Andrew Sharples of The Guardian newspaper has put out a list of his top ten war memoirs. The list has the virtue of being very fresh. I have not heard of most of the books or authors on his list, with the exceptions of Sigfried Sassoon, Martha Gellhorn, and Michael Herr, whose book, Dispatches, is a great one I’d forgotten about.
May I mention two other war memoirs that I think are superb, must-read books? One is Good-Bye, Darkness: A Memoir of War In The Pacific, by William Manchester; the other is With The Old Breed, by Eugene B. Sledge. Manchester’s work you probably know: he was a professional writer, the biographer of H.L. Mencken, the newspaper reporter; President Kennedy, and Winston Churchill. He was also a fighting Marine, however, grappling with the Japanese on the bloody, muddy ground of Okinawa. His short piece, “Okinawa,” for The New York Times Magazine back in 1987 is one of the finest essays on warfare you’ll ever want to read, and his longer memoir adds extraordinary depth to that essay.
Sledge was there with the Marines on Okinawa, too, fighting as a private, enduring the endless rain, the constant shelling and daily privations, trying as best he could to keep his mortar gear in working order. Sledge, in contrast to Manchester, had no aspirations to be a professional writer, and he wasn’t one. He did spend a great deal of time thinking about the situation he was in, though, and the war so traumatized him that he turned to writing his thoughts down for his family. You can see some of this trauma, and Sledge’s efforts to deal with it, if you watch the HBO series, The Pacific. Sledge is portrayed in that series by Joseph Mazzelo. I was so impressed by the series as a whole that I went after the two books upon which the series was based: Helmet For My Pillow, by Robert Leckie, who became a sports writer for the Associated Press, a man whose by-line I remember; and With The Old Breed, a book whose honesty, simplicity, and sheer guts has put it, by common consent, in the list of the top five greatest books on war ever written. Sledge does not shock his readers; he does not need to. All he does–brilliantly–is describe for us in detail what he and his comrades are doing, and what the terrain they are fighting on is like. So carefully does he choose his words, however, that eventually, he will take your breath away, as he did mine. Sledge survived, marked indelibly by his experience, as all those were who were there, and became a professor of biology at the University of Montevallo in Alabama. I get the sense that, in the aftermath of his book’s publication, although he did not talk much about the war on campus, he was regarded by every person there–students and faculty alike–with the deepest respect.