book response: Helmet for my Pillow by R. Leckie (1952)


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Cover via Amazon
After watching HBO's The Pacific recently, I was reminded that this book, Helmet for my Pillow by Robert Leckie, has been on my "to read" list since I read Sledge's "With the Old Breed." Sledge wrote really well, but Leckie writes on a different level. Sledge writes with the spotlight more on his internal turmoil, but Leckie looks around him. He was a reporter before he enlisted in the Marines and went back to that career after the war. His vocabulary is extensive and college level, keep your dictionary at hand, or read it on your Kindle, like I did. His style is also thorough, even meandering at times, a style I appreciate because I'm also guilty.

His observations on humanity are timeless, also the behavior of humans seems to be the same over the last 70 years at least.
It is an American weakness. The success becomes the sage. Scientists counsel on civil liberty; comedians and actresses lead political rallies; athletes tell us what brand of cigarette to smoke. Loc. 117-18
Some things remain the same, including our society's use of the f-word. I was so impressed how Leckie would refrain from the foul language in his recounting, and let his reader's imagination do the heavy lifting without offending his reader.
Always there was the word. Always there was that four-letter ugly sound that men in uniform have expanded into the single substance of the linguistic world. It was a handle, a hyphen, a hyperbole; verb, noun, modifier; yes, even conjunction. It described food, fatigue, metaphysics. It stood for everything and meant nothing; an insulting word, it was never used to insult; crudely descriptive of the sexual act, it was never used to describe it; base, it meant the best; ugly, it modified beauty; it was the name and the nomenclature of the voice of emptiness, but one heard it from chaplains and captains, from Pfc.’s and Ph.D.’s—until, finally, one could only surmise that if a visitor unacquainted with English were to overhear our conversations he would, in the way of the Higher Criticism, demonstrate by measurement and numerical incidence that this little word must assuredly be the thing for which we were fighting. Loc. 290-96
He was honest about the heroics, but also with the tragedies. Their were the tragedies on the US side.
This is the terror I mean; this is the terror that strangles reason with the clawing hands of panic I saw it twice, I felt it pluck at me twice. But it was rare. It claimed few victims. Loc. 1395-96
There were the tragedies on the Japanese side.
Nevertheless, they attacked us. They attacked us, some one hundred of them against our force of some twelve hundred, and, but for the prisoners, we had annihilated them. Were they brave or fanatical? What had they hoped to gain? Had their commander really believed that a company of Japanese soldiers could conquer a battalion of American marines, experienced, confident, better armed, emplaced on higher ground? Why had he not turned around and marched his men home again? Was it because no Japanese soldier can report failure, cannot “lose face?” Highlight Loc. 3810-14 
As he walked around the bodies piled up after the massacre he reflected on our souls. This is a long quote, but so good I had to tweet it.
I stood among the heaps of dead. They lay crumpled, useless, defunct. The vital force was fled. A bullet or a mortar fragment had torn a hole in these frail vessels and the substance had leaked out. The mystery of the universe had once inhabited these lolling lumps, had given each an identity, a way of walking, perhaps a special habit of address or a way with words or a knack of putting color on canvas. They had been so different, then. Now they were nothing, heaps of nothing. Can a bullet or a mortar fragment do this? Does this force, this mystery, I mean this soul—does this spill out on the ground along with the blood? No. It is somewhere, I know it. For this red-and-yellow lump I look down upon this instant was once a man, and the thing that energized him, the Word that gave “to airy nothing a local habitation and a name,” the Word from a higher Word—this cannot have been obliterated by a quarter-inch of heated metal. The mystery of the universe has departed him, and it is no good to say that the riddle is solved, the mystery is over—because it has changed residences. Loc. 3824-31 
Leckie was raised Roman Catholic, and seemed to retain some of his faith through the war and after. He seems to indicate here that he still believes in an afterlife. Like E.B. Sledge, the war didn't take his faith away. It challenged his faith, but it was still there. I had to tweet this as well,
Because it is gone you cannot say it will not return; even though you may say it has never yet returned—you cannot say that it will not. It is blasphemy to say a bit of metal has destroyed life, just as it is presumptuous to say that because life has disappeared it has been destroyed. I stood among the heaps of the dead and I knew—no, I felt that death is only a sound we make to signify the Thing we do not know. Loc. 3834-37
He fought on Guadalcanal, Gloucester, and Pelileu, where he was injured enough from a Japanese shell exploding close to him to be sent back to the U.S. He was grateful that the atomic bomb forced the Japanese to surrender, yet he ends the book, praying to God and asking forgiveness for "that awful cloud," in reference to the mushroom cloud.
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