With the Old Breed

by

E.B. Sledge

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With the Old Breed: Part 1, Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
At 8 a.m. on D Day, Sledge and his companions watch as American ships shell the island of Peleliu, filling the air with strong smells and deafening sounds that force the Marines to scream to each other. Sledge finds waiting in the amtrac intolerable. He is unable to swallow or to stand on his legs, and holds onto the sides of the tractor for balance.
Sledge’s physical difficulties reflect how terrified and stressed he is, as he knows that the environment he finds himself in is capable of killing him at any moment. Later, on Okinawa, he will discover that having undergone such an experience once keeps him from feeling exactly the same panic a second time.
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When the amtrac is given the signal to move forward, Sledge feels as though they are moving toward the surreal scene of an exploding volcano, as shells constantly explode near the tractor. Finally, the men are ordered to exit the amtrac and Sledge follows Snafu. When machine-gun fire barely misses his face, he loses his balance and falls on the beach. He begins to panic, telling himself that he needs to get off the beach as soon as possible to avoid being hit. A Marine comes over to help him stand up and both of them run away as fast as they can, while shells are crashing around them. Sledge finds himself in the middle of a chaotic, blurred world, which his mind cannot fully comprehend.
The hellish scene that Sledge describes serves as an impressionistic description of the chaotic violence of war, in which anything can happen, sometimes out of sheer luck. For example, Sledge could have been hit immediately upon exiting the amtrac and never survived the war. This suggests that luck plays just as important a part in people’s survival as other factors such as courage or training. The soldier who helps Sledge stand up exemplifies solidarity, taking the time to help a comrade instead of running for safety on his own.
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As Sledge reaches the end of the beach, he turns around to see an amphibious truck, hit by a shell, blow up exactly where his amtrac landed. Sledge finds himself watching with strange detachment, even as he notes that no men exited the vehicle. He watches the rest of the chaotic scene and feels an overwhelming mix of rage and frustration overcome him, as he finds himself incapable of doing anything to save his companions. He asks God “Why, why, why?” and feels deeply bitter about the injustice of war. At the same time, as he exits the beach, avoiding a bomb by inches, he also feels a sense of pride that his country is capturing this enemy territory to win the war.
The explosion of an amtrac where Sledge’s used to be shows that, in war, all lives are both unique (because of every man’s individual desires and fears) and interchangeable (as the difference between dying and living is so often a matter of sheer luck). Sledge’s mixed feelings of pride and injustice suggest that, according to him, although war might not be laudable on a moral level, fighting to defend one’s country is a noble endeavor.
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When Sledge reaches a group of veterans, he asks for a cigarette and Snafu teases him for doing exactly what he had said he would. As Company K moves inland, Sledge feels so tense, sweaty, and shaky that he wonders if he is having a convulsion. He experiences waves of complete helplessness and feels as though the shelling on the beach lasted hours, even though it only took about thirty minutes. He notices a friend of his with a wound and feels sorry for him, but the man enthusiastically replies that he has received “the million-dollar wound” and can now leave the war.
Sledge’s lack of control over his own body reveals how strongly a brutal environment can overcome individuals’ minds. This idea will later resurface itself in Sledge’s difficulty to retain a sense of moral behavior or to control his own sanity. Sledge’s friend’s joy at being wounded highlights the mixed feelings that all soldiers must handle: the willingness to fight for a cause that puts one’s own life in danger, combined with the desire to survive at all cost.
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Moving through the scrub, Sledge and his companions try to avoid snipers. There, Sledge sees his first enemy corpse, a Japanese medic who was hit by a shell. Sledge stares at him in horror, unable to believe that this is a human being. Rather, the dead body reminds him of the animals he has killed while hunting. To Sledge’s surprise, a Company K veteran sees the dead body and removes the man’s glasses from his face. As Sledge watches him remove the man’s pistol and a Japanese flag that the medic had in his helmet, the veteran encourages Sledge to take “souvenirs.” Sledge is frozen on the spot, wondering if he too will one day become so “dehumanize[d],” inured to the sight of death. He explains that this later did indeed happen, over the course of his time on Peleliu.
