Eugene Sledge’s desire to take part in World War II derives from his patriotic attachment to the U.S. Moved by a strong commitment to protect the country he loves, which he views as a moral duty, Sledge also finds that combat experience causes him to develop a visceral hatred of the Japanese enemy. This hostility derives less from political considerations than from the Japanese’s vicious fighting techniques, which Sledge considers unnecessarily cruel. Throughout the war, Sledge struggles to reconcile two conflicting attitudes: his embrace of morality and his need to destroy the enemy in a violent way. Ultimately, if Sledge fights hard to win the battles on Peleliu and Okinawa, he also remains attached to ethical norms of fair treatment, and refuses to degrade the Japanese in the same way they might torture the Americans (and other Americans might torture them). He aims to show that although war breeds a natural desire to kill the enemy, there are moral limits to the kind of brutality that is acceptable in armed combat.
Sledge believes that, as an American, it is his duty to fight against the Japanese. Sledge recalls the reasons behind his military engagement: “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.” Sledge thus conceives of fighting as a moral obligation, meant to protect the ideal life one believes in.
Along with this patriotic conviction, it is the direct experience of being shot at that convinces Sledge of the necessity to kill the Japanese. Although Sledge initially feels pity for the Japanese corpses he sees on Peleliu, he finally accepts that war is so cruel that one must accept to follow a simple principle: “them or us.” The emotional toll of seeing one’s companions die or become wounded also serves as powerful motivation to crush the enemy at all cost. In addition, Sledge and his companions develop a deep hatred of the Japanese. This attitude results in large part from what Sledge views as the Japanese’s excessive brutality. For example, the Japanese are famous for taking no prisoners and torturing Americans to death. On Peleliu, Sledge also sees that Japanese soldiers have mutilated three American corpses, cutting off their body parts in horribly brutal ways. Witnessing such gratuitous cruelty on dead bodies strikes Sledge to the core. This episode serves as a decisive moment, a turning point in which he concludes that he will no longer feel compassion for the Japanese enemy.
Nevertheless, Sledge still tries to retain a sense of what constitutes morally acceptable behavior in a combat zone. He determines that, although killing is necessary and inevitable, some cruelty is gratuitous and should be avoided. After witnessing the Japanese’s brutality firsthand, Sledge is moved not to imitate them but, on the contrary, to remain committed to what he perceives as the Marines’ superior moral values. One day, he sees a wounded old Japanese woman in Okinawa who begs him to kill her, so as to put her out of her suffering. Instead of doing so, Sledge goes to seek medical help. After a few minutes, he returns with a medic to discover that another Marine has killed the woman. This drives Sledge into a rage and he angrily tells the soldier that their job is to “kill Nips, not old women!” Despite his use of an offensive term to refer to the Japanese, Sledge remains committed to the idea that he is fighting an armed enemy, not the entire Japanese people. He makes keeping innocent civilians from harm his ethical duty.
At the same time, Sledge knows that he is not impervious to brutal behavior himself. The Marines regularly strip Japanese corpses to search for “souvenirs,” often taking the Japanese’s gold teeth. While Sledge is initially disturbed by this practice, one day he decides that he too should try to keep a gold tooth for himself. Doc Caswell, a friend of his, convinces him not to do so, arguing that gold teeth carry germs. Reflecting on this episode later, Sledge realizes that Caswell was not actually concerned about hygiene, but was trying to keep Sledge from becoming callous and insensitive to violence. Similarly, when one of Sledge’s companions tries to keep a Japanese’s dead hand as a “souvenir,” Sledge and other Marines convince the man that this is disgusting, and that he should leave the hand on Peleliu. In both cases, communal intervention plays an important role in encouraging Marines to understand the limits of what constitutes acceptable violence. Such episodes put the enemy’s brutality in perspective, suggesting that anyone is capable of unnecessarily vicious acts, such as degrading an enemy’s corpse. Sledge’s struggle to remain in control of his own brutality reveals just how difficult it is to maintain a strong moral compass in the midst of such death and destruction.
Sledge’s understanding of war thus combines two beliefs: the knowledge that war is brutal and uncivilized, but that one has a duty to defend one’s own country in any possible way. The horrible conditions of life at the front occasionally leads Sledge to feel bitter toward politicians who describe war in terms of nobility and self-sacrifice, when the Marines are in fact immersed in horrific situations, far from ideal visions of war. All Sledge can do, he believes, is hope (perhaps naively) that political leaders will be respectful enough to limit the duration of war as much as possible in order to keep fighters from suffering any more than is strictly necessary. In the meantime, though, Sledge looks beyond the particular circumstances of national politics, defining the U.S. as a land he loves and for which he is ready to kill and die.
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Patriotism and Morality 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.
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!”
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.
I learned realism, too. To defeat an enemy as tough and dedicated as the Japanese, we had to be just as tough. We had to be just as dedicated to America as they were to their emperor. I think this was the essence of Marine Corps doctrine in World War II, and that history vindicates this doctrine.
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.
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.
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.