The gold teeth that Marines collect as “souvenirs” from Japanese corpses reveal the dehumanizing effect that war has on people’s minds, as it makes it difficult for individuals to maintain moral behavior in the midst of complete destruction and chaos. Although it is common practice for Marines to strip the Japanese dead of their belongings, Eugene Sledge finds the process of collecting a dead man’s gold teeth with a knife utterly revolting. Sledge concludes that war dehumanizes fighters: it turns the Japanese dead, in Marines’ eyes, into mere objects, instead of former human beings whose dignity should be respected—and it makes Marines less human themselves, as they prove capable of such savage behavior. Sledge grasps his own fallibility when he feels inclined to take a gold tooth himself, thus proving just as barbarous as his companions. However, Sledge’s friend “Doc” Caswell’s ability to convince him not to do so reveals that camaraderie can play a crucial role in helping soldiers retain their moral values. Sledge concludes that friendship has the power to encourage individuals to be better human beings, more respectful of each other and their surroundings. In this way, collecting gold teeth is a sign of the emotionally crippling effect that war has on people’s psyches, turning previously good men into unfeeling warriors—yet refusing to collect gold teeth indicates that moral strength and the positive influence of community can sometimes prevail over the brutality of one’s environment.
Gold Teeth Quotes in With the Old Breed
To the noncombatants and those on the periphery of action, the war meant only boredom or occasional excitement; but to those who entered the meat grinder itself, the war was a nether world of horror from which escape seemed less and less likely as casualties mounted and the fighting dragged on and on. Time had no meaning; life had no meaning. The fierce struggle for survival in the abyss of Peleliu eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all. We existed in an environment totally incomprehensible to men behind the lines—service troops and civilians.