Sledge’s horror at seeing a dead body highlights his humanity, as he is able to feel compassion for another human, regardless of his nationality. Although Sledge does indeed become inured to the sight of enemy dead, he constantly struggles to remain a dignified, moral being who does not engage in heinous acts. However, the combination of soldiers’ emotional desensitization and an attempt to retain moral principles reveals that there is often a fine line between trying to survive in a brutal world and becoming brutal oneself.
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As the company moves through the scrub, Sledge sees friends from different units and is shocked to notice that everyone has vacant, strange looks, making their faces almost unrecognizable. He then realizes that he must have the same expression, as his face muscles are tight and unmovable, keeping him from smiling.
Sledge’s description of the Marines’ empty looks is what he later defines as the “thousand-yard stare,” a blank expression revealing emotional detachment, an inevitable reaction to the trauma of combat.
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When the company reaches a clearing, the Marines begin to fire at Japanese soldiers. They are then instructed to move back, in order to join the 7th Marines. The company spends the afternoon walking in intense heat through heavy fire and trying to avoid being ambushed by the Japanese, which will happen if they fail to reach the 7th Marines before nightfall. Finally, the two companies are able to reunite during the night. That night, Sledge learns that the division suffered many casualties. Some of the veterans even tell him this is their worst day of fighting so far.
Sledge often describes fighting as brutal and harrowing. However, he also enjoys putting his own impressions in perspective—for example, hearing from veteran Marines what they think about the day’s fighting. This allows him to keep in touch with reality, confirming to him that he truly is experiencing something extraordinarily violent, which everyone can recognize. It reassures him that he is not abnormally fearful or cowardly.
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At the end of the day, Sledge finds that he is completely dehydrated, and that no one knows when they will receive more water. Snafu and Sledge then settle for the night in their gun pit. When he sees Sledge take off his shoes, Snafu yells at him, and Sledge is ashamed to realize that this is indeed a stupid decision, since he could never run away from a Japanese counter-attack barefoot on the coral. Sledge also feels uneasy when he sees Snafu place his kabar knife right by his right hand, in case of a Japanese infiltration.
Snafu’s advice to Sledge is one of many occasions in which Marines help each other out, keeping their companions from harm. Sledge notes that, in situations of extreme stress and exhaustion, individuals often make mistakes that they would never commit in other circumstances. The fact that even small mistakes can lead to death underlines how important it is to follow the rules and adopt useful, automatic habits.
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Sledge then watches the green light of shells exploding during the night, noting that they make the earth tremble and explode. To find a measure of comfort, he begins to pray out loud. He explains that being under prolonged shelling is utterly terrifying, affecting one’s mind and body to profound extents, capable of causing insanity. Shells, to him, are an example of “man’s inhumanity.” Helpless and unable to sleep, he fears losing his mind and merely hopes that they will soon receive more water, as most of the men have already exhausted their supply. He grasps the desperation that dehydration can lead to.
Sledge’s description of shelling is deeply impressionistic, focusing on the sensory effects of war. This allows him to try to convey to the reader the physical intensity of combat and the spiritual helplessness that comes from it. Sledge’s attempts to pray mirror his later efforts, on Okinawa, to abstract himself from reality by imagining himself in a nightmare. These techniques reveal that losing control over one’s mind is just as dangerous as being hurt physically.
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Although Japanese machine-gun fire has erupted near them since the early hours before dawn, it suddenly ceases before the men have to leave their gun pits. As dawn arrives, bringing increasing heat with it, the men despair about having no water. Finally, someone arrives with a water supply and Sledge fills his canteen, even though he is disgusted by the brown color of the water. After his first gulp, his stomach immediately cramps, and Sledge realizes that this water, covered in blue oil, comes from oil drums that the men had cleaned on Pavuvu, using a technique that did not succeed in actually cleaning them.
Sledge’s disgust at the water they receive highlights the tragedy of his situation, in which shelling might not kill him, but dehydration or poisoning potentially could. This makes war seem all the more absurd, as even a simple need such as hydration becomes dangerous and unpleasant. This episode emphasizes how complex it is for men to feel normal and healthy in such an inhuman environment, in which all of their senses are constantly under stress.
