . . . The defenders, wherever they were sheltered, were stunned by the noise and shock waves, magnified a hundredfold at the last moment by the gigantic salvos of the rocket ships, each discharging a broadside equivalent to a hundred Diadem-class cruisers firing simultaneously.

This too sounds like the report of an eyewitness, but it is not.

When Keegan says it was impossible to see anything from the perspective of the defenders after 7:00 a.m. there is a vast amount of evidence to support such a statement and nothing to contradict it, but it is an inferential rather than an experienced detail. We could say the same about the defenders being stunned by the noise and shock waves. There are documented accounts of the effect of artillery assaults on people, and it is only reasonable to suppose that the German defenders at Juno Beach, who were under an exceptionally heavy artillery assault, were affected in much the same way as other people had been affected elsewhere. But as we read this account, it is easy to miss the distinction between details based on documentary evidence (“At 6:19 the destroyers had begun firing”) and those based on informed inference (“After 7 a.m. . . . it was no longer possible to see”). It is especially easy since the claim that it was no longer possible to see at 7:00 a.m. follows immediately on the quotation about what it was possible to see at dawn. It is easy to suppress the fact that no one could have observed everything he relates, certainly not Keegan himself, who was a small boy living in the English countryside on the day that the Canadian 2nd and 3rd divisions landed at Juno Beach. It is easy to forget that all such history owes its scale and coherence to routine forms of imagination that allow historians to represent human experience from a perspective outside of any one person’s experience. It is easy partly because it calls for nothing but the ordinary mental competencies we use to make sense of things every day. If there are many differences between the historian’s art and the novelist’s—and there are—there are also some important similarities. A knack for finding just the right vantage point and the ability to shift scale from a command ship to a bunker while retaining the same close focus are among them.

The use of documentary evidence and informed inference along with his skill in selecting details from the recent and remote past, not merely of the national cultures but of the military units involved (down to the regimental level), gives Keegan’s history of the Normandy Invasion a coherence, richness, and narrative drive that are among its most admirable qualities. He is so compellingly informed about the experience of battle and writes so well that in reading his account, we forget that we are reading a work of historical synthesis and therefore—despite its manifest success in presenting, at given points, aspects of the texture of battleground experience—something removed from the experience itself. It is a work of literary art (however carefully documented) whose pace, scale, and contours are not, and could not possibly be, the fruit of direct experience. When Keegan includes the view from the German bunkers to assist, at human scale, his representation of the size and power of the bombardment (meticulously determined), he is doing so partly to add unity and perspective to an event that could not have had for any of its participants unity and perspective. He is standing where only a historian can stand, and this is necessarily at a considerable remove from events.

Shortly before his death in 1963, Liebling wrote a three-paragraph foreword, a few pages of connecting commentary, and a one-paragraph afterword for a collection of his war writings based on his experiences in 1943 and 1944 under the title Mollie & Other War Pieces. These brief additions to what were in most cases pieces written in the field (although he worked on some of them in New York, adding, for example, material he was prevented from filing by war censorship) and written at a remove of almost twenty years contain some reminders of what kind of writing he did and help to draw a contrast between reportage and historical narrative. What Liebling writes about is limited to what happened when he was there. This means that the resulting story cannot have the scale and coherence of history. In his afterword, Liebling says, “I have been advised to write an epilogue to this book to ‘give it unity’ and ‘put it in perspective,’ but I find this difficult because war, unlike drama, has no unities classical or otherwise. It is discursive, centrifugal, both repetitive and disparate.”

One of the things that must be missing from historical narrative is the observational self, because there is no place within historical narrative for the observational self to stand. There is no place for Keegan, for example, to be as an observer—he has, in effect, exchanged his observational self for the persona of historian. As the narrative and analytical intelligence of his book, he is in no one place, and the events he is presenting with such exemplary historiographic competence and such rhetorical élan are not events that happened to him in the course of his lived experience; reading the documents and making the historiographic and rhetorical decisions that turned them into a coherent narrative are part of his lived experience, but that is a different matter. As a historian, he stands in hundreds of different places and from each of them he sees things in sharp focus. It is a convention of this kind of writing that his personality, his opinions, his beliefs, his personal life are left behind when he assumes his professional role.

