Wednesday, November 4, 2015

William Manchester: Recalling the Red and Ragged

“War is literally unreasonable,” wrote the author, biographer and historian William Manchester in his 1979 memoir Goodbye, Darkness.
“Today’s youth cannot understand it; mine, I suppose, was the last generation to believe audacity in combat is a virtue. And I don’t know why we believed it. The mystery troubled me and baffled me, for some of my actions in the early 1940s make no sense to me now.
William Manchester
“On Okinawa, on Saturday, June 2, 1945, I suffered a superficial gunshot wound just above my right kneecap and was ship back to a field hospital. Mine was what we called a ‘million-dollar wound.’ Although I could hear the Long Toms in the distance, I was warm, dry and safe. My machismo was intact; I was simply hors de combat.
“The next day I heard that my regiment was going to land behind enemy lines on Oroku Penisula. I left my cot, jumped hospital, hitchhiked to the front and made the landing on Monday.
“Why had I returned to terror? To be sure, I had been gung ho at the outbreak of war. But I had quickly become a summer soldier and a sunshine patriot. I was indifferent toward rank, and I certainly sought no glory. ‘We owe God a death,” wrote Shakespeare. So we do, but I hoped God would extend my line of credit indefinitely. I was very young. I hadn’t published a short story, fathered a child or even slept with a girl. And because I am possessed, like most writers, by an intense curiosity, I wanted to stick around until, at the very least, I knew which side had won the war.
“So, craftily, I became the least intrepid of warriors, a survivor, not a hero, more terrier than lion. If there was a coward’s way, I took it. The word hero, to me, is redolent of Nelson Eddy in his Smokey Bear hat, with Jeanette McDonald shrieking in his ear, or of John Wayne being booed in a Hawaiian hospital by an audience of wounded Marines from Iwo Jima and Okinawa, men who had macho acts, in a phrase of the day, up their asses to their armpits.
“To be sure, I was not an inept fighter. I was lean and hard and tough and proud. I had tremendous reserves of stamina. I never bolted. I was a crack shot. I had a shifty, shambling run, and a lovely eye for defilade — for what the Duke of Wellington called ‘dead ground,’ that is, a spot shielded from flat-trajectory enemy fire by a natural obstacle, like a tree or a rock — coupled with a good sense of direction and a better sense of ground. To this day, I check emergency exits immediately after registering in a hotel, and in bars you will find me occupying a corner table, with my flanks secure.
“But that was the sum of my military skills. I had walked through the valley of the shadow of death and had been terribly frightened. Afterward, those few of us in my unit who had survived received a document from Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal citing us for ‘gallantry,’ ‘valor,’ ‘tenacity’ and ‘extraordinary heroism against enemy Japanese forces,’ but those shining words didn’t really apply to me. Indeed, at times it seemed that they applied to no one except the dead. I agreed with Hemingway: ‘Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the number of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.’
“For us, they had been Buna and Suribachi; the Kokoda Trail and Tarawa; the First Marine Division and the Eleventh Airborne; the Kumusi and the Asa Kawa; December 7, 1941, and V-J Day. I honored them while hating the whole red and ragged business of war.”

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