By Andy Rooney
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My War is a blunt, funny, idiosyncratic account of Andy Rooney’s World War II. As a young, naïve correspondent for The Stars and Stripes, Rooney flew bomber missions, arrived in France during the D-Day invasion, crossed the Rhine with the Allied forces, traveled to Paris for the Liberation, and was one of the first reporters into Buchenwald. Like so many of his generation, Rooney’s life was changed forever by the war. He saw life at the extremes of human experience, and wrote about what he observed, making it real to millions of men and women. My War is the story of an inexperienced kid learning the craft of journalism. It is by turns moving, suspenseful, and reflective. And Rooney’s unmistakable voice shines through on every page.
ALSO BY ANDREW A. ROONEY
Sincerely, Andy Rooney
Sweet and Sour
Not That You Asked
Word for Word
Pieces of My Mind
And More by Andy Rooney
A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney
The Fortunes of War
Conqueror's Peace (with Bud Hutton)
The Story of The Stars and Stripes (with Bud Hutton)
Air Gunner (with Bud Hutton)
To my friends who will never read this because they died
in The War: Obie Slingerland, Charley Wood, Bob Taft,
Bob O'Connor, Bede Irvin, Bill Stringer, Bob Post,
Jack Frankish, Tom Treanor, Pete Paris
in The War: Obie Slingerland, Charley Wood, Bob Taft,
Bob O'Connor, Bede Irvin, Bill Stringer, Bob Post,
Jack Frankish, Tom Treanor, Pete Paris
WHEN ANDY ROONEY wrote My War, his moving and instructive account of coming of age during World War II, I was eager to read it because of something that happened in the spring of 1984. It was the fortieth anniversary of D-Day and I heard that Andy was preparing a special report for Sunday Morning on CBS.
My own visit to those beaches had been an emotionally powerful experience that eventually inspired me to write two books on the World War II generation.
I knew that Andy had been a reporter during the war, part of the elite corps of combat correspondents that made CBS such a distinguished news organization—Edward R. Murrow, Charles Collingwood, and Walter Cronkite, among them.
At the time of the fortieth anniversary I didn't know Andy very well personally. Of course I was well aware of his appearances on 60 Minutes, those irascible and provocative commentaries that tilted much more to skepticism than to sentimentality. Our mutual friends confirmed that off the air he was equally iconoclastic, an impish curmudgeon.
So when he appeared on video that Sunday morning in June 1984, I was unprepared for the Andy I saw making his way along the beaches and through the hedgerows of the Norman countryside. There were no verbal jabs, no "gimme-a-break" wagging of the bushy eyebrows, no squeaky outrage. Instead, he presented the report as an informal history lesson for his grandson Justin. It was riveting television for those of us well beyond Justin's age as Rooney simply described in a soft, conversational tone, what had happened on that stormy spring day in 1944. He was a man leading us back through a terrible and historic time, a witness with a mission to help us understand all that had gone on there and at what price.
By the time he got to the thick hedgerows framing the French fields above the cruel beaches, he seemed to be walking a little faster, speaking more urgently as if he were trying to stay ahead of his emotions. As I recall, at one point, he was describing how many American boys had been ambushed from behind the walls of brush and trees, how they continued to fight on in the face of ferocious German fire. He told Justin how there was another terrible battle just beyond the hedgerows, for a village called Saint-Lô.
Those boys were Andy Rooney's age. He was a young man in uniform when D-Day occurred. How he came to be a soldier and what he did during the war is the stuff of My War. In this book there is more of the essence of Andy Rooney than in a hundred of his television appearances. It's a personal story, but he is always the unsparing and gifted journalist, determined to get at the hard truths, wherever they may lead him—from his early doubts about the wisdom of getting America involved to the role of bombardiers and the ego of Ernest Hemingway.
Rooney was a war correspondent for The Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper for the GIs. It was the home of some of the best journalists of that generation, including Bill Mauldin, the boy genius cartoonist who perfectly captured the fear, pathos, humor, and frustration of war with is two emblematic GIs, Willie and Joe.
You may not be surprised to learn that Rooney so infuriated his commanding officer during basic training that his application for a commission stopped at the CO's desk so Rooney went through the war as a sergeant armed with a jeep, a typewriter, and a writing style that many years later made him the star commentator of 60 Minutes.