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The Marines are then told to launch an attack across an airfield. They are meant to run in a dispersed manner while the Japanese shell the area. The Marines thus move in various waves, bending down as low as they can, and Sledge finds this whole process scarier than the landing because, this time, they are completely exposed to the shelling, without the protection of a vehicle. Sledge repeats prayers to himself while running under terrible heat and avoiding the blasts caused by the shells all around him.
Throughout Sledge’s narrative, various military strategies prove more or less risky—that is, more or less capable of minimizing human losses. The airfield episode suggests that certain operations will inevitably lead to heavy human losses—a situation that Sledge’s panic renders all the more tragic, as he shows the human experience of feeling utterly vulnerable, capable of being wounded at any moment.
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At one point, Sledge and Snafu stumble and fall down. Snafu is hit by the fragment of a shell but only harms his pistol belt, leaving a mere bruise on his skin. The two of them then continue running and, when they finally make it across the airfield, Sledge notices terror in the eyes of even the most seasoned veterans. This makes him feel relieved, as he realizes he is not the only one to be scared. In the meantime, it is so hot that water pours out of Sledge’s shoes when he takes them off.
Once again, Sledge appreciates being able to compare his fear with veterans’ reactions. This reassures him that he is neither cowardly nor too sensitive but that, rather, situations of such intense violence are bound to make anyone panic. The fact that water pours out of Sledge’s shoes is humorous, even as it emphasizes the physical discomforts to which Marines will constantly be subjected on Peleliu and Okinawa.
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That evening, the Marines dig their foxholes and follow a daily routine: they set up mortars where they best protect the company and repeat the password for themselves—a code that changes every night and uses the letter “L,” which the Japanese have difficulty pronouncing. Soon, the men hear some Japanese try to infiltrate the company around them, which they recognize because of the small-arms fire and grenades exploding.
The linguistic difference between the Japanese and Americans highlights the enormous cultural gap between the two nations. This serves as a reminder that, even though men on both sides are busy fighting each other, they actually know very little about their enemy’s way of life, and do not necessarily have any personal stake in killing each other beyond loyalty to their homeland.
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Sledge explains that, in such circumstances, anyone who moves around at night without calling out the password can be shot. That night, Sledge suddenly hears movement in the dry plants near him. Tense and focused, Sledge points his automatic pistol toward the noise. Recognizing a mix of rustling and silence, he concludes that this must be a Japanese infiltrator. His heart pounding, he then notices a man wearing a helmet. He asks the man to say the password, but hears no answer. His finger on the trigger, he calls out again and the man then suddenly calls Sledge by his nickname, “Sledgehammer.” Sledge realizes that this is an American Marine and relaxes.
This stressful situation is one of many episodes in which accidents can easily happen, leading to the death of a fellow Marine. Such episodes are rarely the fault of the Marine who shoots another—rather, they are usually caused by carelessness or incompetence. In this case, the Marine’s failure to call out the password makes Sledge entirely justified in shooting him, since this is standard practice for infiltrators. Such situations highlight the importance of following procedure at all times.
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The man then appears—it’s Jay de l’Eau, one of Sledge’s best friends and a Gloucester veteran, who has come to ask for water. Shaking and with a strong desire to cry, realizing that he could have easily shot his friend—an action that would have been entirely justified given the circumstances—Sledge then gets mad at him, yelling at him for making such a stupid mistake.
The fact that Jay actually has previous combat experience makes his careless behavior difficult to understand. It suggests that even the most trained men occasionally make mistakes in stressful circumstances. Sledge’s anger is not cruel, but represents his effort to protect his friend and to release the intense fear he felt a few seconds earlier.
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The next day, Sledge learns that his friend Robert Oswalt has been killed, and concludes that the war is a waste of important human lives. He also reflects on the value of the Japanese lives the U.S. has taken, but then recalls an NCO’s opinion that it is “them or us,” and that one should not feel guilty about killing the enemy.
Sledge is capable of accepting two contradictory beliefs: war leads to the death of talented human beings, yet killing is sometimes necessary. In this case, the moral imperative to protect all human lives does not prove as strong as the patriotic need to protect one’s country—and, more urgently, one’s own self.
