In an era where the organizers of war are so divorced from the reality of fighting within it, men of our modern age have often produced perverted realities of the nature of such conflicts. Do not let the modernistic-realism of the cinema deceive you into believing that the ruling class understands the monumental sacrifice of our brave soldiers, or even the extremity involved. One may watch ‘Saving Private Ryan” and think to themselves how brutal the circumstances of war must be – but be content in supporting the endless voyages abroad. Through reading the firsthand account of the normal men that labored in these harsh and gruesome conditions, comfortable armchair elites may begin to understand this bind on the human soul.
The complexities of various World War II campaigns have been debated and discussed among historians since the war’s conclusion in 1945. However, some battles, particularly those between American and Japanese troops, continue to retain an air of mystery, as it is difficult for scholars to understand both the logistics of and reasons behind certain battles fought on Japanese islands. In his novel With the Old Breed, Marine E. B. Sledge discusses the Peleliu and Okinawa campaigns in which he was directly involved in 1944 and 1945 as a Marine mortarman. With his first-person account of the war as seen from the front lines, Sledge exposes man’s inhumanity to man, recounts the simple yet excruciating tragedies of war, and expresses his undying admiration for his fellow Marines; through both detailed instructions sent to his company in preparation for a larger campaign, and short anecdotes which remind us that soldiers are as human as the rest of us.
Sledge enlisted in the Marines when he was 19 years old, and underwent several months of rigorous training before his company was sent into Peleliu. Sledge describes the training he endured, as well as the common perception of the Japanese by both the officers and his fellow soldiers. Sledge notes that “official histories and memoirs of Marine infantrymen written after the war rarely reflect that hatred [between Marines and the Japanese]. But at the time of battle, Marines felt it deeply, bitterly,”1 leading readers to assume that most soldiers that have written about the war years after its end no longer feel an intense hatred towards the Japanese. However, once Sledge arrived on Peleliu, he “felt a sense of pride that [Peleliu] was enemy territory and that we were capturing it for our country to help win the war.”2 Throughout the novel, Sledge refers to the cold, vengeful anger he felt towards Japanese soldiers, most often during his time at Peleliu. Despite this initial hatred, Sledge also recounts memories of the civilians he saw at Okinawa, as well as the disgust many of his fellow Marines felt towards all Japanese citizens. For example, Sledge encountered an old woman who had been hit in the side and wished for him to shoot her to end her physical suffering. Refusing to shoot her, he called for a corpsman to help her, but another Marine shot her instead. Sledge scolded the Marine by telling him that they were “supposed to kill Nips, not old women,”3 showing his different attitudes towards Japanese soldiers versus Japanese civilians. His experience in combat may not have changed his views of the Japanese soldiers he had been trained to kill, yet he felt disgusted with the war and what it caused whenever he shot the enemy at close range or saw the fear and confusion in civilians’ faces.
At the beginning of the novel, Sledge notes that “it has been a burden to retain this story,”4 showing the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that afflicted him after the war. Many of Sledge’s more vivid memories deal with his interactions with his fellow Marines or his observations of the landscape in which they fought, rather than the actual fighting in which he participated. However, he constantly experienced pure disgust for the war and what it can do to one’s sanity on both Peleliu and Okinawa. Upon his return, Sledge wrote that “[w]ar is such self-defeating, organized madness, the way it destroys a nation’s best”5 and that “it is too preposterous to think that men could actually live and fight for days and nights on end under such terrible conditions and not be driven insane”6. In addition, he mentions that “something in me died at Peleliu. Perhaps it was a childish innocence that accepted as faith the claim that man is basically good. Possibly I lost faith that politicians in high places who do not have to endure war’s savagery will ever stop blundering and sending others to endure it”7. In these examples, it is clear that Sledge’s experience fighting in the Pacific impacted not only his mental state, but his overall perception of the world and of those in power who send young men to endure the horrors of war. Sledge began his training as an excited Marine who was proud to fight for his country, and came out of Okinawa as a proud member of his particular company with a hardened outlook on life and the realities of war.
