The Hardest War

“For most Americans, the war was about revenge against the Japanese, and the reason the European part had to be finished first was so the maximum attention could be devoted to the real business, the absolute torment and destruction of the Japanese. The slogan was conspicuously Remember Pearl Harbor. No one ever shouted or sang Remember Poland.”

—Paul Fussell, Wartime


E.B. Sledge died of cancer on March 2, this year. Dr. Sledge—he was a professor of microbiology, specializing in ornithology, at a small college in Shelby County, Alabama—was seventy-seven. His death went unreported by The New York Times, and I learned of it only recently when my wife, browsing the Internet, happened upon a terse nine-line obituary that appeared in The Washington Post four days after he died. “Eugene B. Sledge,” the headline read, “Marine Memoirist.” The memoir was called With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. The title is like the book itself, without artifice: it is simple, precise, unsophisticated, unliterary, a war remembrance without tricks or hurrah. Of all the books about the ground war in the Pacific, it is the closest to a masterpiece. First published in 1981, and then reissued in 1990 with an introduction by Paul Fussell, the book “haunted” John Keegan: “His account of the struggle of a gently-raised teenager to remain a civilised human being in circumstances which reduced comrades—whom he nevertheless loved—to ‘twentieth-century savages’ is one of the most arresting documents in war literature,” Keegan wrote in The Second World War, “all the more moving because of the painful difficulty someone who is not a natural writer found in recreating his experience on paper.”

The old breed: “They were the Leathernecks,…the old breed of American regular, regarding the service as home and war as an occupation.” The line comes from a 1926 book called Fix Bayonets, and it sets Sledge’s tone. His father was a doctor in Alabama, and on both sides he was the grandson of Confederate officers. Sledge listened classical music, he hunted, he was well-mannered, and he did not swear. Unlike his earthier fellow Marines he did not say “fuck” or “shit,” a rarity in any branch of the military, and when quoting the dialogue of some of his comrades, he used “stuff” for the latter, and translated the acronym “SNAFU” as “situation normal all fouled up.” At the time of Pearl Harbor, he was eighteen, a college student. A year later he enlisted in the Marines; asked by the recruiting sergeant if he had any scars or distinguishing marks, he wondered why the question was asked and was told, “So they can identify you on some Pacific beach after the Japs blast off your dog tags.” Sledge was sent to a two-year V-12 program at Georgia Tech, from which he would eventually emerge as a candidate second lieutenant, but he purposely flunked out and was sent to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, from which he hoped, as a Marine private, to…

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