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When Company K moves north in extreme heat to relieve a battalion of Marines who are under heavy attack, they soon come under attack themselves by a mountain nicknamed “Bloody Nose Ridge.” After hours of fighting, as evening approaches, the men set up their holes for the night. Sledge goes to the beach to help an NCO unload a tractor full of supplies, including an oil drum full of water, which is extremely difficult to unload. There, they are attacked by mortars and try to work as fast as they can. Suddenly, another Marine appears, offering help, and the men are fascinated to notice that the man, who presents himself as Paul Douglas, is over fifty years old. When asked why he joined the war, Douglas simply says that he wants to help. He mentions that he knows Captain Haldane, and everyone agrees that he is the best company commander.
Once again, even the most mundane activities, such as receiving food supplies, prove fraught with danger during war, making everyday life precarious. The men’s unanimous agreement that Captain Haldane is an excellent commander suggests that the best form of leadership does not involve humiliation and violence but, rather, integrity and compassion—qualities that are far more difficult to demonstrate under stress. Douglas’s decision to take part in combat shows how strong certain men’s commitment to the war is, as they prove ready to sacrifice their lives even when they would be fully justified in retiring.
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The Company K Marines then return to the company lines, enjoying a warm meal for the first time in three days, which Sledge finds refreshing despite the heat. The next day, they receive fresh water, which makes Sledge feel relieved.
Sledge’s mention of such seemingly routine activities suggests that they are, in fact, extraordinary, as they provide much-needed respite from the dangers and discomforts of armed combat.
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That night, Sledge has a conversation with Company K’s machine-gun platoon leader, a man nicknamed “Hillbilly.” Sledge describes it as one of the most decisive conversations in his life. Hillbilly is admired for his “gentlemanly” appearance, as he takes great care to stay clean even in the most difficult circumstances. More importantly, though, he is equal to “Ack Ack” Haldane in terms of excellent leadership, courage, and solidarity.
Sledge often notes that personal hygiene and appearance play an important role in the Marine corps, as they demonstrate one’s ability to remain dignified and self-controlled in the most trying circumstances. He describes cleanliness not as a superficial attribute but as a sign of pride and respect for one’s status as a Marine—which Hillbilly demonstrates, fulfilling his role as officer with elegance.
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As Sledge and Hillbilly begin chatting about their childhoods in the South, Sledge feels comforted by Hillbilly’s optimistic, soft voice. When Sledge admits that he has sometimes felt terrified to the point of being ashamed of himself, Hillbilly proves surprisingly honest. The officer tells him that he, too, experiences deep fear, but that the most important thing is performing one’s duty anyway. By the end of the conversation, Sledge feels completely reassured and almost jovial.
Sledge is reassured to discover that his relationship with his superiors does not necessarily involve hierarchy and authority, but can be marked by genuine sharing and compassion. Hillbilly’s realistic assessment of fear reveals that learning to handle one’s emotions—and that of one’s subordinates—is just as important as staying alive physically.
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In that moment, as silence settles, Sledge suddenly hears a voice say: “You will survive the war!” When Sledge asks the other men around him if they heard anything, they reply that they did not. Although skeptical of people who hear voices, Sledge becomes convinced that God spoke to him on that night. The knowledge that he will survive convinces him that he will need to have a good, productive life after the war.
This spiritual experience proves prophetic, as Sledge does indeed survive the war. Although it remains ambiguous what actually happened, this episode gives Sledge new optimism and strength—two qualities that he describes as crucial to surviving the war, since they keep one from giving in to despair.
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That night, Sledge realizes that he has not showered in days and stinks. He explains that keeping oneself and one’s rifle clean is an essential aspect of Marine standards, and being dirty makes one feel less dignified. He expresses his surprise at noting how little this aspect of war appears in soldiers’ narratives, since this can make a Marine just as miserable as fear, or other physical sensations such as being too hot or sick.
Sledge’s honest narrative style leads him to talk about all unpleasant aspects of war, from personal hygiene to death itself. In explaining the psychological ramifications of staying clean, he shows that such seemingly trite details—which might seem insignificant in light of greater problems like death—color a soldier’s experience and constitute a form of suffering as valid as any other.
