|The wreckage of a Kawanishi H8K2 Seaplane in Butaritari Lagoon during the Battle of Tarawa|
One perverse irony of war, William Manchester found, is how it sanctifies bloody disasters while underrating undramatic military victories.
“Time (magazine) trumpeted the defense of the American tactics: ‘Last week some 2,000 or 3,000 United States Marines, most of them now dead or wounded, gave the nation a name to stand beside those of … the Alamo, Little Big Horn and Belleau Wood. The name was Tarawa,’” Manchester wrote in his 1979 memoir Goodbye, Darkness. As a sergeant, he’d been in the middle of that 76-hour battle in which roughly 6,400 Japanese, Koreans and Americans died, mostly on and around the small coral island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll.
“That made everyone on Betio stand tall, but it deserves second thoughts. The Alamo and Little Big Horn were massacres for Americans, and the Fifth and Sixth Marines had been cut to pieces in Belleau Wood. Time’s comment may be attributed to a curious principle which seems to guide those who write of titanic battles. The longer the casualty lists — the vaster the investment in blood — the greater the need to justify the slain. Thus the fallen are honored by hallowing the names of the places were they fell, thus writers enshrine in memory the Verduns, the Passchendaeles, the Dunkirks and the Iwo Jimas, while neglecting decisive struggles in which the loss of life was small.
“At the turn of the 18th century, the Duke of Marlborough led 10 successful, relatively bloodless campaigns on the Continent, after which he was hounded into exile by his political enemies. In World War I, Douglas Haig butchered the flower of England’s youth on the Somme and in Flanders without winning a single victory. He was raised to the peerage and awarded 100,000 pounds by a grateful Parliament...”
“Similarly, in World War II, Anzio and Peleliu are apotheosized, though neither contributed to the defeat of Germany and Japan, while the capture of Ulithi, one of the Pacific’s finest anchorages, is unsung since the enemy had evacuated it, and Hollandia, (Gen. Douglas) MacArthur’s greatest triumph in that war, is forgotten because the general’s genius outfoxed the Japanese and limited his losses to a handful of GIs.
“In the Pacific, we received ‘pony’ editions — reduced in size, with no ads — of Time and the New Yorker. The comparison of Tarawa with great battles of the past didn’t impress most of us; we saw it for what it was: wartime propaganda designed to boost the morale of subscribers, a sophisticated version of the rhapsodies about the Glorious Dead who had Given Their All, making the Supreme Sacrifice. Our sympathies were with those who protested the high casualties.”
From his vantage point on the battlefield, Manchester immediately saw through military myth-making, but years would pass before he could bring himself to cast a cold eye on other hypocrisies of war. “At the time it was impolitic to pay the slightest tribute to the enemy, and Nip determination, their refusal to say die, was commonly attributed to ‘fanaticism,’” he recalled. “In retrospect, it is indistinguishable from heroism. To call it anything less cheapens the victory, for American valor was necessary to defeat it.”