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Book Review: The Old Breed

by Suleman

The Old Breed is a book written by Eugene Sledge, infantry in the marine that fought world war two. Sledge experienced the war firsthand after signing up for boot camp at the infantry school. In detail, his pre-combat deployment to Pavuvu is described[1]. He explains how he was appointed as an assistant gunner in a 60mm mortar in Peleliu and Ngesebus. The ordeal was accompanied by a period of rest, after which he faced more training at Pavuvu. Sledge explains the capture of Okinawa and how brutal the marines were to their enemies, the Japanese. He explains boldly how he wanted to be a soldier but was not for the war, but since he wielded the gun and was trained for it, he had to oblige.

The fighting was inhumane to Sledge, and the bloodshed was not proud. The horrors on the ground made it hard for a soldier to ever lead an everyday life after the war. There were too many scary moments, even in training. Landmines were live and if one were not keen enough, he would have ended up limbless in the blink of an eye. The movement was made to look like a real-life scenario and as Sledge explains, it is the esprit de corps that kept them alive: the togetherness they had all along. They were taught how to move in a team and act as one unit against the Japanese[2]. The training was rigorous and most of the trainees only became tough, killing machines trained to destroy the enemies that stood against them.

Book Review: The Old Breed

With Sledge, the reality that it was fellow human beings who were considered enemies did not sit well. He was not a proponent of the ongoing war. The fact that he joined the marine training camp does not help explain his anti-war writings. He probably learned too late of what he was getting into when it was all in front of his eyes. The bloodbath can be felt by the reader directly from the words of Eugene Sledge. The reader trusts Sledge to walk him/her through the battlefields marred with human remains fed on by worms and scavenging animals.

The whole experience was very traumatizing to Sledge and his entire battalion. He saw something which could lead to a complete psychological disintegration. He had to watch several of his friends fall under the Japanese fire like flies. He describes the bullets hitting the water like a whip as they splashed the water. His figurative talk leads to some sort of imaging and allows the reader to get the impression that he / she was on the beaches on the islands hosting World War II.

He marches on after the firing, and in some part of the book, his heart breaks. Sledge and his team were hiding out in an abandoned Japanese shack and foresaw a very long night. The conditions they were sleeping in were unimaginable. The swampy atmosphere did not make it easy either but it is all they had[3]. Later after they had all rested, a Japanese soldier lurched out of nowhere and into the open wielding an armed grenade. The first instinct Sledge had was shoot to kill. As he fired the shots, the reader can feel his emotions leave him like the bullets he fired. He had killed at point blank and couldn’t help but see the life ooze out of the Japanese soldier as the rest joined in the shooting spree.

The whole thought of killing one another because of differences that can be solved more peacefully disgusted him. In the story, Sledge sees the Japanese as equal human beings who never deserved to die just as much as his comrades. The two warring sides are compared and Sledge makes the problem mutual among the two parties. Both lost their men in brutal ways. Trophy collection was even crueler. The dead or dying soldiers were stripped off their valuables in the most inhuman ways. The fact that no prisoners of war were taken meant that all that fell at the mercy of the other had to die.

Most of the dying soldiers on the battlefield, if lucky, died in peace. The ones who winced in pain and begged for help got the contrary if the nearest soldiers were not from his side[4]. Souvenirs were collected brutally. At some point, American soldiers were depicted to be looters of the dead. This came from picking the pocket of dead or dying Japanese soldiers for their valued knives for later resale. Their gold teeth were ripped off their jaws. The trophy collection may have been a way for the soldiers to feel like they have avenged their fallen ones’ death. Humanity was a boat that sailed and sank to them.

In all the soldiers that went to war, something died in Peleliu. A part of them that believed humanity had a higher purpose that be victimized by each other somehow. The persons at the top of food chain were always sending the ones below to wage a war they had started. Politicians and country leaders were too selfish to realize the damage that war had caused the beautiful islands and those at the war front. These were young men who were still very energetic and had a bright future until humanity and their innocence was taken out of their hands. Most of these soldiers never lived to see the battle at Okinawa or their families ever again.

They left their mothers laps as boys who were to return as savages. Savages who were killing machines that stopped at nothing to see the destruction of their enemies. Sledge describes the whole turn of events to be gross and very disturbing. His style of writing appeals to the reader without exaggerating the events at any point. The one thing that may have motivated the soldiers to fight was the dead bodies’ sight as they walked over them. This showed them that they lived to fight yet another day. They witnessed the full decomposition process from bloating bodies to the uniforms that barely clung to the bones that remained.

Okinawa was a giant bloodbath for both the Japanese and the Americans. Bodies lay everywhere just like in Panaleu. The trenches they had dug for the war ended up being their graves. Their bodies were crawling with maggots and fat flies[5]. It was an awful experience that none of the soldiers wanted to recount. Sledge however has brought it out like it was and the words alone create very graphical images in the mind that make it hard to hold it down. As they met many more soldiers who fought at Panaleu, the story was written all over their hollow sockets: the story of death and agony and the very end of any bit of innocence that was left.

The whole battlefield at Okinawa smelt like death and hopelessness according to Sledge[6]. The entire valley was filled with dashed hopes and dead futures. The dead were young men who had hoped to be better that what they were reduced into by their government leaders. The calling made them feel like they were serving a higher purpose but all was happening in the interest of the selfish politicians who were only protecting their interests and never had to suffer a day of their lives. It was sad that normal human beings were turned into wild dogs fighting for reasons only known to their owners.

Germany surrendered from the war unconditionally and protected its interests and subliminally their already hurting pride. Japan however did not want to rest until the last American soldier dropped dead. The American soldiers were able to hold them off until the war was called off. However, the damage was irreversible, but for those who survived the action somehow, maimed or whole, it was never the same for them. Their past lives were like another life they had lived very differently from the present. It was hard to go through all that and not go mad. The trauma was too much for young men who had very impressionable minds[7].

A tale of the war and the gory descriptions of the ordeal that he and his camaraderie had to go through brought a tear to the eye. The story’s whole message tends to be inclined towards peaceful living and open up our eyes and minds to more peaceful methods of solving solutions. It never goes down without a fight in most chest-thumping egomanians such as politicians. It however gets you thinking, the war brings the worst out of those who engage in it. What value is a human being anyway if he can gut another human being dead or alive without a sign of remorse? The story brings out the effects of war in a real life story that most soldiers can relate to even in the modern times with the battles and peace keeping missions most especially in third world countries.

  • Sledge, E. B. 1990. With the old breed, at Peleliu and Okinawa. New York: Oxford University Press.
  •  [1] Sledge, E. B. 1990. With the old breed, at Peleliu and Okinawa. New York: Oxford University Press. 5.
  • [2] Sledge., 55-105.
  • [3]Sledge., 105.
  • [4]Sledge., 127.
  • [5]Sledge., 239.
  • [6]Sledge., 205.
  • [7]Sledge., 301.

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