Although With the Old Breed often praises the valor of American Marines, it does not necessarily recognize all fighters as equal in combat. Like any other infantryman, Eugene Sledge is forced to respect the hierarchical nature of the U.S. military. However, this does not keep him from noticing that some of his superiors are sometimes cowardly and ineffective, whereas some of his peers’ bravery goes unacknowledged. Sledge’s various experiences in combat thus reveal that, although the military system aims to be meritocratic, it occasionally fails to reward courage adequately and to place the best fighters in positions of power. Therefore, more than official decorations or rank, what ultimately matters most in determining Marines’ worth is the respect they are able to instill in their peers and the soldiers they command.
In the military hierarchy, valor is not always officially recognized or rewarded. Before the war, Sledge resolves to attend officer training in order to acquire knowledge, secure a good position in the military, and not enter the war at the lowest rank. However, along with ninety other students, Sledge decides to bypass two years of theoretical officer training and enlist directly in the Marines, thus sacrificing personal advancement in order to better defend the country. This suggests that rank alone—here, the difference between an officer and an infantryman—does not necessarily reflect one’s motivation, capacities, and commitment to the war.
In fact, Sledge later discovers that officer training can be less effective than combat experience. When a new mortar section leader, Mac, arrives in Okinawa fresh out of officer school, he proves to be an ineffective leader, moved by a naïve understanding of war and an arrogant, unnecessarily cruel attitude toward the enemy. His cowardly attitude and his inability to handle difficult combat situations ultimately show that he is less competent than the men he commands. In the context of war, being a veteran fighter can thus bring greater knowledge and skill than theoretical training far from the front.
In combat, Sledge also realizes that official recognition of military worth—such as rank or medals—does not account for all the acts of bravery soldiers perform. Sledge describes one of his fellow companions’ brave acts: John Redifer ran across a stretch of land exposed to enemy fire in order to ask tanks to protect his companions as they moved ammunition from one position to the next. Instead of being praised for this valiant act, which helped save his companions’ lives, Redifer is berated by a first lieutenant nicknamed Shadow, who condemns him for taking such a big risk. “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.” In this case, although the first lieutenant has a more important position than the infantryman, he is not able to assess the situation as poignantly as the people who benefited from Redifer’s act—Redifer’s companions.
Therefore, more than rank or medals, combat experience and the respect one receives from fellow fighters can prove to be the most reliable form of military recognition. The capacity to inspire respect in one’s subordinates does not necessarily rely on one’s rank, but on one’s attitude and knowledge. Although Sledge initially finds one of his drill instructors, Corporal Doherty, mean and callous, he later understands that the man’s harshness is meant to prepare the future Marines for the harrowing conditions at the front. “Doherty commanded our respect and put such fear into us that he couldn’t have been more effective if he had had the six stripes of a first sergeant instead of the two of a corporal.” Doherty’s capacity to inspire respect allowed the men to grow under his guidance, even if they did not yet know how useful these skills would prove at the front.
In this sense, military competence involves not only skill and bravery, but also the capacity to understand and influence one’s companions’ state of mind. Captain “Ack Ack” Haldane, whom Sledge describes as “the finest and most popular officer I ever knew,” displays a sincere interest in his men’s lives. On one occasion, Haldane makes a request for tanks to fire their guns ahead of Company K. Although Haldane knows this is not strictly necessary from a military standpoint, he justifies himself by explaining that he wants “[his] boys to feel secure.” Such acts of compassion demonstrate Haldane’s intelligent understanding of war not only as a physical act, but as a mental struggle in which optimism and solidarity can play a crucial role. This respectful attitude toward his men makes him one of the most admired officers in the Marines, both among his superiors and the fighters he commands.
Being respected by one’s fellow fighters thus becomes a sign that one is a reliable ally in combat, committed to personal survival as well as the lives of one’s companions. Although Sledge never receives an individual decoration for bravery, one of his companions compliments him on how well he fought at Peleliu, noting that he initially had doubts about him, but that Sledge proved him wrong. After hearing this, Sledge feels overwhelmed by pride and considers this comment just as valuable as a medal—one that he carries inside of him, not on his uniform.
Even though soldiers are forced to obey orders from superiors, people’s ranks are not necessarily indicative of their actual leadership capacities and their valor in battle. Rather, as soldiers gain combat experience, they soon learn whom to fear and whom to trust, based on their own assessment of each other’s worth, not necessarily on official markers.
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Leadership and Courage Quotes in With the Old Breed
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.
Despite these momentary lapses, the veterans of Peleliu knew they had accomplished something special. That these Marines had been able to survive the intense physical exertion of weeks of combat on Peleliu in that incredibly muggy heat gave ample evidence of their physical toughness. That we had survived emotionally—at least for the moment—was, and is, ample evidence to me that our training and discipline were the best. They prepared us for the worst, which is what we experienced on Peleliu.
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.
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.