“With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa” is E.B. Sledge’s autobiography of his role in two unspeakably bloody battles in the Pacific theater of World War II. At Peleliu alone the Marines suffered losses in excess of 10%; the Japanese on the island 11,000 strong, were annihilated to nearly a man.
Many, if not most, of the most storied books about war come from one of two perspectives: from that of the officers who lead it, or from historians writing after the fact. With the Old Breed is written from the point of view of an enlisted infantryman. This fact suffuses the entire book with a particular bitterness that, once read, is instantly recognizable. The poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and the memoirs of Robert Graves, written thirty years earlier, have the same anger. There is patriotism here, and a sense that Sledge is fighting in a good cause, but it is coupled with an anger against his own officers, and indeed against the whole bloody fact of war, that defies any simplistic catcall of “my country right or wrong.”
Sledge’s description of the enlisted man’s relationship with the officer class runs through the narrative like a thread. It’s not that there are no good officers – Sledge tells the story of many officers, some excellent, some terrible – but he recognizes that the fundamental job of an officer is, when necessary, to get his men killed.
“Yeah, some goddamn glory-happy officer wants another medal, I guess, and the guys get shot up for it. The officer gets the medal and goes back to the States, and he’s a big hero. Hero, my ass; gettin’ troops slaughtered aint’ being no hero,” said a veteran bitterly.”
Sledge recognizes that this isn’t as simple as an infantryman might make it — “Actually, in combat our officers caught just as much hell as the enlisted men. They also were burdened with responsibility.” But the tension between officers and enlisted men always lies behind every event retold in the book. This becomes particularly evident in Okinawa, at which point many of the enlisted men are veterans, and many of the officers are green. At the height of the Okinawa campaign, Sledge writes of a fabulously tense moment when a veteran corporal on Sledge’s mortar team disobeys a direct order to hold fire (telling his lieutenant to go to hell in the process).
The writing in With the Old Breed is not, as they say, Great Writing; that is one way in which it differs from the elegance and eloquence of Owen, Sassoon, and Graves. it is simple writing, with little to recommend it stylistically. But that’s not really the point of the book. Its status as a detailed firsthand account of the brutality and viciousness of the war in the pacific is enough to guarantee it a place on the bookshelves of great books about World War II.
Brutality is a theme Sledge treats with repeatedly, and explicitly. The brutalism is not just that which is inflicted on them by the enemy (and Sledge does not play down the visceral and racial aspects of this), but is a process that leads both ally and enemy alike down into a race to the bottom. “My emotions solidified into rage and a hatred for the Japanese beyond anything I ever had experienced. From that moment on I never felt the least pity or compassion for them no matter what the circumstances.”) It is this moral decay that informs Sledge’s bitterness about what the war did to him and his fellow soldiers.
The war had so brutalized us that it was beyond belief.
I noticed gold teeth glistening brightly between the lips of several of the dead Japanese lying around us. Harvesting gold teeth was one facet of stripping enemy dead that I hadn’t practiced so far. But stopping beside a corpse with a particularly tempting number of shining crowns, I took out my kabar [knife] and bent over to make the extractions.
A hand grasped me by the shoulder, and I straightened up to see who it was. “What are you gonna do, Sledgehammer?” asked Doc Caswell. His expression was a mix of sadness and reproach as he looked intently at me.”
“Just thought I’d collect some gold teeth,” I replied.
“Don’t do it.”
“Why not, Doc?”
“You don’t want to do that sort of thing. What would your folks think if they knew?”
“Well, my dad’s a doctor, and I bet he’d think it was kinda interesting.” I replied, bending down to resume my task.
“No! The germs, Sledgehammer! You might get germs from them.”
I stopped and looked inquiringly at Doc and said, “Germs? Gosh, I never thought of that.”
Reflecting on the episode after the war, I realized that Doc Caswell didn’t really have germs in mind. He was a good friend and a fine, genuine person whose sensitivity hadn’t been crushed out by the war. He was merely trying to help me retain some of mine and not become completely callous and harsh.”
The book is a bracing tonic to a civilian political culture whose contemporary knowledge of patriotism and warfare is limited to saccharine flag-waving of the most infantile sort. Sledge volunteered for the Marines when he could have sought a college deferment. He believed in what he was doing, and went to the fight willingly. But he never ignores what the war cost him, and his comrades, in human terms. Beyond the loss of life and limb, the war took away people’s souls, and Sledge writes on that loss on almost every page.
With the Old Breed is not the book to read if you want an overview of the strategic and tactical aspects of the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa. But it is unparalleled as a personal testimony of the filth, misery, and utter wretchedness of war. It is hard to read. And that might be the most important reason to read it.
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