Eugene Sledge’s memoir With the Old Breed relates his experience as a Marine infantryman in World War II. As part of Company K, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (K/3/5), he is sent to fight against the Japanese and takes part in harrowing battles on the Pacific Island of Peleliu and on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Despite his intensive training, Sledge soon realizes that war is infinitely more gruesome than he could have imagined. Exposed to the unbearable experience of close-range shelling, the death of close friends, and the sights and smells of decomposing corpses, Sledge understands that war has the capacity to turn everyone involved into savages. Therefore, although he fears losing his own life, he soon concludes that the horrors of war can prove just as debilitating as the threat of injury or death—if not more so. Sledge’s narrative suggests that, if soldiers ostensibly fight against the enemy, they also wage a battle against terror and despair within their own selves, as they attempt to maintain their sanity in the face of chaos.
Over time, on Peleliu and Okinawa, Sledge realizes that a Marine’s fear of death or injury soon becomes substituted by intense disgust at the gruesome nature of the soldiers’ environment. When the Marines first arrive on Peleliu, the Japanese immediately begin attacking them on the beach. There, during his first experience of enemy fire, Sledge describes feeling intense panic, as the fear of putting his own life at risk almost makes him lose control of his body and his mind. Later experiences, such as close-range shelling, are capable of inducing the same fright: “to be shelled in the open on your feet was horrible; but to be shelled point-blank was so shocking that it almost drove the most resilient and toughest among us to panic. Words can’t convey the awesome sensation of actually feeling the muzzle blasts that accompanied the shrieks and concussions of those artillery shells fired from a gun so close by.”
Over time, however, as Sledge becomes a combat veteran, such life-threatening experiences no longer fill him with the same panic. Rather, it is the routine nature of war’s horrors, such as disgusting sights and smells, that proves most threatening to his well-being. On Peleliu, accumulating filth makes Sledge feel as though he is no longer a dignified human being. On Okinawa, the constant rain and wet mud, which make any movement excruciatingly difficult, almost drive him to uncontainable frustration and rage. Most poignantly, Sledge describes the horror of being constantly surrounded by death. Human excrement, decomposing bodies, and the large flies attracted by them all contribute to making war unbearable. As the days drag on and Sledge receives no respite from such a harsh environment, he concludes that such horrors are more mentally draining than fear alone.
In addition to losing their life because of enemy fire, Marines thus also face the potential danger of losing their sanity—a process referred to as going “Asiatic,” a term used to describe extravagant, unsound behavior caused by prolonged military service in this part of the world. Sledge concludes that, in order to survive the war, he will need to protect his mental well-being as much as his physical survival. Over the course of the war, Sledge witnesses various soldiers’ descent into madness. Affected by the stress of battle, one of his companions begins to shout uncontrollably in the middle of the night, risking alerting the enemy. The only way to silence him is to hit him on the head, which ultimately causes his death. The constant presence of decomposing corpses and maggots also proves unbearable. “We didn’t talk about such things. They were too horrible and obscene even for hardened veterans. The conditions taxed the toughest I knew almost to the point of screaming. Nor do authors normally write about such vileness; unless they have seen it with their own eyes, it is too preposterous to think that men could actually live and fight for days and nights on end under such terrible conditions and not be driven insane.”
Sledge soon realizes that he too is capable of falling prey to madness. To counter the stress of fighting, he sometimes tries to convince himself that he is living in a nightmare from which he will soon wake up. On Okinawa, he notices that he is gradually losing touch with reality and is no longer capable of imagining a world without war. The thought of going crazy scares him so much that he makes a pact with himself, promising himself not to give in to insanity. This pledge helps him maintain faith in himself, giving him a specific commitment to uphold in the face of such adversity. He knows that, if he does not maintain his sanity, surviving the war will be of no use whatsoever.
Through such gruesome experiences, Sledge thus understands that surviving does not only mean protecting one’s body, but also involves sheltering one’s mind from the danger of mental illness. This serves as an early indication of the difficulty for soldiers to return to civilian life, where they will no longer be confronted with direct violence, but will need to learn to live with the memories of agony and terror they have accumulated abroad. What Marines called “combat fatigue” at the time—what, in World War I, was referred to as “shell shock” and is now known as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)—remains a dark specter looming over each combatant’s future civilian life.
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Death, Horror, and Trauma Quotes in With the Old Breed
Official histories and memoirs of Marine infantrymen written after the war rarely reflect that hatred. But at the time of battle, Marines felt it deeply, bitterly, and as certainly as danger itself. To deny this hatred or make light of it would be as much a lie as to deny or make light of the esprit de corps or the intense patriotism felt by the Marines with whom I served in the Pacific.
My experiences on Peleliu and Okinawa made me believe that the Japanese held mutual feelings for us. They were a fanatical enemy; that is to say, they believed in their cause with an intensity little understood by many postwar Americans and possibly many Japanese, as well.