My War is a book to be treasured for its insights into the formative years of someone we think we know so well. It is, most of all, a book that gives the reader a ground level view of the pettiness and the glories of a mighty military machine, the terrible costs of combat, the constant presence of humor, and the ordinary people who saved the world from becoming the province of a madman.
Sergeant Rooney's vivid description of the liberation of Paris and its lifelong effect on him is alone worth the price of admission.
I will always be grateful to Andy Rooney for writing this book, even though he continues to resist my determination to label his generation the greatest any society has ever produced. I've joked I'm willing to put an asterisk by his name, excluding him from the accolade.
I wouldn't do that, of course. It wouldn't be fair. Whether he approves or not, Andy Rooney with his book, My War, simply reaffirms for me the greatness of his generation.
That comes through so poignantly and with such force in one of his reports from Normandy forty years after D-Day. Andy Rooney spoke for his generation when he said, "They were all my age. I think of the good life I have lived and they never had a chance to live. They didn't give their lives. Their lives were taken."
My War, intentionally or not, is Andy Rooney's gift to those who didn't come home. We know them better now. We know what they endured. Most of all, we know what we owe them.
IF YOU'RE PLEASED with the way you've been remembering some of the major events in your life, don't set out to write a book about them. The chances are, they weren't that way at all.
This is a memoir, not a history book, but in an effort to make it accurate, I've tried to check my memory against the facts. It is distressing for me to note how infrequently the facts concur with my memory of what happened. I assume, in cases like this, that the facts are wrong.
I attended a symposium of distinguished historians in Chicago in 1994. Some of them were in their sixties, marginally too young to have served in World War II. I was in awe of their intellectuality until they started lecturing specifically about the war I knew. If you break your leg and go to a doctor who knows all about broken legs but has never broken his own, you know just a little bit about broken legs that the doctor does not. I thought about that listening to the historians. They had read and studied all about the war for years and had a great grasp of the overall picture. There was only one advantage I had over all of them. I was there when it happened.
On several occasions I've actually ended up convinced that my memory serves history better than the historians. They can write their books, I'll write mine. I have complete file copies of most editions of the World War II Stars and Stripes and because I wrote more than 200 stories for the paper, they have served me as a diary of where I was and what I was doing. The old newspapers also reminded me of a great many events that I witnessed but never wrote about.
World War II and my memory of the four years I was involved with it has not dominated my life, although I haven't spent any other four years into which so many memorable events were crammed. I've told stories about the war to my family and to a few friends, but months go by when it never comes to mind. I don't belong to any veterans organizations, and when I get together with the few remaining friends I have that shared some part of my war experience, we almost never talk about it. There have been times since 1945 when I've gone for months without thinking of the war. Until I started writing this, I hadn't read many books about it. I've never enjoyed seeing war movies. Several years ago one of the big Oscar winners was a movie called Platoon. It was a good movie by the standards of professional movie critics but I didn't consider it entertainment. I associate entertainment with pleasure and war movies are no fun. I'm not haunted by the horrors of war of which I saw so many, but I don't need to be reminded of them. I saw everything there was to be seen in a war during my four years in the Army and any reaction I have to seeing a war movie is not pleasure but revulsion. I could not imagine any Vietnam War veteran enjoying Platoon. It would be like renting a nightmare on videotape. Noël Coward made a great remark when a reviewer criticized his play Blithe Spirit for being nothing more than light entertainment.
"I am not interested," Coward said, "in proving how sad life can be to people who already know it."
I am not interested in being shown how horrible war can be. I already know it.
The language in war movies is always unremittingly profane and accurate. It would be just as accurate half as profane, and I haven't used much of it. I know all the words, but they make me uneasy out of their milieu. Soldiers used words we couldn't use in The Stars and Stripes, and they use words in movies that I'm reluctant to use here. It has always struck me as strange that newspapers read by a lot of people don't print words used in motion pictures that are seen by the same people. Americans accept vulgarity in the dark that they won't take with the lights on.
Having said all that though, I can't deny that The War—we call World War II "The War," as though there had never been another—was the ultimate experience for anyone in it. If you weren't killed or seriously wounded, it was an exhilarating time of life. Most of us live our lives at half speed and on schedule. We sleep when we aren't tired, eat when we aren't hungry and go to the movies or watch television to laugh or cry in order to transport ourselves out of our real lives into someone else's as if our lives were not interesting, funny, or sad enough to satisfy us.