Liebling’s art is different. It acknowledges both the limitations and the personal baggage that are inevitable constituencies of observation. He cannot choose where he is even though he tries to place himself somewhere he thinks will offer a good view of important events. The role of reporter, unlike the role of historian, does not free him from whatever he brings with him as an individual living through events. He is constrained to bring with him an observational self that will inevitably affect what he sees and one that will change under the pressure of events. From a distance of twenty years he says he cannot even speak of “the war,” because what he experienced seems more like a series of different wars. The Second World War, even the war in the west, as a composite of innumerable separate events, directly experienced by no one person, is an artifact of the historical imagination. He does not want his experience folded into such an artifact because it will lose its aspect of lived experience.

I covered bits of the war in 1939–40 in France, and in 1941 in Britain and on the high seas, but those seem in retrospect not merely previous but different wars [from the one fought in 1943 and 1944, the one that is the subject of Mollie & Other War Pieces]. . . . Collectively, the wars were the central theme of my life from October 1939, until the end of 1944. . . .

The times were full of certainties: we could be certain we were right—and we were—and that certainty made us certain that anything we did was right too. I have seldom been sure I was right since.

The conventions of “neutrality,” the usual way of handling the limitations any observer places on his observational field, are absent from Liebling’s account. He did not arrive in France in 1939, or in Algeria at the end of 1942, or on the beachhead at Normandy in 1944, as a detached observer. Quite the contrary. He was, to begin with, a Francophile, something close to a Germanophobe, a New Deal liberal, and a passionate supporter of direct American intervention in the war against Germany as early as 1939. As he put it himself early in The Road Back to Paris,

Hitler had seemed to me revolting but unimportant, like old Gómez, the dictator of Venezuela. I habitually compared him in conversation to a boor who tortured his own family because he could not cope with the outside world, a classic German type. It never occurred to me that he might destroy France, because it would have been as hard for me to prefigure a world without France as survival with one lobe of my brain gone. France represented for me the historical continuity of intelligence and reasonable living. When this continuity is broken, nothing anywhere can have meaning until it is re-established. After the Munich settlement, I began to be anxious.

This is not a merely personal attitude that can be left to one side. It is a standing condition of his experience of events. The Road Back to Paris consists of three parts: The World Knocked Down, The World on One Knee, The World Gets Up. The “world” Liebling is talking about is the world of “intelligence and reasonable living,” and Germany under Hitler is no part of that world. What he has to offer in his war reportage is a discursive, centrifugal, repetitive, and disparate series of events whose emphatic moments are the result of accidents that put him in a position to see them. And these disparate fragments of experience are themselves seen by an observer for whom a world without France as it existed before the Nazi invasion is a world disconnected from “the historical continuity of intelligence and reasonable living,” an observer for whom the war is an attempt to reestablish this connection, an observer who—whatever uncertainties marked the rest of his life—is certain that the attempt to reestablish this connection is necessary and right.

In a history such observations would be intrusive and unprofessional. In The Second World War Keegan offers a detailed account of the fall of France but whatever France may represent for John Keegan is left unarticulated and plays no role whatever in his account. Historians in their professional persona, at least, have no personal stake in the fate of nations or cultures. The experience of individuals—even the experience they have of events outside of their immediate sphere of activity—is, on the contrary, always affected by abstractions such as those that “France” represented for Liebling. It is for this reason that the observational self must be made fully available to the reader as an element of the narrative.

