With the Old Breed

by

E.B. Sledge

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With the Old Breed: Part 2, Chapter 12 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
On May 15, while K/3/5 provides support to an attack by 2/5, the attack is so fierce that Company K is told to take cover and wait for instructions. Sledge then learns that “Doc” Caswell is hit and, forgetting about the intense shelling, Sledge suddenly feels sick and decides to run toward his friend. When Sledge sees the state Doc is in, he tells him that he will be OK, but is convinced that his friend is probably going to die. However, Sledge later discovers that Doc actually survived his ordeal and, since then, has remained one of his closest friends from the war.
Sledge’s decision to put his own life at risk so that he can speak to his friend mirrors Doc’s willingness to sacrifice himself for others. Their ability to remain friends after the war speaks to the intense connection that soldiers develop at the front, where they learn to trust each other not only with their feelings but with their very lives. Sledge will later note that civilian life does not provide such satisfying, intense bonds.
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For the next few days, the Marines are exposed to such constant heavy artillery fire that Sledge develops a deep headache. During that period, as Company K moves from fight to fight, Burgin is wounded, although he returns eighteen days later—to the Marines’ joy, as Sledge notes that Burgin is an excellent officer.
Sledge’s greater concern for Burgin than for Company K’s leader Mac suggests that compassion and competence play a much greater role than rank itself in Marines’ appreciation of their superiors.
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For ten days, the Marines are exposed to rain that turns everything to mud, to the point of making the section of the island they are in, Wana, seem like a lake. Because of this, it becomes difficult to carry the wounded or dead, to receive supplies, to stay in the same foxhole, and to sleep. The exposed cadavers cause flies and maggots to multiply, and dysentery breaks out. When Sledge looks around him, he feels as though he is in hell. The decay and destruction are overwhelming. In particular, the smell of the dead gives him no respite. To cope with these conditions, he tells himself that he is in the middle of a nightmare from which he will soon wake up. Sometimes, he wonders if he would prefer to simply die.
Sledge’s comparison of his situation to hell and to a nightmare shows that he is at risk of gradually letting himself fall into a world detached from real life. Although pretending that he is not experiencing reality but a dream beyond human comprehension might keep him from becoming too emotionally overwhelmed by the horror of his surroundings, it also risks turning into an automatic reaction to trauma—one that might actually impede him, in the long run, from healing and staying in touch with reality.
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Related Quotes
During this period, Company K’s commanding officer, the last officer who fought with them on Peleliu, needs to leave the war because of malaria. This severs the last tie the men had to their beloved officer Capt. Haldane, and Sledge recalls this as a demoralizing turning point on Okinawa. When this commanding officer is replaced by the infamous Shadow, everyone in Company K is outraged.
The alternation of excellent and despicable leaders highlights not only the importance of maintaining the men’s trust and morale in the midst of combat, but also the fact that, despite undergoing the same rigorous training, Marine officers are extremely different from each other, and not always equally competent.
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During a lull in an intense battle, Sledge chats with a Marine everyone calls “Kathy” because of the name of his lover. “Kathy” shows Sledge a picture of the girl, whom Sledge finds beautiful. Sledge tells Kathy that he is in a difficult situation, since Kathy is married but also having an affair with such a beautiful girl. Sledge then realizes that this scene is surreal: they are looking at a picture in the middle of utter destruction, mud, and the fat maggots covering Japanese corpses.
This lighthearted episode provides a window into the Marines’ everyday life, as they find ways to joke and talk about a variety of topics besides war. At the same time, it also highlights the utter horror of what the men are experiencing—a world they now accept as their own reality, far from the concerns and comforts of civilian life.
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This episode leads Sledge to realize that he no longer fully believes in a world outside of war. He understands that his mind is becoming affected by his immersion in combat. He knows that what was once called “shell shock” in World War I is now known as “combat fatigue,” and that any fighter is likely to suffer from it. In that moment, however, he promises himself that he will not let the Japanese “crack [him] up.” This pledge gives him a sense of security, allowing him to hold onto this resolve in the moments when he feels his mind drift away, too deeply affected by the violence around him.
Sledge’s fear of the enemy gradually transforms into a fear of his own self: his inability to endure the stress and horror of combat. He knows that no amount of external help will suffice in keeping him sane, and that he must remain conscious of his own mental state to make sure that he is not giving in to insanity. His mention of World War I suggests that soldiers throughout history have probably experienced such a feeling. This reveals war as an inglorious, degrading affair, which destroys men’s minds and bodies.
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Related Quotes
During the following attack, after Sledge’s conversation with Kathy, Marines shoot an already-wounded enemy soldier who is crawling in the mud. Uncharacteristically, a Marine shows compassion for this man and tells his comrades that the soldier is going to die anyway and that it is not necessary to keep on firing. However, another Marine yells back a him that he is “a goddamn Nip.” Reflecting on this situation, Sledge realizes that this foreign soldier’s family will be told that he “died gloriously on the field of honor for the emperor,” when he actually died on a death-infested, muddy slope for no truly honorable reason.
The Marine’s reaction to the Japanese man’s suffering shows that, unlike what Sledge thought, there is not necessarily anything shameful about feeling compassion for the enemy—an emotion that most soldiers probably harbor in silence at some point in their combat experience. Although Marines know it is necessary for them to kill the enemy, they do not necessarily condone making them suffer in vain. Sledge’s comment reveals his disgust for war, which disguises terrible deeds behind noble formulations.
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Sledge mentions that sliding down one of these muddy slopes could drive any Marine to vomit and, potentially, to complete insanity, because slopes are made of mud and the piled-up, rotting dead. At the bottom of the hill, Marines are likely to be covered in thick maggots, crawling in every possible crevice. Sledge notes that most Marines or writers tend not to mention such details, because it is too unbelievable to imagine men living in such conditions for days on end, but that this convinces Sledge that the war is nothing but pure insanity.
Sledge describes a soldier’s greater struggle: to resist insanity while living in a world so horrific that it defies human comprehension—a world defined by absurdity and insanity itself. Sledge’s willingness to discuss such gruesome topics shows his desire for an honest depiction of war to come to light, perhaps precisely in order to denounce its numerous cruelties.
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