Life is real at war, concentrated and intense. It is lived at full speed. Most people don't understand how terrible parts of it are because the stories about war are almost all concerned with the drama of survival and victory over great odds. If you read about war, you get more of an impression of winning and of the heroes who lived to be honored than of the losers and the dead who were buried.
War brings up questions to which there are no good answers. One question in my mind, which I hardly dare mention in public, is whether patriotism has, overall, been a force for good or evil in the world. Patriotism is rampant in war and there are some good things about it. Just as self-respect and pride bring out the best in an individual, pride in family, pride in teammates, pride in hometown bring out the best in groups of people. War brings out the kind of pride in country that encourages its citizens in the direction of excellence and it encourages them to be ready to die for it. At no time do people work so well together to achieve the same goal as they do in wartime. Maybe that's enough to make patriotism eligible to be considered a virtue. If only I could get out of my mind the most patriotic people who ever lived, the Nazi Germans.
For three of my four years in the Army, I saw the fighting from close up. I can't forget much of what I saw and I want to write it down. For one thing, writing is a cathartic experience. Once you've put something down on paper, you can dismiss it from your mind. Having told it, I'll be able to forget it.
PEOPLE WHO HAVE lived well and successfully are more apt to dismiss luck as a factor in their lives than those who have not. It's clearly true that over a lifetime the same things keep happening to the same people, good and bad, so it can't be luck. The process by which each of us acquires a reputation isn't independent of our character. It almost always depends more on the decisions we make than on chance occurrences.
The trouble with this smug thesis is that anyone crossing a street can be hit by a truck and the accident alters the person's life no matter how wise he or she was in making choices, so we can't claim luck never enters in. Maybe my life wouldn't have been much different if "Doc" Armstrong hadn't owned the pharmacy and been head of the draft board in the pleasant college town of Hamilton, New York.
It was sometime in May and there were still a few weeks of classes left of my junior year at Colgate University. My life was never the same again.
Most of my classmates had registered for the draft in their hometowns. Thinking the draft board in a college town would be sympathetic to the idea of letting students finish college before serving, I had chosen to register in Hamilton instead of in my hometown, Albany.
I had come to Colgate fresh out of The Albany Academy, a private school. My friends at public school thought The Academy was elitist, which I thought was wrong at the time. Now I think they were right but that there's a case to be made for the kind of elitism that existed there. In some part, at least, it was excellence. The Academy was an exceptionally fine secondary school that graduated a high percentage of people who succeeded in making good lives for themselves. Everyone in the senior class, known at The Academy as the Sixth Form, went on to college. The other boys and girls in Albany thought of us as rich kids because the tuition was $400 a year. Some few classmates were from rich families and no one let them forget it. We kidded Walter Stephens about being brought to school every day in a chauffeur-driven Pierce Arrow and our remarks to him were not very good-natured. In a world where everyone strives to make money, it's strange that a family with a breadwinner who achieves that goal is stigmatized and charged with the epithet "Rich!"
My father's $8,000 a year was considered good money during the Great Depression. When I was eight or nine, we moved out of a respectable middle-class house in the residential heart of Albany to a much nicer one with chestnut woodwork, a fireplace, and downstairs playroom, still in the city but further out. In addition to that home in Albany, we owned a cottage on Lake George, seventy miles north. There we had a Fay-Bowen, a classic old wooden boat, and I had my own outboard attached to a sturdy rowboat. My sister, Nancy, had a canoe. She wanted a fur cape for Christmas when she was seventeen but she didn't get that.
Dad traveled through the South for the Albany Felt Company as a salesman and he was worldly wise but my mother ran things. Part of her expertise was making Dad think he was boss. She was a great mother to have and I've often wondered how she was able to get so much satisfaction from doing for us what so many mothers today do without satisfaction. She liked to play bridge but I don't think she ever read a book. Being a mother was her full-time occupation.
