In honor of Memorial Day, I’m reposting and updating a review my wife wrote of a great war memoir that we both loved, the 1981 classic With The Old Breed by Eugene B. Sledge. This book has been reprinted numerous times over the last 30 years, and was one of the key documents used for Ken Burns’ excellent 2007 documentary The War (aired on PBS) and HBO’s 2010 mini-series The Pacific. Sledge’s story is an absolutely gripping account.
Eugene B. Sledge enlisted in the Marine Corps on December 3, 1942 although he was a freshman at Marion Military Institute. He explains that he quit college because he was “prompted by a deep feeling of uneasiness that the war might end” before he could get overseas. But his parents wanted him to become a military officer, so he compromised by signing up for the V-12 new officer training program. That put him in a comfortable classroom in Georgia Tech, with boring teachers, detached from the war. At the end of the first semester, Sledge was one of ninety men (half the detachment) to intentionally flunk out of school in order to be allowed to enter the Marine Corps as enlisted men. That was how strongly they wanted to serve on the battlefield.
With the Old Breed walks us through boot camp, Sledge’s training at Camp Elliot, further training at Pavuvu, and then into the battle of Peleliu. I was struck by Sledge’s maturity, bravery, and almost unqualified respect for those in his chain of command. How different from so many 18-19 year old men today! Sledge paints a vivid picture of the horrors of war, providing a clear context of the larger scale troop movements and progress while also dwelling on the relationships of the soldiers, the details of daily life (from wet socks, to enjoying scavenged Japanese rations of sea scallops, to “field sanitation”), and countless anecdotes of incidents showing the bravery of the men and their devotion to each other.
In no way does Sledge ever glorify the war. He describes it eloquently as “brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste.” The stress the men endure and the atrocities they witness slowly–or in some cases quickly–dehumanized some of them. We’re told of some atrocious acts, like an American soldier looting the gold teeth of a still-living Japanese soldier. But on a whole, the bravery and professionalism of the average soldier comes to the fore in Sledge’s recounting of the events. And he does not spare readers the misery of his company’s surroundings, the terror of being constantly under barrage by machine gun bullets and enemy shells, or the despair at the senseless loss of life.
I was awestruck by the fact that as miserable and fearful as he was in battle, he never once expresses regret. There is a sense that despite all the misery and futility the war was still necessary. But what seemed to motivate Sledge was not the abstract principle of protecting the American way of life. It was the comradeship and commitment he shared with his fellow marines, the knowledge that they were going through this together as friends and that each of them would die to save the others. Still, his quiet, underlying patriotism comes out on the last page of the book, where he writes: “If the country is good enough to live in, it’s good enough to fight for. With privilege goes responsibility.”
The book is a page-turner. Written in a calm, almost detached way, Sledge’s memoirs are surprisingly engaging and even suspenseful. I read it very carefully, not wanting to miss a word, feeling as though I was experiencing the war along with Company K (though thankfully without the maggots, flooded foxholes, or constant threat to my life). Also impressive is that Sledge never regards his actions as heroic. But then again, no hero ever does. They’re too busy doing what they perceive as their duty and praising the heroism of others. Happy Memorial Day.