For Keegan the impossibility of the defenders at Juno Beach seeing anything from a bunker after seven a.m. on 6 June 1944 is a deliberately selected detail—and one reached by inference. At 7:35 that same morning Liebling was on an infantry landing craft whose task was to deliver two platoons of specialists numbering 140 individuals on a section of Omaha Beach, one of two American landing zones, and the one that encountered the stiffest resistance. Unlike the historian, who goes anywhere that documents can take him, the landing craft that carried Liebling arrived at a precisely marked spot on the beach; it followed buoys that indicated its path, a path cleared shortly before of underwater obstacles and mines. The landing craft was meant to come within a few yards of the beach and then to drop two ramps so that the 140 men it was to land could run in. The men did get off, but in the course of the four minutes it took for them to do so, the landing craft came under fire; it was hit by an artillery shell, and its crew of 33 suffered three fatal casualties. Although Liebling was actually on the 155-foot landing craft during these events, all he saw was some of the men moving ahead.

His account of the Normandy Invasion is pretty much limited to a single cross-channel trip by a single landing craft. Its art is almost the inverse of Keegan’s. It begins in boredom, unacknowledged anxiety, uncertainty; its later moments of danger and violence are realized largely after the fact. It is so small a fragment of the gross event that it has almost no significance in the success or failure of the invasion. Liebling later found out that of the ten landing craft that were part of the group with which he went in, four were sunk before they had unloaded the men they were carrying, “a high proportion of whom were killed.” It is an account that claims nothing but referential accuracy. The writer’s tacit claim is, “This is what you could have experienced had you been there; I know because it is what I experienced when I was there.” To succeed it must meticulously separate what was seen from what was only inferred, what was experienced at first from what was figured out later. It must also persuade the reader that there is nothing in the account that is the result of exceptional knowledge, exceptional intelligence, or special competence. It depends on convincing the reader that if he were present, he would have been able to experience just what Liebling did. This is, of course, untrue. For it to be true, the reader would have had to be present inside Liebling’s head, and that is why at least the relevant parts of what was going on in his head are themselves treated as things available to the reader in the same sense as the landing craft and the men on it are available to the reader. Treating the observational self as a “thing” fully available to the reader makes Liebling’s account of his experience function as a kind of allegory of experience.

Liebling was, he says, on the upper deck during the four minutes it took for the two platoons the landing craft carried to disembark. “I looked down at the main deck and the beach-battalion men were already moving ahead, so I knew that the ramps must be down.” Just as the stern anchor was being taken up “something hit the ship with the solid clunk of metal—not as hard as a collision or a bomb blast; just ‘;clink.’” This is the direct experience of what was later discovered to have been a seventy-five-millimeter antitank shell with a solid-armor-piercing head hitting the forward anchor winch, being deflected toward the stern, tearing through the bulkhead, smashing the ramp winch, breaking into several pieces, and killing two of the crew. Clink.

This is the essence of reporting war as ordinary experience—it is not so much that it was impossible to see or dangerous to look; it is just that what happened went unrecognized when it happened, and its consequences were realized only later. It is an example on a small scale of what happened on a larger scale throughout the war. The events of 15 May 1940 that sealed the defeat of the French army were simply unknown to people in Paris, even people like Liebling who were professionally devoted to trying to find out what was happening. The Battle of Britain ended on 15 September 1940, but not even Winston Churchill knew it on that day or for many days thereafter.

In several places Liebling talks about how difficult it is to preserve the experience in the face of later accounts that offer a more coherent and less irrational presentation of “the same events.”

In contrasting Liebling’s art to Keegan’s, I am not contrasting what is simply experience to what is synthetic and imagined. They are both synthetic and imagined. Liebling can say—and mean—that war has no unities, but his war writing, however careful he is to respect the limits of what one person could know and to separate what was seen from what was learned indirectly, necessarily has a shape, even though some of that shape rests on chance.