Life at The Academy was very good. We used the school almost like a country club, often meeting there on Saturday morning to use the facilities or plan our day if we didn't have a team game scheduled. The Academy was not a military school, but it was founded in 1812 and during the Civil War it had formed a student battalion. The tradition was continued and once a week for about an hour and a half we put on funny old Civil War–style formal uniforms and marched in practice for Albany parades and our own competitive Guidon Drill. It was my first brush with military life. Although it was years before the thought occurred to me that I'd ever serve in the U.S. Army, I learned to detest everything about anything military at an early age. One day when we were to parade on the football field, I refused to march because I claimed it would damage the carefully kept field.
In the student battalion, everyone's aim was to become an officer in his Sixth Form year. The choices were made by two military aides who came to the school just once a week and a committee from the regular faculty. Shortly before the choices were to be made as to who the officers would be, Colonel Donner, the school's military adviser who was with the New York State National Guard, lined up the Fifth Formers in the battalion and said that anyone who did not want to be considered for a position as one of the officers in his senior year should step forward.
It put me in a terrible spot. Everyone wanted to be an officer. I wanted to be one but my negative attitude toward the battalion was so well known to everyone that the colonel was, in a way, challenging me to put up or shut up. I had no choice but to step forward as the only person in the school announcing that he did not want to be considered for the honor of being an officer in the battalion.
The colonel thanked me for being honest and dismissed us.
It was lucky for me that several teachers on the faculty disliked the battalion as much as I did. When the announcement of their choice for officers was made three days later, my name was on the list. Because I was captain of the football team, president of the Beck Literary Society, and "one of the guys," it would have been difficult for them to leave me off the list because it would have called for an explanation to the younger kids in the school. And then some of the faculty members like Herbert Hahn were my friends. They knew, even though I had stepped forward in that bravado gesture, that I desperately wanted to be chosen. (Mr. Hahn otherwise distinguished himself in my eyes by stating in class one day in about 1936, "Hitler will get nowhere in Germany.")
The only problem for me at The Academy was that my marks were poor. That was a constant problem. My mother always signed my report cards and hid them from my father when he returned from a trip because she knew Dad would be angry about them. He had successfully made his way from the tiny Ballston Spa High School to Williams College and he couldn't understand my bad grades. Although I was puzzled over them, I never gave in to the idea that I was stupid even though there was some evidence of that. There were things I did well and it was easy for me to think about those and ignore failing marks in Latin, geometry, and French. It was further depressing evidence of how much we're like ourselves all day long, all our years. I still see traces of the way I performed in The Academy at age sixteen in things I do today. We're trapped with what we have and with what we have not. No amount of resolve changes our character. I do a lot of woodworking as a hobby and, considering how different the craft is from writing, it's interesting—and sometimes discouraging—for me to note, in introspective moments, how close my strengths and weaknesses in making a chest of drawers are to the strengths and weaknesses in my writing. I feel the same helplessness with my shortcomings on paper and in my shop as I do when it occurs to me that I'm overweight, not primarily because I eat too much but that I eat too much primarily because of some genetic shortcoming I got from my father and share with my sister.
Football was one of the things I liked best at The Academy. We had a good bunch of fellows on the team and a coach known as "Country" Morris who was just right. He knew the game and he was a decent man who expected decency from all of us. He had been a football star at the University of Maryland and he looked just the way a coach should look on the football field with his leather-elbowed jacket and his baseball cap pulled down over his eyebrows and cocked at a jaunty angle.
I was five feet nine inches, weighed 175 pounds, and played guard on offense and tackle on defense. Because of the attitude other kids in town had toward us at The Academy, it was particularly satisfying to beat one of the public high schools or a parochial school, and we did that quite often during the four years I played. My friend Bob Baker was a good football player but his family fell on hard times and he had to leave The Academy in the Fourth Form and go to Albany High and then play against us.
I was in or near tears for three days after the high-school game my senior year. We were undefeated during the season and heavy favorites to beat the high school. The high school game ended in a scoreless tie and it was as if we had lost fifty to nothing. It seemed so important. Bob Baker was exultant and I suppose it took away some of the pain of his having had to leave The Academy.
In college, I soon realized I had conflicting interests. I was interested in writing, football, and philosophy. I thought I wanted to be a writer but didn't know where to start. What is called "English" in college is generally disappointing to anyone interested in learning how to write because, while I enjoyed having to read Byron, the English courses I was taking didn't have anything to do with learning how to put words down on paper in an interesting way. The courses I was getting were in English reading, not English writing. I didn't know at the time that you can't teach someone how to write. And I was discouraged to find grammar and English usage so much more complex than I'd previously thought it then to be.
