Wednesday 9 September 2015

Book Review: With The Old Breed - Eugene Sledge

'To me the war was insanity.' Eugene Sledge

I wouldnt be at all surprised if many of those who come to read this book these days, like me, got here via HBO's incredibly powerful and very moving Pacific mini-series.

Eugene 'Sledgehammer' Sledge served with K platoon of the 3rd battalion, 5th Regt. in the U.S.M.C*,  or K/3/5 for short. As a pfc (private first class) he was, as he says himself, 'cannon fodder', and as a member of a 60mm mortar team he saw action as rifleman, gunner, stretcher bearer and runner/carrier. Serving in two extremely ferocious and bloody campaigns, the lesser-known Peleliu and the more famous Okinawa, Sledge sees a lot of action on the front line, and relates what he saw and lived through in a humble and matter of fact manner.

Sledge in the Pacific, during WWII.

The Pacific TV series gets over the visceral impact and constant nervous stress incredibly well, something that books about the same kinds of events rarely manage. This does as good a job as any, but still falls short of the shock and adrenaline the TV production frequently arouses. I guess the differences just reflect the different strengths or propensities of these media. Nevertheless, this is still harrowing stuff.

Sledge went on to become a biology professor, cultivating a love of nature that very occasionally makes itself felt in small observations of his environment even amidst the hell of war. And Sledge, to his enormous credit, is unequivocal in his condemnation of the brutality and inhumanity of war, as when he says, on p. 261, that 'to me the war was insanity.' Shortly after this he reflects on the contrast between war and peacetime civilian life poignantly (p. 268): 'We just wished that people back home could understand how lucky they were and stop complaining about trivial inconveniences.' A recurrent theme.

Post-war. Sledge's wife persuaded him to write about his experiences in the Pacific as a form of therapy, for his  'combat fatigue', or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Further reinforcing the anti-war element of his writing are such passages as the following (p. 311), where, having narrated a grim episode concerning the dispatch of two Japanese officers, Sledge says 'Replete with violence, shock, blood, gore, and suffering, this was the type of incident that should be witnessed by anyone who has any delusions about the glory of war. It was as savage and brutal as though the enemy and we were primitive barbarians rather than civilised men.'

In his 'End Of The Agony' summation Sledge remarks that 'War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste. Combat leaves an indelible mark on those who are forced to endure it.' He does go on to say that bravery, loyalty and esprit de corps were also factors, and that until 'countries cease trying to enslave others' war will be necessary. But overall one senses that he hopes for a day when we might stop the senseless brutal waste.

Science and the study of nature also helped Sledge stay sane.

I really enjoyed reading both Leckie's and Sledge's accounts of this mind-numbingly ferocious and wasteful conflict, but the more overtly anti-war note and the quiet dignity of Sledge's account give it the edge for me.

Born in 1923, Sledge died in 2001, aged 77, from stomach cancer. After the war he had come to terms with the trauma of killing and seeing his buddies (and enemies) killed by studying nature, both professionally and as a hobby. Ultimately this lead to his becoming a scientist with a doctorate, whose specialist area was helminthology... the study of parasitic worms! At least his hobby of ornithology wasn't quit as grim!

* United States Marine Corps... but I guess most folks reading this will probably already know this!?


In both this edition of Sledge's story, and the equivalent one by Robert Leckie (Helmet For My Pillow), I find it somewhat odd that swearing is taboo: sh*t becomes 'stuff' ('when the stuff hits the fan'), and SNAFU is rendered as 'situation normal all fouled up'! Considering the horror and squalor so vividly described, this nicety seems a little jarring, even bordering on the hypocritical, perhaps? I suspect this was an editorial decision, and doesn't necessarily represent the author's own decisions.

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