Thursday, October 22, 2009

Essay: "Okinawa: The Bloodiest Battle of All." William Manchester. 1987.

One-minute review: Manchester vividly describes the conditions under which his company of marines fought on Okinawa, the island from which, if there had been no atomic bombs, the invasion of mainland Japan would have been launched. This essay should help Americans to understand why it was necessary to use the atomic bomb. The statistics of loss are staggering, more Japanese than at Hiroshima, more Americans than at Gettysburg. He pleads for Americans to remember those who died in war on Memorial Day. And he makes it clear that he has not forgiven the Japanese for what they did to his friends and fellow marines and to him personally. I think this essay should be read aloud at Memorial Day ceremonies. Americans need to understand the realities of war. They need to appreciate the conditions under which those who gave their lives--and those who survived--fought. At the end of this essay, Manchester, who was supposed to join his Japanese counterpart, tells why he cannot do so and walks away.


“On Okinawa today, Flag Day, will be observed in an extraordinary ceremony: two groups of elderly men, one Japanese, the other American, will gather for a solemn rite…. They are really united by death, the one great victor in modern war.”

“More than 200,000 perished in the 82-day struggle—twice the number of Japanese lost at Hiroshima and more American blood than had been shed at Gettysburg.”

“Americans still march in Memorial Day parades, but attendance is light. One war has led to another and another and yet another, and the cruel fact is that few men, however they die, are remembered beyond the lifetimes of their closest relatives and friends.”

General MacArthur: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

“There is an old soldier’s saying: ‘A man won’t sell you his life, but he’ll give it to you for a piece of colored ribbon.’ ”

“And Napoleon had formed mass armies, pressing every available man into service. It was a long step toward total war, and its impact was immense.”

Winston Churchill: “War, which was cruel and magnificent, has become cruel and squalid.”

“The mud beneath our feet was deeply veined with blood. It was slippery. Blood is very slippery.”

“During those ten days I ate half a candy bar. I couldn’t keep anything down. Everyone had dysentery, and this brings up an aspect of war even Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden and Ernest Hemingway avoided. If you put more than a quarter million men in a line for three weeks with no facilities for the disposal of human waste, you are going to confront a disgusting problem. We were fighting and sleeping in one vast cesspool. Mingled with that stench was another—the current and corrupting odor of rotting human flesh.”

“It was peacetime again when John Wayne appeared on the silver screen as Sergeant Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima…. I went to see it with another ex-marine, and we were asked to leave the theater because wee couldn’t stop laughing.”

“After my evacuation from Okinawa, I had the enormous pleasure of seeing Wayne humiliated in person at Aiea Heights Naval Hospital in Hawaii. Only the most gravely wounded, the litter cases, were sent there. The hospital was packed, the halls lined with beds. Between Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the Marine Corps was being bled white."

“Each evening, Navy corpsmen would carry litter down to the hospital theater so that me could watch a movie. One night they had a surprise for us. Before the film, the curtains parted and out stepped John Wayne, wearing a cowboy outfit—ten-gallon hat, bandanna, checkered shirt, two pistols, boots and spurs. He grinned his Aw-shucks grin, passed a hand over his face and said, ‘Hi ya guys!’ He was greeted by a stony silence. Then somebody booed. Suddenly every one was booing."

“This man was a symbol of the fake machismo we had come to hate, and weren’t going to listen to him. He tried and tried to make himself heard, but we drowned him out, and eventually he quit and left. If you liked Sands of Iwo Jima, I suggest you be careful. Don’t tell it to the Marines.”

“I set this down in neither pride nor shame. The fact is that some wounds never heal.”

Comment: I think the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King and this essay on the battle of Okinawa are two of the most memorable essays in this book. Everyone should read them. And this latter essay should be read every Memorial Day at every Memorial Day service. This essay and the book Wings of Morning, the story of the last American bomber shot down over Germany, will help every American, who looks at war in the abstract, to understand its nature and its reality. RayS.

Best American Essays of the Century. Editors: Oates and Atwan. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000.

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