With the Old Breed

by

E.B. Sledge

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With the Old Breed: Part 1, Chapter 6 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
At a period when most of Peleliu is under American control except for the central ridges, Sledge’s battalion is sent to relieve the 7th Marines, who are experiencing casualty figures almost as high as the 1st Marines. Sledge and his companions find themselves focused exclusively on day-to-day survival, as any greater notion of time or purpose vanishes under the grim realities of every new day of combat. Although it is nearly impossible to picture one’s own death, most men become fatalistic about being wounded. They all hope for the battle to end soon or to be sent home with a million-dollar wound.
As the battle of Peleliu drags on, the men discover that their commitment to the war does not trump their desire to make it out alive, nor does it alleviate their despair at knowing that they might die. This suggests that bravery and patriotism, in Sledge’s narrative, become a matter of pure grit: everyone wants to leave combat, yet they still remain faithful to each other and to their duty, demonstrating extraordinary endurance and solidarity.
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Sledge describes taking part in an attack on a rugged hill, the Five Sisters, and having to work as a stretcher bearer, a nearly impossible task in such difficult terrain, exposed to enemy fire. He notes that the wounded always seem peaceful and confident, in large part, he believes, because of the deep trust that exists among all Marines. In addition, leaving a wounded Marine behind would involve condemning him to being tortured to death by the Japanese.
The task of stretcher bearer is yet another indication of the network of solidarity embedded in the system of the Marine Corps, which ensures that no man is ever left alone. The Marines’ fear of the Japanese (justified by the enemy’s past cruelties) also means that they would rather risk their lives than abandon their companions to such suffering.
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Sledge also describes the agonizing nights in which the Marines have to fight against Japanese infiltrators, whose recklessness is met with the Marines’ alertness and discipline. Sledge recalls an episode in which his friend Jay stepped on a hiding Japanese soldier while going to relieve himself during the night. When Jay tried to shoot the man, he discovered that his firing pin was broken. He began to run away from the soldier, calling out to his fellow Marines to shoot him, and felt a grenade thrown against his back—although, surprisingly, the grenade did not explode. Finally, he ran toward a Marine with an automatic rifle. Instead of shooting the Japanese soldier directly, the man let him come close, so that when he shot him, he could cut his body in half with the bullets—a decision that rightfully enrages Jay. Jay, in the meantime, was so terrified that he had diarrhea in his pants.
This episode shows the extent to which war can prove absurd—almost, in this case, to the point of becoming humorous. Pure accident (the malfunctioning of two separate weapons) makes this situation seem unreal. The fact that Jay’s companion chose to prolong Jay’s suffering also reveals how accustomed to violence everyone is, as the Marine sees this scene as an ordinary game—one in which he can have fun by slicing the enemy’s body in half. Only Jay’s terror—and its concrete consequence in the form of human excrement—underlines the gravity of this situation: the fact that Jay was very nearly sent to his death.
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Sledge and two companions fight for a few days in a mortar squad separate from the rest of Company K. After they are told to regroup with their company, they run into Johnny Marmet, who has a distraught look on his face. Sledge feels sick when he hears the news: “Ack Ack” Haldane is dead. Sledge describes this moment as the worst grief he felt during the war. Haldane’s death signifies the disappearance of a figure of stability and strength in the company, similar to a parent in his capacity to provide physical as well as mental security. As the men all around Sledge cry, Sledge feels as though their world has fallen apart.
Sledge and his companions’ utter shock and pain at Haldane’s death emphasize how important Company K’s leader was to the Marines. Despite the omnipresence of death in the war, the men have not lost the capacity to mourn their beloved skipper, suggesting that even the toughest veterans experience deep emotions of loss. The men’s dependence on their leader reveals how crucial the family-style structure is to the Marines’ strength and morale, as it gives them a sense of peace and stability.
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During this period, fighting comes in sudden spurts. The Japanese on the island know that they are condemned, and have no more hope in regaining territory or receiving reinforcements. Therefore, they begin to kill for the simple purpose of killing. Around this time, the heat also proves unbearable, and brings out the smells of rotting corpses all around. Although Marines always try to remove their own dead from sight, the intense heat makes the bodies smell and rot within a few hours. Sledge describes the horror of being constantly surrounded by the smell of decaying corpses and human excrement, as the coral rock surface on Peleliu keeps men from digging into the ground and adopting adequate sanity practices. As a consequence, huge flies abound, and Sledge finds it nearly impossible to dislodge them from their positions, even when they fall in his own food.
The Japanese’s desperate reaction only makes fighting all the more ferocious, emphasizing the Japanese’s common self-sacrificing attitude, according to which they would rather die than surrender to the Americans. Sledge’s horror at the human excrement around him suggests that one of the most unbearable aspects of war is not necessarily fear and the omnipresence death, but the intolerable conditions soldiers are forced to endure. In the same way that early lack of hygiene shocked Sledge, these circumstances force the men to live like animals, far from the normal standards of living that civilization entails.
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One night, as Company K is relieving certain troops, Sledge learns that a Japanese infiltrator recently killed two Marines in the gun pit he is going to sleep in. Unable to bear the idea of sleeping in an area covered with blood, Sledge places cardboard around the sides of the pit. As he does so, Sledge recalls some politicians’ words glorifying the idea of war and patriotic sacrifice, and finds these ideas absurd. He concludes that flies are the only ones that benefit from such carnage.
As Sledge is increasingly surrounded by horrific sights and smells, the signs of violence as well as lack of hygiene, he begins to adopt a resentful attitude. Although he does not express regret for enlisting in the war, he does prove cynical toward politicians’ and civilians’ glorification of war. Instead, he wants to insist that war is a horrific, traumatizing experience.