Such experiences affected Sledge for his entire life, yet he has not been the only one who suffered PTSD from being on the front line of war. He describes the veterans he met before he embarked for Peleliu as the “old breed” – tough, blunt, and knowledgeable veterans who fought in previous World War II campaigns. At Okinawa, Sledge became one of those veterans, as he increasingly noticed the blunders and energy of the new recruits. However, even certain experiences, such as slipping on the slope of a ridge, “were too horrible and obscene even for hardened veterans”8. Sledge recalls an incident early in the Peleliu campaign, wherein a Marine was having a nightmare about the war from which he could not be awakened. Other Marines were worried that his screaming and rapid movement would alert nearby Japanese soldiers, and by morning, the Marine was dead, killed by fellow soldiers out of the necessity for survival. Sledge writes that “[the Marines] had done what any of us would have had to do under similar circumstances. Cruel chance had thrust the deed upon them,”9 illustrating the horrors and agonies of war that are experienced by those fighting for the same country. While in Okinawa, Sledge noted the difficulties involved in adjusting back to civilian life in the States, writing that many Marines “wished that people back home could understand how lucky they were and stop complaining about trivial inconveniences”10.
Many soldiers in both subsequent and previous wars have expressed similar sentiments about war changing their outlook on life and on people who have not experienced war directly. With advances in technology and a greater understanding of both the mental and physical toll war takes on human bodies, modern scientists are now much more aware and understanding of the effects of war on soldiers, especially PTSD. For instance, a French study published in 2019 questioned if the programs that are in place for soldier rehabilitation are beneficial in the long-term, and proposes new resources for soldiers struggling with PTSD that may be useful to many countries, including the United States. PTSD is a disorder that can take many forms, and is highly individualized. Many studies have been conducted recently that are very similar to the French study, and most of the results state that adequate resources for PTSD depend on the psychological state of the individual more than the efficiency of a government-sponsored program designed to reintegrate veterans into society as soon as possible. For instance, the French study’s results “highlight the importance of taking into account the existing needs of the patient and the optimization of the modalities of individual, collective, and institutional rehabilitation for patients suffering from PTSD in order to better understand the dynamics of the recovery process of a chronically afflicted individual.”11 Although we know that PTSD exists and can become a chronic, debilitating disorder, it is still difficult to propose the best rehabilitation program for those struggling with PTSD from war, as the physical details of PTSD are not yet fully understood.
Through his detailed recollection of Marine involvement in the Peleliu and Okinawa campaigns, Sledge lays bare the unadulterated hatred felt by both the Americans and the Japanese. He also provides an excellent resource for understanding the inner workings of the campaigns themselves, the daily lives of the soldiers, and the ways in which the landscape impacted the war. Although he was trained to kill the Japanese and to feel no remorse for these actions, Sledge soon realized that even though he and many others were killing the enemy for their country, the war itself was more personal, mind-numbing, and inhumane than anyone could have imagined.
Important elegies, like that beautifully conserved by Sledge, are invaluable to future practitioners in stewarding society. They separate the real temporal romanticism of dying for one’s country, from the abstract and fictional romanticism of an operatic display. Without sacrificing any patriotism in the process, Sledge’s retrospective serves as a pressing indictment on the dogma concocted by high culture. Whether that takes the form, in Vietnam, of tactical hyper-criticism, or the more common instance today of shameless drone striking. Sledge’s lament shows that a clear mind and empirical experience prove vital to harboring an unmolested view of war’s Byzantine reality.
- Eugene B. Sledge, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (New York: Presidio Press, 2010), 34.
- Ibid., 61.
- Ibid., 288.
- Ibid., XIII.
- Ibid., 85.
- Ibid., 260.
- Ibid., 156.
- Ibid., 260.
- Ibid., 102.
- Ibid., 267.
- Célia Belrose et al., “Challenges Associated With the Civilian Reintegration of Soldiers
With Chronic PTSD: A New Approach Integrating Psychological Resources and Values in Action Reappropriation,” Frontiers in Psychiatry 9, no. 737 (2019): 2, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00737.
Belrose, Célia et al. “Challenges Associated With the Civilian Reintegration of Soldiers With Chronic PTSD: A New Approach Integrating Psychological Resources and Values in
Action Reappropriation.” Frontiers of Psychiatry 9, no. 737 (2019): 1-11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00737. Sledge, E. B. With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. New York: Presidio Press, 2010.