After witnessing so many horrors on Peleliu and Okinawa, Eugene Sledge concludes that war is savage and uncivilized. However, he also realizes that he has formed special bonds with his companions, established in a context of intense solidarity and emotional turmoil. He concludes that fighting would have been impossible without the support he drew from his comrades in Company K. Paradoxically, though, these special bonds of friendship, based on a commitment to each other’s lives, highlight how intensely different the realm of war is from the routine of ordinary civilian life. Ultimately, the book suggests that, although friendship formed around shared combat experience plays an essential part in maintaining soldiers’ well-being, it also highlights soldiers’ exclusion from the civilian population, thus making their return to civilian life all the more difficult.
To Sledge, none of what he experienced in the war would have been endurable without the support of his war companions. To him, shared feelings of companionship and solidarity play a crucial role in giving the Marines the strength to fight. The 5th Marines Regiment that Sledge is assigned to has a long history of military success and valor. Such prestigious history builds a strong sense of pride and loyalty (an “esprit de corps”) among its members, which makes Sledge feel as though he is part—as the book’s title suggests—of “the old breed,” an honorable line of esteemed combatants. In fact, Sledge often notes that his division’s discipline, sense of duty, and patriotism gives his comrades the high morale necessary to get through the war. Far from being trivial, this feeling of being part of a tight-knit family allows Marines to cooperate and rely on each other during the difficult moments of combat.
Beyond group identity, shared physical and emotional experience also plays an important role in bringing fighters together. On Peleliu, Sledge once confides in “Hillbilly,” his machine-gun platoon leader, about how depressed and terrified war makes him feel. Hillbilly then explains that all soldiers, including himself, experience fear, but that what ultimately matters is being able to do one’s duty. Sledge draws much comfort from this conversation and admires Hillbilly for his honesty. In turn, on Okinawa, Sledge is later able to recall this episode and reassure one of his comrades, who is overcome by fear and despair. Sledge thus realizes that he is paying Hillbilly’s kindness forward and participating in a network of solidarity, based on the shared emotional trauma that all soldiers endure. This allows Sledge to conclude that the only thing that makes war tolerable is friendship among the fighters: “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.”
However, if such friendships, formed in intense life-or-death situations, sustain soldiers during the war, they also make the return to civilian life all the more jarring. Indeed, as soldiers return home, the absence of such a tight-knit community often makes them feel depressed and isolated, unable to connect with the non-combatants at home. On Peleliu, Sledge understands that a deep gap has grown between him and ordinary civilians. “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 Sledge abandons certain civilian principles, such as the duty not to kill others, he realizes that people back home will never fully understand his experiences during the war.
Although Sledge does not narrate his return to civilian life in With the Old Breed, he recalls other soldiers’ difficulties to adjust to life at home. When Sledge and his companions receive letters from former Company K members who are back in the U.S., they notice that these former fighters initially express relief at being back in a peaceful American setting, but “later the letters became disturbingly bitter and filled with disillusionment. Some expressed a desire to return if they could back into the old battalion.” The Company K Marines who are currently risking their lives in battle do not understand such attitudes, since they all dream of going home. However, the former Marines’ narratives suggest that peace and safety might be pleasant, but that “the good life and luxury didn’t seem to take the place of old friendships forged in combat.”
Company K members thus realize that, although war risks taking their lives, it also gives them the comfort of a community that cannot be replicated anywhere else. Even though all soldiers dream of returning home safely, they do not necessarily anticipate how isolated and lonely they are likely to feel once they are back. Although surviving the war is the soldier’s primary challenge, it appears that new, equally challenging ordeals might await them at home, as they will have to overcome the trauma of war and find new meaning in the routine of civilian life.
Friendship and Camaraderie ThemeTracker
Friendship and Camaraderie Quotes in With the Old Breed
Heading into the thick scrub brush, I felt pretty lonesome, like a little boy going to spend his first night away from home. I realized that Company K had become my home. No matter how bad a situation was in the company, it was still home to me. It was not just a lettered company in a numbered battalion in a numbered regiment in a numbered division. It meant far more than that. It was home; it was “my” company. I belonged in it and nowhere else.
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.
Reporters and historians like to write about interservice rivalry among military men; it certainly exists, but I found that front-line combatants in all branches of the services showed a sincere mutual respect when they faced the same danger and misery. Combat soldiers and sailors might call us “gyrenes,” and we called them “dogfaces” and “swabbies,” but we respected each other completely.
This standard procedure in combat on the front line was based on a fundamental creed of faith and trust. You could depend on your buddy; he could depend on you. It extended beyond your foxhole, too. We felt secure, knowing that one man in each hole was on watch through the night.
Sam had betrayed that basic trust and had committed an unforgivable breach of faith. He went to sleep on watch while on the line. As a result his buddy died and another man would bear the heavy burden of knowing that, accident though it was, he had pulled the trigger.
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.
The troops often expressed the opinion that whether an enlisted man was or wasn’t recommended for a decoration for outstanding conduct in combat depended primarily on who saw him perform the deed. This certainly was true in the case of Redifer and what he had done to get the ammunition across the draw. I had seen other men awarded decorations for less, but Redifer was not so fortunate as to receive the official praise he deserved. Just the opposite happened.
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.