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Observing the landscape around him, made muddy by rain and gray and forlorn by the destruction of war, Sledge realizes that the strange outline of Peleliu’s coral ridges seem surreal, as though they belonged to another planet. Affected by constant stress, lack of sleep, and exhaustion, Sledge finds that he is barely coping with each new horror.
The various traumatic events that Sledge has experienced begin to affect him. His fascination with the surreal world around him mirrors a later episode on Okinawa, in which he will fear losing his sanity. The threat of a mental breakdown is always near, often more ominous and unnerving than the fear of violence itself.
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One day, Sledge and a friend come across three dead Marines lying on stretchers, left there after the stretcher bearers had to escape. Although such sights usually disturb Sledge, this one is all the more shocking because the Japanese enemy has deliberately mutilated these bodies, decapitating one man and placing another one’s severed penis in his mouth. In that moment, Sledge feels blind rage run through him. He concludes that he will never feel compassion for the enemy again. Although he knows that Marines can occasionally prove brutal and do take souvenirs from the dead, he has never witnessed such horrific treatment of the enemy, and concludes that the Japanese are “mean as hell.”
Although Sledge has become more accustomed to the sight of dead bodies, the fact that he still feels disturbed by American corpses suggests that there is a qualitative difference between his vision of the enemy (as targets to kill) and of his companions (as full human beings). In this particular case, the horrific nature of this scene seems meant to inspire rage in Americans. Sledge’s indignation shows that he believes there are clear limits to what soldiers should do to each other in war, and the deliberate mutilation of enemy corpses definitely is beyond these limits.
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On October 15, three days after learning about Haldane’s death, Company K is relieved by army troops. Sledge and his comrades are exultant. They move to a northern defense zone overlooking the sea where they are in charge of stopping any Japanese counter-landing. The Marines are able to relax during the day but must remain alert at night. One day, a buddy shows Sledge a souvenir he has kept wrapped up in waxed paper: the hand of a Japanese enemy. Sledge tells him that he has gone “Asiatic” and cannot keep this. The man insists, but other Marines intervene, convincing him to leave it here. Sledge concludes that the war has turned him into “a twentieth-century savage,” without any emotional sensitivity. Sledge shudders at the thought of what this man might do if the war continued.
Although fighting is over for Company K, the horrors of war still remain as present as ever. Indeed, Sledge’s companion’s decision to keep a human hand as a souvenir only highlights how completely desensitized these men have become. Sledge’s mention of “a savage” reveals that some of these men no longer follow society’s rules—indicating how difficult it will later be for them to reintegrate into civilization. Although this episode takes place after Sledge has seen mutilated American corpses, this scene is related differently—not only because this time Sledge is talking about his own cherished companions, but because the Marine’s intention was not necessarily to humiliate or degrade an enemy corpse, but merely to keep an exotic souvenir for himself.
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At the end of October, Company K moves to a quiet section of the island where they are told to shave and clean up. The day before they leave the island, Sledge is sleeping in a hammock when he hears machine-gun bullets zip by underneath his hammock. Sledge determines that the machine-gun is far away and must be shooting at army lines, but he knows that he can be killed by a stray bullet in the same way that he can die from a bullet meant for him, so he crawls out of his hammock and sleeps on the ground.
Once again, Sledge is confronted with the fact that accidents in war are just as dangerous as personal mistakes. This highlights the absurdity of war—since Sledge could easily have been killed while sleeping peacefully in a hammock, far from the lines of combat—as well as the permanence of violence in these men’s lives, since they are unable to escape even when far from the front.
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On October 30, the men finally board the ship that will take them away from Peleliu. Too accustomed to seeing death and destruction, Sledge cannot convince himself that they are actually leaving, and expects to be killed or wounded at any time. As they move away from Peleliu, Sledge asks Sgt. Haney, whose experience of war dates back to World War I, what he thinks about their experience there. Sledge expects Haney to put what they have experienced in perspective and deemphasize its horror, but, to Sledge’s surprise, Haney replies that it was terrible, that he never experienced anything of the sort before, and that he is now ready to return to the U.S.
Sledge’s inability to believe that there is a world beyond war will later prove more pervasive on Okinawa, where he will fear losing his sanity and his capacity to reintegrate civilian life. His desire to hear Haney’s opinion shows how much he looks up to his superiors, as well as his wish to confirm that he is not a coward, and that what he has experienced truly is out of the ordinary.
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Sledge concludes that none of the men involved in this battle would ever be the same again. They have lost their innocence and their faith in the goodness of humanity, as well as in politicians whose job should be to protect them from savagery. At the same time, Sledge draws comfort from the fact that the effective training and the amazing discipline and esprit de corps among Marines played a crucial role—along with pure luck—in their survival. In light of the Japanese’s impressive military skill and devotion, he concludes that only Marines equally devoted to combat and to defending their country could have possibly defeated them. Looking back, he realizes that his drill instructor at boot camp was not mean, but insisted on severe discipline because he knew that perfectionism could make the difference between life and death.
Sledge’s intuition that these veteran fighters will be marked for life serves as an ominous signal of the difficulties many of them will feel when trying to reenter civilian life, which follows rules and standards at odds with the brutal world they have been immersed in. Sledge’s disappointment in politicians does not diminish his desire to take part in the war, since he is committed to his country more than to any particular government. His positive conclusions about the Marines’ discipline thus focus on personal and interpersonal dynamics more than worldwide politics, which he doesn’t trust. This leads him to celebrate the human qualities of the Marines more than their strategic gains.
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