Monday, March 16, 2015

The other side

I have been reading the famous WWII book With The Old Breed.  It is an account written by an enlisted marine about some of the things he saw in his time fighting against Japan in the Pacific theatre of war.  It is remarkable because he talks so clearly about the small things that stood out so clearly to him rather than focusing on the grand sweep of tactics or trying to tell a particular tale.  It isn't a story with a plot, but instead is a series of small anecdotes designed to give the reader a sense of what it would be like to be in his place.

While the story itself is full of incredibly racist, sexist, and violent people it is still a powerful story of how people react to terrible suffering and fear.  Thankfully the author seems to me to not be writing it to make people think of the Japanese as evil and the Americans as great so much as trying to explain the things that happened to him.  He describes the awful things that occurred because of the war, which certainly includes the hatred of the soldiers towards their foes, but he does not try to make the reader believe in the righteousness of his comrades.

It is not a pretty story.  The author speaks about fellow marines desecrating corpses, accidentally killing one another in confusion, and falling to pieces under pressure.  He describes the horror and extreme mental pressure of being in a war zone under constant bombardment for extended periods and makes it clear just how little the people who weren't under such pressure understand the reality of the war.

This is the sort of story anyone who thinks we should just go to war to solve problems should read.  War isn't about moving pieces on a map or calculating strategy - it always comes down to terrified people inflicting trauma and death on one another.  No matter how noble the goal eventually the result is a great number of people who thought their cause was virtuous dying in agony.

One thing that makes me wonder though is how the story would be told from the other side.  In the battle that occupies the first half of the book on the island of Peleliu the marines that attacked suffered horrendous casualties.  They lost over half of their initial strength of 9,000 soldiers, though the majority of those were injuries rather than deaths.  All told roughly 1,250 marines died in 30 days of fighting.  The Japanese defenders numbered about 11,000 but by the end roughly 97% of them were dead.

It would be horrible to sit in a hole all night, exhausted beyond measure, trying to stay awake in case a Japanese soldier armed just with a bayonet snuck into the hole to try to kill you.  But what would it be like to be that Japanese soldier, tasked with attacking an invading army with a single blade?  Even if you kill one enemy your task is not complete as you are expected to kill again and again until you die.  How would it be to sit on a patch of land knowing that your comrades go out into the darkness to their certain deaths, knowing that your side will never surrender and you are going to fight and kill until you finally succumb.

If anyone knows of such a book that gives a first hand account of being on the other side of that same conflict I would love to read it.

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