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The next morning, on September 18, Company K pursues its rifle attack against the eastern side of Bloody Nose Ridge. Sledge explains that the worst job during such attacks is that of the riflemen, who spearhead attacks and are thus most exposed to enemy fire. Later, when the Marines reach the Japanese’s complex network of caves and pillboxes, which hindered the Marines’ usual assault tactics, everyone takes turns being a rifleman in the front and a stretcher bearer in the rear. This allows all company members to understand the dangers involved.
The fact that all Marines alternated being riflemen and stretcher bearers demonstrates an attempt at making everyone equal—and, thus, giving everyone a chance to survive. In light of the numerous cases of mental breakdown that Sledge describes, it can also be seen as a strategy to minimize emotional stress on soldiers, allowing everyone to benefit from moments of relative rest.
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While K/3/5 is attacking the eastern side of Bloody Nose, the 1st Marines (2/1), attacking the end of the ridge, suffer heavy casualties. One of Sledge’s friends in Company K tells him he has heard from a friend in 2/1 that the Marines there are being sent for frontal attacks in which they do not even see the Japanese who are shooting at them, and thus cannot defend themselves in any way. Members of Company K agree that this amounts to slaughter. One veteran says that such a strategy only benefits the officer who makes such decisions without actually bearing the brunt of the violence. While an officer’s Marines are killed in combat, the man can return to the U.S. and receive a medal for his work. Sledge and his friends in Company K feel bitter about this, especially since they know they will probably have to attack that part of the ridges at some point.
This episode suggests that Marines do not consider all leadership and strategizing equally valid—even if, in combat, they have no choice but to obey their superiors’ orders, however unfair or illogical they may seem. The infantrymen argue that bravery does not depend on one’s rank or on the success of one’s military strategies, but, rather, on one’s respect for the human lives involved. In these Marines’ eyes, only people who have experienced combat should be able to determine who deserves recognition—and who, on the other hand, has proven wasteful of human lives. Bravery and competence, they conclude, can only be measured by the people who benefit from it.
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That day, the Marines walk through stifling heat, Sledge’s pack causing him to sweat profusely. His small New Testament is safely tucked away inside a plastic bag. The men then hear that they are going to be served hot chow: pork chops. The Marines find this unbelievable, and are filled with gratitude.
The Marines’ joy at the simple announcement of hot food shows that, once again, small treats of this kind bring both physical and psychological relief to the soldiers, allowing them to take a break from constant violence and physical discomfort.
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The next day, part of Company K joins other squads to move into the peninsula, beyond the company’s lines. The goal is to reach a swamp where the Marines will need to keep the enemy from advancing. Severed from the tight-knit group of Company K, Sledge feels a little lost, and realizes that he sees Company K as his family, the place where he truly belongs. He describes this feeling of belonging as a crucial aspect of Marine life, allowing the men to maintain a high morale and to depend on each other in matters of life and death.
Sledge’s attachment to Company K is sentimental but also, from a military perspective, strategic, as it gives him more strength and optimism in fighting. This suggests that it is crucial to take men’s emotional well-being into account when planning military strategies. The structure of tight-knit Marine companies—as well as excellent leadership by men such as Haldane and Hillbilly—allows for this process to happen naturally.
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As the men move through the growth, Sledge notices two man-o-war birds nesting in a tree. He takes a minute to watch them, realizing that they remind him of the birds near Mobile, Atlanta, but a friend scolds him, telling him to focus. Although Sledge knows that losing one’s concentration is dangerous, he is also grateful to enjoy a few moments of peace and joy in the midst of the horrors of war.
Sledge’s friend’s advice highlights the deep solidarity that exists among Marines, as they learn not only to perform well individually but also to help each other remain concentrated. The contrast between Sledge’s fascination with birds and his violent surroundings also underlines how absurd war is, as it causes human beings to behave like animals instead of exercising their greater intellectual instincts.
