Rod Dreher

I don’t have cable TV, so I haven’t seen “The Pacific.” But I did read one of the books upon which it’s based, E.B. Sledge’s “With the Old Breed,” and I am glad to read in this appreciative Atlantic essay that “The Pacific” is not another one of those overly reverent takes on World War II and the men who fought it. Sledge’s book is a hard read. His prose is clear and strong, but the deeds he records are grotesque. That they were morally licit in the context of this defensive war does not take away from their horror. As I’ve mentioned before, the real-life model for the character Snafu was a neighbor of mine growing up, and the father of one of my childhood buddies. Many years later, after Snafu had died, reading in Sledge’s book about the unspeakably savage things he had to do just to survive the Pacific War, shook me up, and helped me see his courage — which was undeniably real — in a different light. This was also the case reading the historian William Manchester’s artful “Goodbye, Darkness,” a memoir of his own World War II combat experience in the Pacific. Historian Paul Fussell’s harsh, even scalding, World War II memoir, “Doing Battle,” set in the European theater, was another unromantic account of what combat — even in a “good war” — is really like, and what it reveals about the human character. From the Atlantic piece:

But perhaps most unsettling of all for our soldiers was the environment itself. A nighttime rustling of vegetation could produce panicky fusillades and friendly-fire casualties. In one of Sledge’s many agonizing passages, tensed marines lurking after dark in a mangrove stand have to club one of their own to death, lest he–in the grip of a crescendoing hallucination–give away their position. William Manchester, a Marine survivor of Okinawa and the author of Goodbye, Darkness, says of those who fought in the Pacific, “We were all psychotic, inmates of the greatest madhouse in history.”
Observers of subsequent, similar military behaviors–from Stanley Kubrick to Michael Moore to Anthony Swofford, whose memoir Jarhead was rapturously received when it came out on the eve of the Iraq War–have tended to see psychosis to the exclusion of much else, as a presumable product of cynical, fractured times and wars unballasted with the meaning we ascribe to the Good War. It’s a tempting view, attributable in part to the Greatest Generation conceit, which has established a false ideal that our modern soldiers will never live up to. In the 1980s, one of my best friends, B. Bunny, joined the Marines, probably motivated in part by the many proud USMC tales told by my dad, a retired fighter pilot. B. Bunny thereafter regaled me with stories so rowdy they verged on the sociopathic. One involved a jag with several prostitutes that ended with arson and with B. Bunny getting thrown through a storefront window by one of his fellow marines, and I recall thinking that this wasn’t military conduct as I’d been led to imagine it. The 40th anniversary of the Normandy landings and of V-E and V-J days had filled the air with encomiums to our long-lost martial splendor, and I naively felt bad that B. Bunny had to serve in the debased, modern Marine Corps.

But, the author concludes, the “debased, modern Marine Corps” can only be judged so if we hold the Marine Corps of the past to have been impossibly pure. Read Sledge and Manchester, and you see it’s just not true. Nor is it true, though, that there was no great heroism and gallantry and self-sacrifice on the field of battle. There absolutely was. They’re both true — and that is why war and human character is a topic that’s so difficult to get a handle on. See Fussell’s magnificent history “The Great War and Modern Memory” for a study of how war — in this case, World War I — is taken up by popular culture.

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