When Sledge enters the barracks at Camp Elliott, he notices that the atmosphere there is entirely different from boot camp. No one yells at them, the NCOs seem relaxed, and the men are able to sleep through the night. The new Marines receive theoretical instruction about the various types of weapons available.
The new, relaxed atmosphere at Camp Elliott suggests that, beyond mere discipline, what unites Marines is their willingness to work hard on their own, without necessarily needing too much external pressure to perform their duty well. This underlines the trust and respect that exists in the Marine Corps.
When asked to choose a weapon, Sledge picks the 60 mm mortar. His training instructor, a sergeant, appears self-confident and detached, exhibiting an aloofness that Sledge will later recognize as the typical look of Pacific combat veterans. The sergeant tells the new Marines that, unlike in boot camp, their main job now is to relax and work hard, as this will help get them through the war. His attitude impresses the men, who show immediate respect for him.
The training instructor’s attitude highlights the trauma that combat has left him with—the typical, hollow look caused by emotional strain—as well as the fact that one’s survival depends in part on hard work and competence. Sledge will later conclude that high-quality training, in addition to luck, makes an enormous difference in how likely one is to survive the war.
The sergeant explains the various situations in which the 60 mm mortar should be used, and demonstrates the various movements one should make. Sledge puts a lot of effort in performing gun drills well. One day, when he first sees someone fire live ammunition, he finally realizes the concrete nature of what he is doing: using a weapon that is capable of harming and killing another human being. When Sledge realizes that the reason one shoots others during war is because one is also being shot at, he concludes that this differentiates fighting and hunting. From that moment on, he decides never to hunt again.
This moment marks Sledge’s first understanding of the concrete consequences of war and fighting: the death of other human beings. Although this does not necessarily lead him to have moral qualms about his participation in the war, which he still sees as a necessary, patriotic act, it does make him more sensitive to the meaning of death in his life. In particular, he realizes that killing innocent animals, who—unlike humans at war—do not have the tools to defend themselves, is unfair. Sledge thus insists that his participation in war makes him a fighter, not a murderer.
The new Marines are also taught hand-to-hand combat, which they are told is useful because the Japanese often infiltrate American positions to slit Marines’ throats at night. For this reason, they are taught to use a Ka-Bar knife, which is less fancy than other knives but most capable of fighting off a Japanese soldier in a foxhole. Although this training is thorough, Sledge explains that neither his companions nor he truly realized that they were about to take part in a war that had already killed millions, and that they were all likely to die. The men thus train with optimistic enthusiasm, convinced that they are going to take part in crucial battles, capable of winning the war.
The particular horror of Japanese infiltrations suggests that, despite the importance for Marines to follow rules, war itself does not necessarily follow specific rules, beyond the simple objective of killing the enemy. This suggests that there is no particularly “noble” way to kill, but that war consists in killing others and avoiding being killed. This pragmatic emphasis on various forms of murder and survival serves as a prelude to what Sledge will later discover to be the chaotic, uncivilized nature of warfare, far from glorious images of noble self-sacrifice.
Some time earlier, in November 1934, the 2nd Marine Division fought the battle of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands of the Pacific, the first modern amphibious assault in history. Although the Marines killed almost all the Japanese on the island, they suffered heavy losses, for which they were heavily criticized. Nine months later, Sledge and other young Marines would fight an equally vicious battle on Peleliu, suffering twice as many losses as the Marines at Tarawa.
This explanation puts the battle of Peleliu in perspective. It highlights the fact that amphibious landings are a new military technique, thus showing that innovation is central to winning a war. It also underscores the absurdity of war and the horrific nature of the battle of Peleliu—which, despite not leading to clear strategic gains, took so many young men’s lives.
In February 1944, Sledge and fellow Marines board a ship to the Pacific. Sledge is disturbed by the thought that some of them will never make it back home. After boarding the ship, walking down to a crowded, smelly room, and being assigned a bunk, where Sledge soon realizes he can barely move, he walks out to explore the ship, too excited to sleep. When the ship begins moving the next morning, Sledge walks out and is assailed by doubts. He wonders if he will prove to be a coward in battle and if he will actually be able to kill another human being.
Sledge’s worries are both self-centered and concerned with his fellow soldiers: he fears dying, but also not helping his companions as best he can, thus revealing his compassion and sense of solidarity. These fears highlight the intensely personal nature of war, as it forces all soldiers to confront their own mortality and fallibility. It suggests that even the most reliable fighters can be assailed by self-doubt and that war is not always glorious, but that it involves commitment and grit.
Over the course of the next few days, Sledge finds the routine on ship boring. The Marines take part in daily exercises and drills, but spend most of their time waiting in line for chow, where they are served terribly smelling food in an overheated, sweaty room below deck. When Sledge sees the fancy food that officers are served in a separate, well-ventilated room, he wonders if he made a mistake to abandon officer training. However, he later realizes that rank brings little privilege in the middle of battle.
