August 10, 2007
Peleliu and IraqBy Gerald McOscar
Peleliu. Until recently, the word was altogether foreign to me. Of late, I encounter it at every turn.
I was introduced to the word a while back when the Wall Street Journal named With the Old Breed, E. B. Sledge's chronicle of the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa in the South Pacific during World War II, among the five greatest personal accounts of battle by combat soldiers.
Peleliu also figured prominently in the life of Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Joe Rosenthal, who died last year at the age of 94. Coincidently, Clint Eastwood's film Flags of Our Fathers introduced Rosenthal's iconic photograph of American soldiers raising the American flag over Iwo Jima in Feb. 1945 to a new generation of Americans. Earlier in the Pacific campaign, Rosenthal had accompanied the Marine landings on Guam and Peleliu.
Paradoxically, some have equated the war in Iraq with the Palau Island campaign as militarily ill-advised wastes of American lives.
To the geographically challenged, Peleliu is one of the Palau Island group, a six-mile long, two-mile wide sliver of coral, about 500 miles east of the Phillippines. On September 15, 1944 Sledge's First Marine Division invaded Peleliu to neutralize it as a threat to the imminent invasion of the Phillippines.
The fighting was supposed to last three to four days. It lasted almost two months. The Marines battled an entrenched Japanese enemy, tropical rain and temperatures reaching 115 degrees. A TIME magazine correspondent embedded with the troops wrote that by the fourth day " there were as many casualties from heat prostration as from wounds."
Even though Peleliu was one of the worst slaughters of Marines in the Pacific: 1262 dead and 5274 wounded (and 10,000 dead Japanese), it was one of the least publicized, book-ended by history between Tarawa and Iwo Jima.
In his Foreword to Part 1 of Sledge's memoir, U. S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel John Crown counsels not to read the book seeking the significance of the battle or of grand strategy, but for what it is: intense combat as seen by an individual Marine rifleman. I agree. But read it also as an uncannily prescient depiction of the enemy civilization faces today.
Sledge survived the war, but his initial innocence about human evil died on Peleliu. The Japanese were a
Today's Islamist fundamentalists are also a fanatical enemy, similarly and regrettably little understood by many of today's Americans (despite the parallels between Pearl Harbor then and 9/11 now).
The enemies' military tactics are eerily similar. The Japanese design was to conserve forces and fight a battle of attrition that was not over until the last Japanese position was knocked out. Sledge writes that the
Sledge describes to a "t" the "fronts " American forces have encountered in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Tactics such as "playing dead and then throwing a hand grenade -- or playing wounded, calling for a corpsman, and then knifing the medic when he came...." will resonate with soldiers on the ground in Iraq ( some of whom have been unjustly prosecuted for the "crime" of self defense). Sledge describes the combatants as "like two scorpions in a bottle." The enemy was annihilated, the victors nearly so. "Only Americans who excelled could have defeated them." Thomas Paine's prophetic words are true: "Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered."
In his introduction, historian Paul Fussell writes,
Sledge concludes with these words,
The Japanese of Sledge's time were as fanatical and dedicated to the death of our way of life as Islamist fundamentalists are today. We ignore this truth at our own peril.