Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cannonball Read 2 #41: With The Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E.B. Sledge

I think I mentioned before that I was really excited about HBO's recent mini-series The Pacific. While the show didn't exactly live up to my expectations (Darn you, Band of Brothers for making me expect too much!) it did get pretty good during the last four or so episodes. One thing it definitely did was set me on a quest to find two of the three books the show was based on. The first I managed to get my hands on was With the Old Breed, which was written by E.B. Sledge (those of you who watched the show may recognize him as the character played by Joseph Mazzello.)

This story is somewhat unique, because there are not very many books about the fighting in the Pacific theater written by enlisted Marines (one reason being that so few of them survived intact, and those who did survive were not inclined to discuss their experiences.) This is a book from the perspective of a "boots-on-the-ground" Marine, and the tale is both gripping and bleakly brutal. Sledge does not shy away from the grotesque, gruesome, or violent; he does not hesitate to speak of the hatred he developed for the Japanese, or about the atrocities (major and minor) committed by men on both sides. However, he does avoid glorifying the idea of war as much as possible.

The characters are deliberately vague -- many times Sledge will simply say "my buddy" or "an NCO" -- partly because this was written in full years later and he may have forgotten names, and partly I suspect because he wouldn't want to embarrass any of his former comrades. Sledge himself comes off as a conflicted and complex person, someone who began his tour as a naive young man and completed it a hardened and somewhat cynical marine. I think that the portrayal by Mazzello in the mini-series fits very well with the person whose voice dominates the book.

The book is very heavy, though there are definitely moments of humor throughout. The thing that struck me most as I read it was for the most part, it is very matter-of-fact. There is not a lot of "What does it all mean?" introspection. It is more like a diary account -- "It was very muddy for weeks, and the dead bodies everywhere smelled so awful it was hard to breathe" type language. Although clearly intelligent, Sledge is not interested in impressing the reader. He is just trying to explain what happened to him in his own words. I think that's what gives this book most of its power. It's not trying to impress anyone, it's just trying to let you know what happened.

One small disappointment I had (and this is purely a personal thing) was the lack of "Snafu" in the book. He was probably one of my very favorite characters in the show (played extremely well by Rami Malek) and is not nearly as important in the book as I would have guessed. He does appear from time to time in the narrative, and he was obviously at Sledge's side most of the time, but some of the things he says and does in the show were actually said and done by other unnamed marines.

On the whole, I would recommend this book, though I'd add that some of the descriptions are very gory and graphic, so it's probably not for the faint of heart. However, considering how little most of us know about the Pacific theater of WWII, I think it should definitely be more widely read.

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