This is the memoirs from Robert Leckie, WWII veteran of the Marine Corps. It covers his time from enlistment to the Battle of Guadalcanal through Peleliu and the bombing of Hiroshima. This book was also used as the basis for the HBO mini-series “The Pacific”.
The cover of the book has a quote from Tom Hanks: “Helmet for My Pillow is a grand and epic prose poem. Robert Leckie’s theme is the purely human experience of war in the Pacific, written in the graceful imagery of a human being who – somehow – survived.” and I think this sums up the book – mostly.
It’s definitely an epic prose poem and I’m not a huge fan of 300 page poems. I tried really hard to love this book but in the end, I just tolerated it and that has a great deal to with the writing style. E. B. Sledge’s “With the Old Breed” is more my style: direct, honest, and detailed. Leckie has a tendency to refer to people generally by their nicknames, with no background and no detail of their current state. So while I knew these were real people, I wasn’t invested in Hoosier (and I’m living in Indiana), Chuckler, Lieutenant Liberal, etc. because I just didn’t know enough about them and I felt horrible for it because I knew they were real people.
The other problem was the writing style itself. Here’s a sample paragraph:
“How could they develop such facility with mere imprecation? This was no vituperation. It was only cursing, obscenity, blasphemy, profanity – none of which is ever profuse or original – yet it came sprouting out in an amazing variety.” (p. 17). My reaction? “Um, what?” I had to look up two of those words and I was left thinking that there was probably a better way to phrase it. Normally, I won’t get too terribly irritated by this but when the paragraphs before and after this one were written the same, I was just confused about what Leckie was trying to convey to the reader. For further example, here’s Leckie talking about the dead Japanese he encountered and their souls:
“Because it is gone you cannot say it will not return; even though you may say it has never yet returned-you cannot say that it will not. It is blasphemy to say a bit of metal has destroyed life, just as it is presumptuous to say that because life has disappeared it has been destroyed. I stood among the heaps of the dead and I knew-no, I felt that death is only a sound we make to signify the Thing we do not know.” (p. 233). Imagine reading 306 pages of that and you can appreciate the book.
There were two areas I found rather interesting and made me glad I stuck with it. The final section, the last chapter deals with the Battle of Peleliu.
First, his account of Peleliu, albeit brief because he was injured, was almost exactly the same as E.B. Sledge’s account. From the description of the coral and heat and dehydration to the battle itself, it was a chorus of the same to Sledge’s account.
Leckie was injured on Peleliu so his account is much shorter than Sledge’s but he was in a military hospital in West Virginia when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. If you’ve read “The War Prayer” by Mark Twain, (see my previous post in Book Reviews for a link), who was writing at a different time period (prior to WWI), see if the following sounds a bit familiar (Leckie is self-answering a question posed by a woman on the street that asked “What did you get out of it? What were you fighting for?”):
“But I could not answer the first question, for I did not know what I had gotten out of it, or even that I was supposed to profit.
Now I know. For myself, a memory and the strength of ordeal sustained; for my son, a priceless heritage; for my country, sacrifice.
The last is enough for all, for it is sacrifice-the suffering of those who lived, the immolation of those who died-that must now be placed in the scales of God’s justice that begin to tip so awkwardly against us when the mushroom rose of the world. It is to sacrifice that men go to war. They do not go to kill, they go to be killed to risk their flesh, to insert their precious persons in the path of destruction.”
“But sacrifice says: ‘Not the blood of your brother, my friend-your blood.’ That is why women weep when their men go off to war. They do not weep for their victims, they weep for them as Victim. That is why, with the immemorial insight of mankind, there are gay songs and colorful bands to send them off-to fortify their failing hearts, not to quicken their lust for blood. That is why there are no glorious living, but only glorious dead. Heroes turn traitor, warriors age and grow soft-but a victim is changeless, sacrifice is eternal.” (pp. 304-305).
I thought this was a balance to what Twain was referring to in “The War Prayer”. And it was the best writing of the book, a fitting end.
Have you read this book? What are your thoughts?
Here’s what’s next:
At bat: “How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History” by Erik Durschmied.
On deck: “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway
In the bullpen: “The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914” by Margaret MacMillan.
What books have you read, are reading, or planning to read?