Looking back at some of the things I wrote for Porter Perrin's "creative writing" classes, it's difficult to know why he thought I was worth encouraging. A good teacher hands out more encouragement than pupils deserve as a matter of teaching technique. You hear it from the teacher on the tennis court next to you. "Nice shot!" he says to the pupil who finally gets one over the net. Mr. Perrin did that with me and at least it gave me enough confidence, false though it may have been, to keep going.
Philosophy was all new to me. I had not known there were ideas like the ones we argued over in class. The great philosophers seemed to be maddeningly fair and indecisive, always too willing to consider another explanation. I had not known there was such a thing as pure thought for thought's sake only, independent of any practical result of having had it. I was fascinated by the application of philosophy to religion and became more convinced than ever that the mysteries of life, death, and the universe were insoluble and that God was as much a question as an answer.
Football was the thing I knew most about although some of the courses were easy. I took a biology course that was almost identical to, but simpler than, one I'd passed in The Academy. This was a freshman's dream come true.
At The Academy the linemen had already begun to trap block, which was considered a fairly sophisticated maneuver at the time, but my career as a football player at Colgate was checkered. I'd been heavy enough to be good in high school, but now at 185 pounds going up against linemen weighing 220 and 230 was a different experience. The first time I tried to move Hans Guenther out of the hole I was supposed to make for the fullback, Hans grabbed me by the shoulder pads, threw me aside, and tackled the fullback behind the line of scrimmage. Colgate had had an all-American guard a few years before my class who weighed even less than I did. The press had picked up the Colgate publicist's phrase "watch-charm guard" to describe him and it caught on. He was small but very fast and quick—not the same thing on the football field. The freshman coach, Razor Watkins, thought he had another watch-charm guard in me because I was small. He was not prepared for a player who was small and neither fast nor quick.
No matter how I did on the field, I was determined not to be a jock and let football dominate my life. A lot of the young men on the team were scholarship players who had been recruited to play football. They seemed crude to me and I became more aware than I had been at The Academy that I'd led a sheltered high-school life. None of my friends there had smoked, we didn't say "shit" or "fuck," and we didn't sleep with our girlfriends. Sex was only a rumor to us. I felt a sense of superiority that I recall now with a mixture of pride and embarrassment. I was right but it was self-righteous of me to think so.
It was nonetheless true though that college often brings out the worst in perfectly good young men and women. First-rate colleges like Colgate that get three times as many applicants as they can accept choose what they think are the best prospects. Go to one of those colleges on a party weekend and you wonder what the college applicants who weren't selected must be like if these young people attending the college are the cream of the crop.
The Colgate football team. I'm number 51. Carl Kinscherf, Number 15, played for the New York Giants and Bill Geyer, Number 21, played with the Chicago Bears. Jack Scott, Number 80, was killed flying as a tail gunner in a B-17. Dick East, Number 10, was a fighter pilot, shot down and killed flying with the Eighth Air Force.
I don't know what happens, but too often kids who have been bright and decent in high school turn into something else in college. I remember hearing of "Pig Night" at Yale where club residents were expected to bring a woman to the party who'd lay anybody. Colgate had fraternities, and there's some collective evil spirit that prevails in many fraternities and clubs. They offer sanctuary for boors and boorishness.
Colgate didn't bring out the best in me. I liked several of the teachers and their courses but I felt superior to a lot of what I saw there because I was looking at superficial things about the college and the students. It had a lot to do with my getting involved with a pacifist movement there.
Toward the end of my freshman year, I joined the Sigma Chi fraternity even though I felt the fraternity idea was foolish. Our house had been one of the fine old homes in town, and the fraternity had divided it up into a clutch of rabbit warrens that housed fifty of us in near-slum conditions. It was a good group of young men though, and it was an economically and socially practical way to live. The whole hocus-pocus of the fraternity mystique was foolish but dividing a campus up into groups of forty or fifty students and letting them work out their own food and housing is not a bad system.
For many years now I've returned all the Sigma Chi material that comes my way from the national headquarters with a note DECEASED on the envelope but nothing discourages the national organization from trying to honor anyone like me who they think might give them money.
- On Sale
- Oct 17, 2002
- Page Count
- 352 pages