The boring, often disgusting daily routine on the ship serves as a prelude to the weight that unpleasant, ordinary circumstances can have on a Marine’s experience, beyond the hardships of combat. Indeed, Sledge will remain as deeply concerned with issues such as eating and sleeping as with mere survival during his time in the war. This brings greater complexity to public conceptions of soldiers’ lives.
After nearly three weeks at sea, Sledge is relieved to finally reach New Caledonia. There, they receive training on fighting strategies with veteran officers and NCOs. One day, as trucks carrying army troops pass by and Marines mock the soldiers for being “dogfaces,” one of the soldiers teases Sledge, calling him “soldier.” The man’s buddy immediately reprimands him, showing the man Sledge’s emblem, which proves that he is a Marine and should not be insulted. Sledge explains that, although Marines might complain about their own experiences, being insulted or mocked by an outsider usually leads to an actual fight.
This episode highlights the playful yet potentially violent rivalry between members of the army and the Marine Corps—men who, nevertheless, are fighting for the same country. Although Sledge later notes that combat experiences serve as a bonding event between all soldiers, regardless of their military affiliation, this episode underlines the importance of respecting each soldier’s identity and status. It highlights the strong feelings of pride and prestige that each soldier has toward his own military “home.”
After weeks of physical training, Sledge’s Replacement Battalion is told that they will be sent up north. The Marines board a ship and reach Pavuvu, in the Russell Islands, on June 2nd. The 1st Marine Division is staying there and, when the new Marines disembark, Sledge is awed by the sight of these veteran Marines who are known as some of the best fighters in the U.S. after fighting at the famous battles of Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester. However, instead of trying to impress the new Marines, these veterans have a friendly, unassuming manner, as well as an exhausted, detached look.
The combination of prestige and humility that these veteran Marines demonstrates highlights the gap between external and internal experiences of war. Although Sledge, from the outside, might expect these men to be haughty or arrogant, he discovers that combat breeds grief, trauma, and humility—the simple notion that one is lucky to have survived a battle in which so many others perished. On a personal level, war is often far more trying—and far less glorious—than external spectators imagine.
The next day, Sledge watches as some Marines are sent home, visibly tired but relieved to be leaving combat. Sledge, by contrast, is about to join the war. He is called to join Company K in the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines Regiment, which is part of the 1st Marine Division. Sledge admires the history and reputation of the 1st Division, which has participated in historical battles since World War I and is known as the “Old Corps,” and he is thrilled to be part of the very regiment and division he would have chosen himself. He feels proud to be part of such a distinguished group of fighters.
The Marines’ relief at leaving combat contrasts with Sledge’s naïve excitement at being part of a prestigious division. It highlights the gap between people with first-hand experience of combat and other people (like Sledge) who have not yet been traumatized by it. However, Sledge’s sense of excitement and pride does play an important part in the war, as the “esprit de corps” (sense of shared loyalty and pride) in Company K encourages all members to stay strong and optimistic, thus allowing them to remain as sane as possible throughout combat.
In the meantime, no one in the Marines understands why the division chose Pavuvu as a base camp. The island is muddy and its facilities inadequate. Sledge takes part in work parties that attempt to build drainage to keep the men from constantly walking in mud. He also is sent to collect rotten coconuts—an experience he finds so disgusting that, after the war, he still cannot stand the smell of fresh coconut. As Sledge and the Marines make absurd jokes about these useless tasks, which do not contribute to the war effort, Sledge explains that their ironic, absurd type of humor is characteristic of an “Asiatic” attitude—a term used to describe extravagant behavior that Marines who have served a long time in East Asia begin to demonstrate.
Sledge’s frustration and disgust at collecting coconuts appears trivial in the context of the war, but highlights the deeply human quality of war—in which one struggles not only to avoid death and suffering, but to maintain a sense of dignity and self-respect. This episode suggests that humor is often Marines’ only protection against absurdity and horror. It also serves as a prelude to the horrific sensory experiences Sledge will later undergo on Peleliu and Okinawa, where he will no longer be disgusted by rotting coconuts but by rotting corpses.
Although veteran fighters remind Sledge that he should not complain about anything until he has seen battle, Sledge still finds certain aspects of life on the island intolerable. He mentions the enormous number of land crabs that infest the tent area, invading the Marines’ possession, as well as the dehydrated food and beetle-infested bread they are served. He also notices that many Gloucester veterans are thin and in poor health, after taking part in a long battle in which they stayed wet for entire weeks. However, although Marines feel isolated and abandoned on this hot, humid island, Sledge notes that the strong discipline and powerful “esprit de corps” (feeling of shared loyalty and pride) among the Marines allow them to endure such frustrations, since everyone does their duty diligently.
Once again, although it might seem paradoxical for Sledge to complain about land crabs and food when there is a war going on, Sledge’s experience suggests that war is also defined by infantrymen’s everyday experiences—not only by political rivalries and existential issues of suffering and death. Seemingly trivial issues such as personal hygiene ultimately matter enormously to actual fighters, who are forced to perform their duty in disgusting circumstances. As he often does, Sledge notes that camaraderie is the only antidote to the horrors of war.
