Again, this week, we turn to a title featured on the current three-for-the-price-of-two promotion, available online and in stores. Our subject is one that might be familiar to World War II enthusiasts and to HBO subscribers who watched the recent mini-series The Pacific—namely, the island-hopping campaign of the Pacific Theater, including the battles for the islands of Peliliu and Okinawa.
The book, With the Old Breed: at Peliliu and Okinawa presents Eugene B. Sledge's memoirs of those battles, researched and refined over decades of civilian life. It's widely considered to be the greatest "everyman" personal history of WWII, perhaps the greatest war memoir of all time, and has been hailed as an indispensable masterpiece by military historians like John Keegan, social and literary historians like Paul Fussell (also a veteran of the Pacific campaigns) and oral historians like Studs Terkel. Keegan cites substantial portions of it in his history of WWII. Fussel relies on it for several brutal but key passages in Wartime, and Terkel's The Good War resembles something like an anthology of smaller attempts at Sledge's memoir, something like "Sledge by Committee."
Select any few pages at random and it's easy to see why the producers of The Pacific relied so heavily on its contents. The book is instantly beautiful, haunting, smart, empathetic, observant, and horrifying. Most importantly, it is incredibly honest, its frankness about war's atrocities and indignities standing side by side with depictions of bravery and camaraderie rendered without artifice or moral heavy-handedness. One can use the same passages of With the Old Breed to write a screenplay about genuine triumphs of American soldiery and to write a thesis about war crimes and the inhumanity of combat without betraying the source text one whit.
This complexity has made it such a vital text in understanding the individual dimensions and personal costs of the war. Far from whitewashing combat, as so many post-war histories and films did before the late 1980s, it omits few details. It unambiguously presents, for instance, the intense racial hatred of the Pacific campaign on both sides—the American half of which went conspicuously absent for decades from American narratives. Hating the Japanese was as necessary a motivational combat tool as the Ka-Bar, and even the most Christian and forbearing of soldiers had reason to do so after a few hours of combat.
It's foolish to pretend the book is not brutal and nauseatingly violent at points, since, of course, this is one of the wages of violence, one of the realities of war we can't comfortably dismiss. Sledge encounters corpses of Marines that have been desecrated, their genitals cut off and stuffed in their open mouths. Many Marines soon reciprocate the brutality. He encounters fellow soldiers cutting gold teeth out of the mouths of still-living Japanese. The knowledge that the Japanese would fake wounds and wait to stab medics, play dead and then throw grenades and often refuse to be taken prisoner results in an atmosphere of no quarter given or asked. It's presumed that neither side will be willingly taken prisoner, so prisoners are merely shot.
In less faithful or intelligent hands, this book could have been a catastrophe of endless equivocation or unquestioned jingoism, handwringing that collapsed into doubt and apologia or a breast-beating and brutish absence of reflection or remorse. That history has someone like Sledge to write a book of this caliber is fantastic luck. He has no interest in eliding the truth about what some of his fellow men did, because failing to acknowledge all that they were dishonors the memory of the whole.
Sledge's background and experience inform this sober approach. Born into a professional middle-class southern household, he went on to college and officer's school before dropping out to enlist. He kept meticulous notes, then, after the war, completed a doctorate and taught at the university level while researching his personal stories and scrupulously editing them. As such, the memoir has the power of immediate recollection and the temperance of memory, raw human intensity, and nimble educated prose, the experience of the enlisted man with the perspectives on leadership known to the would-be officer.
Passages illuminate the psychological manipulations of leadership and the need to make men want to enter a fight. Consider this observation on what was then termed "chickens**t," a term that only later entered the historical lexicon of the war (in fairness to Sledge, his book is stunningly bereft of obscenity, and in this case he refers to it as "'chicken' discipline"):
"Well, it's this way," answered the philosopher. "If they get us mad enough, they figure we'll take it out on the Nips when we hit this beach coming up. I saw it happen before Guadalcanal and Gloucester. They don't pull this kind of stuff on rear-echelon boys. They want us to be mean, mad, and malicious.... That's straight dope, I'm telling you. I've seen it happen every time before we go on a campaign."
Other passages show Sledge's easy craftsmanship. You can't go but two or three pages without seeing something moving or wry, shocking or human, all immensely quotable. Take, for instance, this almost throwaway line about a Sergeant who is "Asiatic," meaning that he's got the mentality of one who's been in the combat zone, whose priorities and perspective make him one of the "Old Breed" of Marines that Sledge and his untested comrades revere:
To say that he was “Asiatic” would be to miss the point entirely. Haney transcended that condition. The company had many rugged individualists, characters, old salts, and men who were “Asiatic,” but Haney was in a category by himself. I felt that he was not a man born of woman, but that God had issued him to the Marine Corps.
It's passages like that last one that get too easily overlooked when we talk about the historic import of With the Old Breed. It's a brilliant document, but it's also brilliantly written. If a correspondent for the New York Times had written about WWII the way Sledge did as a hobby, there would be copies of his book on every journalism grad-student's shelf.
But while you could read it just for how its written, its main appeal will always be the subject matter. Sledge covers two of the most devastating battles in the history of the war, both overshadowed because of contemporary events, giving power to the memory of events and people marginalized by the overall global-war narrative. More importantly, he does it with lean and wonderful prose and a commitment to unvarnished honesty. Much of it his subject is gruesome—sometimes putting the responsibility for the gruesomeness his fellow Marines—but the truth of their sacrifice is more profound for acknowledging the horrors surrounding them and how such horrors are visited upon a person's psyche in combat.