Memorial Day Thoughts

I spent much of yesterday reading With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge – a singularly appropriate choice for Memorial Day – for an upcoming book club meeting. As you may know, the book is a memoir of Sledge’s service as a Marine in the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa; it was the basis for a recent, well-received PBS series produced by Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Gary Goetzman.

Sledge describes the living hell that is war with clarity and humility.

The island campaigns in which he fought went on for weeks on end in conditions too ugly to fully describe here; the front-line troops who participated figured that sooner or later their numbers would be up, and most were right about that. They were desperate battles, as the Americans were on the offensive and most Japanese defenders chose to die in service to the emperor rather than surrender.

Combat deaths were about 90% on the Japanese side in both battles – on Okinawa alone, more than 107,000 Japanese soldiers died and only about 10,000 surrendered. As to the wounded Japanese, whenever possible they crawled to American foxholes at night on suicide missions with hand grenades.

The Americans saved as many of their wounded as they could, but they also took terrible casualties: total American dead on Okinawa exceeded 20,000.  Of the 235 men who were in Sledge’s company, only a handful emerged from both battles unwounded. Of the 235 soldiers in his company at the time of the landing on Okinawa (after the replacement of the many Peleliu casualties), only 26 were still standing at the end of the battle.

These grim statistics fall far short of telling Sledge’s tale. He writes of the horrors of living for seemingly endless weeks with the likelihood of imminent death – in the daytime, the soldiers on both sides were subjected to constant shelling and sniper fire, and at night the Americans awaited the regular infiltrations of wounded Japanese to the foxholes in which they were trying to sleep. In addition to the endless terror, the American soldiers’ world was defined by the stench of the rotting dead, their own excrement, maggots, flies, etc. – and the desperate sense of brotherhood that sustained the ones who were lucky enough to survive – the grace note in a tragic story.

Sledge’s memoir is rare for being beloved by both left and right – by the former as a Pacific War version of All Quiet on the Western Front, and by the latter as a heart-rendingly honest testimonial to men who did their duty under the worst circumstances imaginable. I recommend it highly, though it’s a tough read. We should all have a sense – if only a remote one – of the sacrifices that others have made for the safety we enjoy.


Meanwhile, Vox chose Memorial Day as an opportune time to publish an article whose headline proclaimed that “The Marine Corps has a ‘toxic masculinity’ problem” ( The article describes an incident in which some male Marines shared photographs of naked female Marines without permission from the latter, and takes the fact that women constitute only 8.3% of the Marine Corps as confirming evidence of systematic, invidious discrimination.

There is a certain species of progressive for whom everything is about identity politics.  To them, an army isn’t about winning wars at the least possible cost in blood, or a fire department about putting out fires as quickly and safely as possible – they are dispensers of government jobs in which participation by members of under-represented groups must always be increased by lowering standards and providing special protections.


I have a sense from With the Old Breed, that the thing that matters most to soldiers who find themselves in terrible battles is that they know that they can trust the physical and mental toughness of those on whom they must rely for survival. Anything that gets in the way of that trust will destroy morale and likely lead to defeat, death or both.

I am not suggesting that women shouldn’t be allowed in the Marines or in combat units. Those who are physically and mentally tough enough to meet the traditional standards of various military units – and can join those units without special protections that will alienate others – can have at it as far as I’m concerned. I honor their service.

Nor do I think it’s fine when people pass around naked pictures of each other without permission.

But those men and women who can and do step up to the challenge of joining the military should be under no illusions about what may be required of them in battle, and the personal indignities they may suffer, compared to which naked pictures are a joke.

Now you may respond, reasonably enough, that that’s all understood as to the exigencies of war, but nobody should have to endure such indignities at the hands of his or her squad mates, especially away from the field of battle. Fair enough, and the Marines who improperly shared pictures should be punished; but anybody who thinks that the Marine Corps will be more effective if it adopts a less martial culture, or carves out exceptions for how female Marines are to be treated in order to increase their percentage in the ranks, ignores human nature and the lessons of history, and implicitly sacrifices the lives of future soldiers in service of a foolish ideology.

The Marine Corps exists only to help defend our country from its enemies, sometimes under circumstances that are so terrible as to be all but beyond our imaginations. It’s a killing machine, not a jobs program.


M.H. Johnston


2 comments to Memorial Day Thoughts

  • Buck  says:

    I read the book a couple of years ago, and despite thinking I understood the war in the Pacific (as a student might), I was sobered and saddend by Sledge’s account. I also watched the PBS (?) series based on the book, which I recommend. It’s not entertainment, just as the book isn’t. When (I’ll leave the if out) our country next undertakes a sizable war that is not just video/drone enabled, the issue you’ve raised will come to the front, and I hope for the sake of those in the armed services, it isn’t as bad as you suggest it might be.

  • Aaron Trehub  says:

    “The Pacific” was an HBO miniseries, not a PBS production. Ken Burns did feature Sledge and WTOB (and Mobile, AL) in his 2007 PBS documentary “The War”.

    “The Pacific” has been unfavorably compared with “Band of Brothers”, the earlier HBO miniseries set in the European Theater. Personally, I think “The Pacific” does a better job of conveying the confusion and loneliness of combat. It also highlights what Dwight D. Eisenhower called “the lingering sadness of war”. It’s a darker series, with an ambiguous instead of a happy ending. In that sense it’s consistent with the tone of Sledge’s memoir.

    Another good, but underrated, memoir of the Pacific War is Russell G. Davis’ “Marine at War” (1961, and later as a Scholastic paperback for the young adult market). Like Sledge, the author served in the 1st Marine Division and fought at Peleliu and Okinawa. Also like Sledge, he became a teacher and academic after the war. Although his book is not nearly as well known–or as graphic–as “With the Old Breed”, Davis wrote about his service with a self-deprecating honesty that has kept the book fresh. Well worth reading by anybody interested in this chapter in American history.

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