Sledge also notes that the men’s hatred for the Japanese keeps them motivated. The Japanese are known for vicious tactics, such as pretending to be wounded only to kill an American corpsman who comes to help, or the attack on Pearl Harbor. Such episodes convince Sledge that the Japanese are a fanatic enemy, ready to defend their cause with extraordinary intensity. For Sledge, this explains the ferocious nature of fighting in the Pacific, as men on both sides are animated by rage and hatred of the enemy.
Sledge’s denunciation of Japanese brutality suggests that hatred only breeds greater hatred: in this case, the Japanese’s lack of compassion for Americans encourages the Americans’ hatred of the Japanese. His criticism suggests that he believes in respecting moral codes even during war. However, although he criticizes Japanese actions such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, he does not necessarily comment on similar American actions, such as the atomic bombings of Japan in August 1945.
The Marines begin training more intensively for the approaching campaign, practicing landing exercises, in which they are meant to exit amphibious tractors as fast as they can. When Sledge practices firing a flamethrower, he is appalled to realize that this could be used to burn an enemy to death. However, he explains that he later learned that this was often the only method to destroy the Japanese’s island defenses.
Sledge understands that certain actions, such as burning an enemy to death, seem immoral or cruel from the outside. However, he justifies them by invoking military strategy—namely, the fact that the Japanese’s use of a mutually supportive defense network of caves and pillboxes makes it impossible to defeat them without killing everyone inside. This suggests that, according to Sledge, harmful acts can be justified by pure necessity.
To illustrate the influence of the “old breed” on young Marines, Sledge describes Gunnery Sergeant Haney. He recalls Haney’s idiosyncrasies, such as washing his genitals with a stiff brush used to scrub floors, which amazes and disturbs other Marines. He also describes Haney’s rage at seeing a Marine turn to answer an officer while still holding his pistol in his hand, and thus deviating the pistol from the target. In reaction, Haney throws a bit of sharp coral at the man’s face and yells at him uncontrollably. This makes everyone more committed to respecting safety regulations.
Sledge’s description of Sergeant Haney highlights the influence of in-group dynamics on Marines’ appreciation of their superiors. Haney’s punishment of the absentminded Marine mirrors Corporal Doherty’s physical and emotional abuse of Marine recruits. This time, however, Sledge’s judgment of Haney is influenced by his pride at being in the same corps as this esteemed veteran fighter. This allows Sledge to understand Haney’s punishment method as necessary, meant to protect everyone’s lives, and not as gratuitous brutality.
Sledge also mentions that, unlike other Marines, Haney does not have a buddy but spends most of his time on his own, obsessively cleaning his rifle multiple times a day and talking to himself. Sledge does not believe that Haney is “Asiatic,” but simply that he belongs to his own category, as though he had been born in the Marine Corps. Haney’s knowledge and experience draws men to admire and like him.
Haney’s attitude highlights the difference between civilians and Marines, as Marines accept that a certain level of emotional aloofness or absurdity is intrinsic to the war. During the war, Haney’s unusual social behavior ultimately matters less than his discipline and competence, which are sufficient to make him respected among his subordinates and his peers.
Sledge describes another much-admired officer: Company K’s commanding officer, Capt. Andrew “Ack Ack” Haldane. Haldane takes the time to get to know each of his men individually. During a particularly uncomfortable drill in the mud, Haldane asks Sledge about his roots and Sledge tells him he is from Alabama. The conversation makes Sledge feel valued and welcome. Everyone in Company K admires Haldane’s mix of intelligence, courage, and kindness, and feels grateful to have him as their skipper. Unlike other officers who yell, Haldane gives quiet orders, encouraging the men to perform as best they can.
Good leadership plays a crucial role in the war, not only in its capacity to spare men’s lives and make use of effective strategies, but also to make every soldier feel respected and valued. The family atmosphere that Haldane is able to nourish in Company K is essential to the men’s well-being, as it fosters their feelings of loyalty, solidarity, and discipline, encouraging them not only to fight for their own survival but for each other.
In August, discipline on Pavuvu increases to the point of becoming intolerable, as the Marines prepare to land on Peleliu. As the Marines discuss the situation among themselves, they realize that the officers’ plan might be to make the Marines tired of life on Pavuvu so that they’re more capable of handling the intense stress and violence of Peleliu, which Sledge describes as “savage” and “dirty business.” The officers’ job, therefore, is to prepare the Marines psychologically for the trials that await them.
The officers’ increasing severity with the Marines mirrors Corporal Doherty’s behavior with Sledge’s platoon during boot camp: these officers use harsh discipline as a means to imitate a war scenario. Their goal, in essence, is to desensitize Marines, making them used to brutality so that they will able to perform well in a brutal context.