book response: With the Old Breed by E. B. Sledge (1981)

I recently finished The War, a Ken Burn's documentary series on World War 2, which was excellent, and my ears pricked up when he mentioned a book by an enlisted Marine, E. B. Sledge, this is my response to that book, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. In fact, the library offered me a 2007 reprint with the endorsement of Ken Burns. The documentary mentioned that Sledge suffered from PTSD for most of his life after the war, though his book barely mentions his post-war life, excepting a few mentions of nightmares. His book, although highly valuing the esprit de corps of the Marines and the love for his fellow soldiers, wants us to know the depravity of humanity which he witnessed in the Pacific theater in two significant battles in which no quarter was offered by the Japanese and was barely offered by the US, since most Japanese offering to surrender used it as a ruse for suicide missions. Sledge is honest about his hatred for his enemies even though he seems to be a man of faith, and this intrigued me.

After his thorough training as a Marine, in contrast to those later recruits toward the end of the war, he and his squad were settling in for their last night on a rear base before heading out for the invasion of Peleliu. He writes,
It was hard to sleep that night. I though of home, my parents, my friends - and whether I would do my duty, be wounded and disabled, or be killed. I concluded that it was impossible for me to be killed, because God loved me. Then I told myself that God loved us all and that many would die or be ruined physically or mentally or both by the next morning and in the days following. My heart pounded, and I broke out in a cold sweat. Finally, I called myself a damned coward and eventually fell asleep saying the Lord's Prayer to myself. p. 50 
Unlike Louis Zamperini of Unbroken, see my earlier book response. Sledge enters the war with faith and finds it challenged. Throughout his most stressful periods in the two great battles of Peleliu and Okinawa he mentions holding onto his courage and sanity by praying the Lord's Prayer or reciting Psalm 23. He seems to have retained his faith, as "damned" is the dirtiest word used in the book. Even when referencing SNAFU, he defines the acronym as Situation Normal, All Fouled Up. Sledge does not need to enhance the shock and horror of war by quoting the paint blistering expletive tirades of fellow soldiers, in fact, they would distract from the terror that Sledge presents in an almost technical and analytic way.

Like Zamperini, who saw angels in the sky and heard a voice from heaven, as he drifted around in the Pacific Ocean, Sledge also heard from God, directly and audibly. After confessing his terror, and the shame of it, to an officer during the Pelelieu campaign, he was reassured.
Fear dwelled in everyone, Hillbilly said. Courage meant overcoming fear and doing one's duty in the presence of danger, not being unafraid....
Suddenly, I heard a loud voice say clearly and distinctly, "You will survive the war!"
I looked first at Hillbilly and then and then at the sergeant. Each returned my glance with a quizzical expression on his face in the gathering darkness. Obviously they hadn't said anything.
"Did y'all hear that?" I asked.
"Hear what?" they both inquired. p. 91
I think it is brave of this modern writer to casually mention his supernatural encounter with God. This heavenly promise did not give him anything extra in the midst of his campaigns, but let us know that his survival, his evasion of the law of averages, was more than skill or luck, it was divine. He never mentions this encounter again, but notes repeatedly the diminishing odds of not getting hurt as he spends more time on the front line.

His faith did not prevent him from becoming the killing machine that his training had prepared him for, physically, but not spiritually. He describes his internal turmoil after killing a Japanese soldier in close range who almost released his grenade at him and his friends before shooting him.
The soldier collapsed in the fusilade, and the grenade went off at his feet.
Even in the midst of these fast-moving events, I looked down at my carbine with sober reflection. I had just killed a man at close range. That I had seen clearly the pain on his face when my bullets hit him came as a jolt. It suddenly made the war a very personal affair. The expression on that man's face filled me with shame and then disgust for the war and all the misery it was causing. p.117
He will not celebrate war, because there is nothing to celebrate. That does not mean he believes the war wrong, but there was nothing good about it either.
I had long become used to the sight of blood, but the idea of sitting in that bloodstained bun pit was a bit too much for me. It seemed almost like leaving our dead unburied to sit on the blood of a fellow Marine spilled out on the coral...As I looked at the stains on the coral, I recalled some of the eloquent phrases of politicians and newsmen about how "gallant" it is for a man to "shed his blood for his country," and "to give his life's blood as a sacrifice," and so on. The words seemed so ridiculous. Only the flies benefited. p. 146
War was brought to the United States by the Japanese and the US responded. What the Japanese lacked in materiel and soldiers it made up for in tenacity and ferocity. Their culture did not tolerate those who surrendered, all were expected to fight to their deaths, and the battles only ended when all the Japanese were dead, which is why the US expected a million casualties if they invaded the main Japanese island and chose the atom bomb instead. Certainly US soldiers who fought on Okinawa welcomed the news of the big bombs being used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Sledge was horrified as the sight of Marine dead who had been desecrated by the Japanese. More than once they found soldiers who had their sexual members cut off and stuffed in their mouths. Of course, he wasn't the only one traumatized. While he channeled his rage into hatred of his enemy and loss of any compassion, others went to further extremes. Speaking of his senior officer in Okinawa,
Mac was a decent, clean-cut man but of those who apparently felt no restraints under the brutalizing influence of war - although he had hardly been in combat at that time. He had one ghoulish, obscene tendency that revolted even the most hardened and callous men I knew...If he could, that "gentleman by the act of Congress" would locate a Japanese corpse, stand over it, and urinate in its mouth. It was the most repulsive thing I ever saw an American do in the war. I was ashamed that he was a Marine officer. pp. 198-199 
How little things have changed in light of recent video from Afghanistan of AMerican soldiers doing similar things to dead Taliban.

Sledge wants to disabuse us from any romance about war. He speaks of the flies that grew so fat on the corpses around them that they couldn't fly. He speaks of the smell of rotting human flesh that filled his nostrils for weeks at a time during stalemates on Okinawa. Although he notes the many acts of courage by his friends he also doesn't want us to remain ignorant of their tragic deaths minutes or days later. Their great deeds did not provide them divine insurance. Their aspirations did not either. As Sledge realized early on, God loves us all and the meat grinder of war gets everyone. In light of what Sledge experienced before and after the war, I wonder if he considers the KIA's the lucky ones.


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