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As night falls, the group settles by an abandoned Japanese machine-gun bunker, trying to make as little noise as possible, to ensure a surprise effect if the Japanese attempt to move forward. Sledge is amazed by how black the night is and, as he observes the dark world around him, he feels completely disoriented. In this moment, he becomes overwhelmed by the feeling that his life is completely disposable. Aware that he comes from a culture that puts a lot of emphasis on the individual value of life, he finds this thought humbling and difficult to accept.
Sledge’s existential angst is intimately tied to his capacity to connect to his surroundings through his senses—in this case, understanding the darkness of the night as a symbol of the death that surrounds him, which has led so many young men like him to oblivion. His struggle to understand his life in this context causes him to reevaluate the cultural principles with which he has grown up, and which have led him to go to war. He gradually realizes that there is an enormous gap between American civilians’ concept of life and his new understanding of death.
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Over the course of the next few hours, Haney makes frequent rounds asking the Marines for the night’s password. Although his goal is to keep the men alert, his coming and going only increases everyone’s anxiety. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, someone begins moaning loudly, before calling out for help in a wild tone. The men soon realize that this Marine is not having a mere nightmare, but has actually gone insane, unable to cope with the stress of combat.
Haney’s zeal once again reveals his idiosyncratic (potentially “Asiatic”) behavior, as he does not realize that he is making other people more anxious. The fact that danger emerges from within the Marines’ own camp—and not from a Japanese night attack—is symbolic, emphasizing that war is often fought within oneself as much as without, as each soldier struggles to retain a hold over their own sanity.
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The situation soon grows tense, as the man’s screams could easily reveal their position to the Japanese. Hillbilly attempts to reassure the man, and someone hits him in the jaw to keep him from screaming. A corpsman gives the man various morphine injections, which have no effect. Everyone grows increasingly nervous about the possibility for the Japanese to hear them. Finally, an officer orders someone to hit the man with a shovel. In the tense, horrible silence that ensues, everyone feels equally sorry for the man and nervous about a possible Japanese attack.
This uncomfortable situation reveals how inglorious war can be. In this case, leaders are forced to consider the well-being of the screaming Marine as well as the protection of the entire group. This leads them to make a highly unpleasant decision—to act violently toward one of their own in order to protect everyone else. The fact that this action is both brutal and necessary shows that war sometimes leaves no other choice.
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The next day, Sledge discovers that the man is dead. Noticing the agony on the faces of veteran officers such as Hillbilly and Hank Boyes, Sledge realizes that this is more horrifying moment than anything these men will face in combat, even in situations that will earn them decorations for bravery. That day, Hillbilly calls a commander to ask for the patrol to retreat, explaining that everyone is too nervous to go on. Sledge believes that Hillbilly’s strong reputation is the only factor that leads the superior, who wants to determine where the Japanese are currently positioned, to listen to him. Sledge and his companions are allowed to relax and move back to Company K’s lines, where he feels at home again.
The leaders’ horrified reactions reveal that, despite the omnipresence of brutality during war, exercising fatal violence against one’s own men is still too shocking to contemplate calmly. It also highlights the fatal danger of losing one’s sanity, as it can lead to one’s death as surely as an enemy bullet. Hillbilly’s concern for his men’s well-being once again demonstrates his excellent leadership capacities, as he understands that the Marines’ psychological state is just as important as their physical readiness.
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Over the next few days, Company K is sent to relieve the 1st Marines, who have been decimated and are going back to Pavuvu—but who have achieved significant strategic gains by securing crucial territories. When he runs into men he knows, Sledge is appalled to see their defeated, resigned faces, deeply affected by the horrific fighting they have been through. Company K will ultimately endure such grueling combat for twenty days, and will return just as crushed as these men. On their way to a new position, Sledge crosses paths with army infantrymen, for whom he feels a strong affinity. Fighting at the front line, he explains, overcomes any differences among military branches and units.
The soldiers’ attitudes are typical of what Sledge calls the “thousand-yard stare,” which signals extreme emotional detachment—soldiers’ protection against (and indication of) the emotional trauma caused by combat. The fact that all men who have fought at the front feel solidarity for each other, regardless of military status, reveals that the experience of combat is so terrifying that it naturally leads to bonding, as they are able to understand each other’s universal stories of fear and horror.
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