This collective attitude, Marine and Japanese, resulted in savage, ferocious fighting with no holds barred.
To be under a barrage or prolonged shelling simply magnified all the terrible physical and emotional effects of one shell. To me, artillery was an invention of hell. The onrushing whistle and scream of the big steel package of destruction was the pinnacle of violent fury and the embodiment of pent-up evil. It was the essence of violence and of man’s inhumanity to man. I developed a passionate hatred for shells. To be killed by a bullet seemed so clean and surgical. But shells would not only tear and rip the body, they tortured one’s mind almost beyond the brink of sanity. After each shell I was wrung out, limp and exhausted.
I wondered also about the hopes and aspirations of a dead Japanese we had just dragged out of the water. But those of us caught up in the maelstrom of combat had little compassion for the enemy. As a wise, salty NCO had put it one day on Pavuvu when asked by a replacement if he ever felt sorry for the Japanese when they got hit, “Hell no! It’s them or us!”
Fear and filth went hand in hand. It has always puzzled me that this important factor in our daily lives has received so little attention from historians and often is omitted from otherwise excellent personal memoirs by infantrymen. It is, of course, a vile subject, but it was as important to us then as being wet or dry, hot or cold, in the shade or exposed to the blistering sun, hungry, tired, or sick.
I had the sensation of being in a great black hole and reached out to touch the sides of the gun pit to orient myself. Slowly the reality of it all formed in my mind: we were expendable!
It was difficult to accept. We come from a nation and a culture that values life and the individual. To find oneself in a situation where your life seems of little value is the ultimate in loneliness. It is a humbling experience. Most of the combat veterans had already grappled with this realization on Guadalcanal or Gloucester, but it struck me out in that swamp.
I had just killed a man at close range. That I had seen clearly the pain on his face when my bullets hit him came as a jolt. It suddenly made the war a very personal affair. The expression on that man’s face filled me with shame and then disgust for the war and all the misery it was causing.
My combat experience thus far made me realize that such sentiments for an enemy soldier were the maudlin meditations of a fool. Look at me, a member of the 5th Marine Regiment—one of the oldest, finest, and toughest regiments in the Marine Corps—feeling ashamed because I had shot a damned foe before he could throw a grenade at me! I felt like a fool and was thankful my buddies couldn’t read my thoughts.
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.
As I looked at the stains on the coral, I recalled some of the eloquent phrases of politicians and newsmen about how “gallant” it is for a man to “shed his blood for his country,” and “to give his life’s blood as a sacrifice,” and so on. The words seemed so ridiculous. Only the flies benefited.
As I looked at the flotsam of battle scattered along that little path, I was struck with the utter incongruity of it all. There the Okinawans had tilled their soil with ancient and crude farming methods; but the war had come, bringing with it the latest and most refined technology for killing. It seemed so insane, and I realized that the war was like some sort of disease afflicting man.
On 8 May Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally. We were told this momentous news, but considering our own peril and misery, no one cared much. “So what” was typical of the remarks I heard around me. We were resigned only to the fact that the Japanese would fight to total extinction on Okinawa, as they had elsewhere, and that Japan would have to be invaded with the same gruesome prospects. Nazi Germany might as well have been on the moon.
The stench of death was overpowering. The only way I could bear the monstrous horror of it all was to look upward away from the earthly reality surrounding us, watch the leaden gray clouds go skudding over, and repeat over and over to myself that the situation was unreal—just a nightmare— that I would soon awake and find myself somewhere else. But the ever-present smell of death saturated my nostrils. It was there with every breath I took.
I existed from moment to moment, sometimes thinking death would have been preferable.
Viewing that picture made me realize with a shock that I had gradually come to doubt that there really was a place in the world where there were no explosions and people weren’t bleeding, suffering, dying, or rotting in the mud. I felt a sense of desperation that my mind was being affected by what we were experiencing. Men cracked up frequently in such places as that. I had seen it happen many times by then. In World War I they had called it shell shock or, more technically, neuresthenia. In World War II the term used was combat fatigue.
We didn’t want to indulge in self-pity. We just wished that people back home could understand how lucky they were and stop complaining about trivial inconveniences.
War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste. Combat leaves an indelible mark on those who are forced to endure it. The only redeeming factors were my comrades’ incredible bravery and their devotion to each other. Marine Corps training taught us to kill efficiently and to try to survive. But it also taught us loyalty to each other—and love. That esprit de corps sustained us.
Until the millenium arrives and countries cease trying to enslave others, it will be necessary to accept one’s responsibilities and to be willing to make sacrifices for one’s country—as my comrades did. As the troops used to say, “If the country is good enough to live in, it’s good enough to fight for.” With privilege goes responsibility.