Liebling was forced by the French defeat to leave not “Paris,” but a particular little piece of it, the Hôtel Louvois, where he had lived for almost nine months. The hotel, the Square Louvois in front of the hotel, its immediate neighborhood and the character of that neighborhood as Liebling perceived it are all articulated subjects of his reportage. What follows his departure is marked by continual reminders of the prevailing confusion and the unpredictable chances of everyday life in tumultuous times. But the war as an object of his imagination—an event with a shape, not just a series of disconnected experiences—really is the road back to Paris, and the detours along the way are detours. There is personal as well as professional passion in his effort to be with some of the invading force on D-day—not to arrive days afterward, not to be on a warship miles from the beach. His account of his few minutes as an observer of the battleground carries the tacit reminder that he was lucky to survive. A few months later, chance places him in a car following General Leclerc who commanded the division that actually liberated Paris from its German military occupation and “as a redundant stroke of luck, beyond mathematical probability,” he witnesses the German military commander’s formal surrender of the city to General Leclerc. All these events bring a deep satisfaction to him personally as well as professionally. But then he puts a personal cap on things, and this time his actions are under his control.

The German invasion of France drove A. J. Liebling out of the Hôtel Louvois the day the French government left Paris, 10 June 1940. On 26 August 1944, the morning after Liebling saw General von Choltitz sign the surrender, he walked from the official press hotel (the Scribe, near the Opéra) to the Hôtel Louvois. He articulates his route, naming every street—a recitation that pulses with the tacit satisfaction of someone who knows those streets, loves them, and lived through years during which he did not know if he would ever set foot on them again. On arrival, the little square with its fountain featuring sculpted allegorical images of the rivers of France is still there, so is the hotel. “I . . . walked into the lobby of the Hôtel Louvois, for the first time in four years, two months, and sixteen days. Mlle Yvonne was sitting behind the desk. . . . ‘Bonjour, Monsieur Liebling,’ she said.” This is the moment when Abbott Joseph Liebling, myopic, overweight reporter for the New Yorker and passionate Francophile—at least as the represented observational self of his reportage—knows that “the historical continuity of intelligence and reasonable living” has been restored. It is an event unknown to historical narrative and to the role assumed by historians because it is an event whose dimensions are scaled to the ordinary world of individual experience, with all its limitations, peculiarities, passions, delusions, beliefs, disappointments and—for the happy few—profound and unforgettable satisfactions.

The liberation of Paris and Liebling’s sense of the restoration of the historical continuity of intelligence and reasonable living could serve very well as a conclusion to a story, but an individual’s experience is a little like Liebling’s account of war: “discursive, centrifugal, both repetitive and disparate.” The satisfactions, however profound and unforgettable, do not and cannot remain in the foreground. Liebling missed the sense of certainty he had during the war, and he missed war as well. “I know,” he writes in Mollie, “that it is socially acceptable to write about war as an unmitigated horror, but subjectively, at least, it was not true, and you can feel its pull on men’s memories at the maudlin reunions of war divisions. They mourn for their dead, but also for war.”

Liebling’s war reporting, along with his postwar work as a press critic, have come to lend him a certain cultural respectability. The Second World War is, of course, an officially interesting subject—as is the institution of the American press—and it is possible to think that Liebling’s claims to our attention are based upon his subjects, as if certain subjects somehow carry their own interest. In reading about officially interesting subjects, we sometimes overlook how much the writer’s perception and judgment are what we are following. The strung-together clichés that make up the worst sort of newspaper “coverage” can make any subject trivial because they create separate “significant” stock events, made false by their discontinuity with the nature of ordinary experience. Subject matter does not determine style; a writer’s conception of truth, presentation, scene, cast, and the relationship between thought and language determine style, and style, in this rigorous sense, creates interest. Held in close focus, by a concentrated intelligence, everything is interesting.

About the Author

Francis-Noël Thomas and his colleague Mark Turner are the authors of Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose (Princeton University Press, 1994). They maintain a website on prose style at classicprose.com. In 1996 Thomas was an NEH research fellow.