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“With the Old Breed” by Eugene Sledge Essay

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Updated: Apr 20th, 2020


“With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa” is a book by Eugene Sledge, a man who served as a marine in the United States Army during World War II. It was first published in 1981 and contained his memoirs about hostilities between the US and Japan. The book, being very sincere and straightforward, gives us one of the brightest and most detailed pictures about the horrors of the biggest military conflict in human history.

Such books are valuable because they allow us to take a look at concrete stories of concrete people, their attitudes, their feelings, their suffering – in contrast to exact, but the completely abstract language of numbers, which is often employed to describe such events. In our paper, we will try to analyze the author’s and his comrades’ personal attitude to the enemy by looking at some situations described by the narrator.

Sled’s First Experiences

After almost two years of preparation, Eugene Sledge completed his training as a soldier and was sent in 1944 (Sledge ch. 3). He didn’t know what kind of things he was going to do in the future. Of course, he was already taught to kill the enemy mercilessly. We can see Eugene’s instructor teaching him not to “hesitate to fight Japs dirty” (Sledge ch. 2).

But before one’s first armed conflict, hardly anyone can be sure of anything, and so was the author. Sledge writes: “Harsh questions raced through my mind… Could I kill?… Maybe I’d kill dozens of Japanese and… be a national hero” (ch. 2).

The first narrator’s experience of meeting the enemy occurred when his ship, along with other ships, was approaching Peleliu. His feelings were contrasting, changing rapidly from the mentioned uncertainty to disgust and fear for comrades, a sense of pride for capturing the enemy’s territory, and horror after seeing the first dead enemies in his life and watching them being looted (Sledge ch. 4).

The author describes his first encounter with dead Japanese soldiers: “I stared in horror, shocked at the glistening viscera bespecked with fine coral dust. This can’t have been a human being …

A sweating, dusty Company K veteran came up… he deftly plucked a pair of horn-rimmed glasses from the face of the corpsman. This was done as casually as a guest plucking an hors d’oeuvre from a tray at a cocktail party” (ch. 4). Although he was shocked to see that, Eugene owns up to the fact that very soon looting dead enemies stopped bothering him at all (Sledge ch. 4).

Accustomed to Filth

So, the author soon became accustomed to incredible, inhuman amounts of violence and filth. A situation when an American soldier tried to tear out golden teeth from the mouth of a still alive Japanese made Eugene shudder with disgust (Sledge ch. 5). But, only a few pages later, the author describes a situation when, after calmly watching his comrade idly tossing pebbles at the open skull of a dead Japanese gunner, he himself tried to tear some golden teeth out of a Japanese person (even though a dead one).

He writes: “Harvesting gold teeth was one facet of stripping enemy dead that I hadn’t practiced so far. But stopping beside a corpse with a particularly tempting number of shining crowns, I took out my Kabar and bent over to make the extractions” (Sledge ch. 5). He was stopped by his friend, Doc Caswell, who said that this kind of looting might not be safe for health.

The narrator frankly confesses that the thought that the friend might have had other motives only crossed his mind years later: “Reflecting on the episode after the war, I realized that Doc Caswell didn’t really have germs in mind. He was a good friend and a fine, genuine person whose sensitivity hadn’t been crushed out by the war. He was merely trying to help me retain some of the mines…” (Sledge, ch. 5).

Another bright picture is related to Mac, a comrade of the narrator’s who had a disgusting habit. “When most men felt the urge to urinate, they simply went over to a bush… Not Mac. If he could, that ‘gentleman by the act of Congress’ would locate a Japanese corpse, stand over it, and urinate in its mouth” (Sledge ch. 9).

Even though this sort of behavior “revolted even the most hardened and callous men” the author knew (Sledge ch. 9), the example shows what kind of atrocities against the enemy was considered acceptable, even though repulsive, in the American army.

It is necessary to stress that Eugene constantly emphasizes that, despite having been shocked at first, he got accustomed, and various atrocities became casual to him very soon. Bigley points out Sledge, the author is different from Sledge, the soldier (25). As a soldier, he just had to survive and adapt. As an author, he looks back at his past life, evaluating it in light of his present experience. And, as an author, he is stunned by how depraved he and his comrades used to be.

Racism and Dehumanization

Such depraved actions were performed only towards Japanese people, of course. The author tells us that “I rarely saw a dead Marine left uncovered with his face exposed to sun, rain, and flies. Somehow it seemed indecent not to cover our dead” (Sledge ch. 6). As the narrator notes, while the troops didn’t pay much attention to the corpses of their enemies, the view of dead Marines always evoked sorrow, and never disregard (Sledge ch. 12).

This kind of depravity has its roots, of course. The roots are not only in the war. The reason for such an attitude towards the enemy is the total dehumanization of Japanese people in the eyes of Americans due to massive racist propaganda in the media. Weingartner cites a WW2 veteran who wrote that Japanese, being small, of a different color, and unattractive according to American tastes “made a perfect enemy,” and that marines didn’t even think they were committing homicide; it was more like getting rid of dirty animals (54).

Japanese people were often pictured as “subhuman, little yellow beasts,” lice, rats, vipers, and monkeys (Fussel 8). It was common to cut off a Japanese’s ear or nose, or even remove the meat from a skull, and bring it home as a trophy (Weingartner 56-57). A reverse situation, though, would definitely serve as a proof of Japanese foulness to Americans (Weingartner 58).

Such amount of racism and dehumanization are easily comparable with what the German Nazis thought about the other people, “subhumans,” according to their view. Racism and dehumanization are powerful tools of war and hatred commonly employed by politicians, that, as we can easily see from Sledge’s book, are able to turn an act of homicide into action not more uncommon than, for example, having dinner. The well-known results are billions of dead and many more mutilated during WW2.


Eugene Sledge’s book is valuable because showing the author’s personal attitude and feelings, it provides us with a definite example of what war and dehumanization lead to. The results of dehumanization, one might argue, differ in quantity, but not in quality. This issue is very timely, with racism and discrimination often being common nowadays, although, of course, not in such tremendous scales. But, in any case, they eventually lead only to violence, suffering, and death.

Works Cited

Bigley, P. “There Is Much to Learn From War Memoirs: Dissecting With the Old Breed as a Historical Source. The Compass. 1.1 (April 2014): 24-27.

Fussel, Paul 1981. . PDF file.

Sledge, Eugene B. 2007. With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa.

Weingartner, James J. 1992. , 1941-1945. PDF file.

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