The Fog of War
In his novel, E.B. Sledge details in great precision the events of the war, but most of what happened as depicted by him is rushed and blurry. This is not due to some sort of historical inaccuracy or human error, but instead because it is truly difficult to understand and truly grasp what is happening in the “fog of war”. The most lasting impressions of the war that Sledge couldn’t completely wrap his mind around include the disorientation of the action, the merciless tactics and mentalities of the Japanese, and the internal struggles and disinformation within his own units.
The part of the book that really deals with the fog of war aspect doesn’t start until about 50 pages in, after he’s already been to boot camp and Camp Elliot. These first few pages deal mostly with preparation and the ideas of what will happen at war, about killing Japs and winning. The language he uses is almost romantic in a way when he discussed his bonds and friendships, especially in reference to his commander, Ack Ack and Hillbilly. It wasn’t until the day before D-Day that he sees the sunset and realizes, maybe, it will be his last (48, Sledge).
This was all well and good, seeing as the description of basic training prepared me as a reader for the war to come. But much like Sledge’s real life experience, the training chapters in no way prepared me for what was to come.
The description of their landing on the beach, moving through the flaming inferno (56, Sledge) marks the first significant departure of the tone in the book. He describes landing on the beach and taking cover as the shelling fell down upon them hard. He mentions that it was the first time he ever truly felt helpless (63, Sledge).
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That emotion represents the pinnacle of human fear and how it affected him. This was one of the first instances presented that exemplified the theme of disorientation in battle. While under fire by shelling, Sledge notes that he could not keep track of time and never really could tell how long the attacks actually lasted. 15 minutes seemed like hours (63, Sledge).
More examples of this include when another Marine, Sam, accidentally killed one of his own men. The constant noise of shots being fired from all directions at once also contributed to the overall chaos that resulted in the helter-skelter nature of the entire campaign (207, Sledge).
Another important aspect that contributed to the fog of war effect were the tactics of the enemy themselves. The Japanese were notorious for being cold, merciless, and clinical in their efficiency. They killed without mercy or respect. During their time at boot camp, their instructors were keen on letting them know that the Japanese do not share the same code of honor that Americans do. From a young age, American children are taught not to kick below the belt, which was an idea that the Japanese did not care about. They also exemplify their mercilessness through their infiltrations (18, Sledge).
They were so sneaky and deceptive that at night marines would sleep with a knife within arms reach in case a marauding Japanese soldier came to kill them (72, Sledge).
Other tactics included their long range ones. For example, while under enemy fire, Marines learned not to bunch up together because the Japanese would not fire on men in groups less than three in order to save their ammo for when it would be most effective (87, Sledge).
The fact that the Japanese would only fire when most effective rather than whenever they saw the enemy indicated their premeditated, collected nature in the war. At least, that was how the US men perceived them to be. The phantom enemy effect that resulted from this psychologically played with the soldiers’ heads in a way that made it difficult for them to gauge how well or badly they were actually doing. One of the most disturbing examples of this is how the Japanese would remove their fallen soldiers from the battlefield in such a way that it would leave no trace of anyone ever being there. This constructed illusion that only the remnants of US soldiers remained on the battlefield distorted the sense of how the war was actually going for all the participants involved (248, Sledge).
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The last and final contributing factor to this discussion of the fog of war effect is that of his own unit’s instruction, and furthermore, their overall reason for being there. Most of the time the men complain constantly about officers of higher rank and how they don’t actually contribute to the cause. In fact, this mindset is so ingrained within them that when Captain Paul Douglas comes out to help them with supplies, they are all shocked and tell him that he didn’t have to come out and help in the danger (89, Sledge).
Even though they complain continuously about their superiors using them as ‘cannon fodder’, when they do actually find instances of them going into battle, they are taken aback. Furthermore, the constant separation and killing of their men resulted in so much confusion about how many of them there actually were left, that by the time they found out, their expectations had let them down, which added to their false hopes and confusion (136, Sledge).
Furthermore, Sledge speculates as to why they were even on the island at all. Ironically, the only thing the Pacific war was widely notorious for was how few people actually heard about it, or even how many people bring it up when referencing WWII as a whole. The losses on both sides were catastrophic, but still it remains one of the lesser-known battles of the war (52-3, Sledge).
In conclusion, there was much to be said about the war in the Pacific that left the soldiers dazed. Their enemies were tactful, merciless, and extremely dangerous, using not only force, but stealth to draw out and sneak up on the Marines. This strategy added to the feeling of helplessness and sense of being surrounded that Sledge mentioned in his first experience on the beach at Peleliu. Also, the disorientation of the action itself, whether it be the whining of bullets or the lengthened perception of time experienced under fire, affected how the men felt and could perceive what was going on. Finally, due to the disorganization and inequalities of rank, the men felt cheated and left in the dark about what was going on and what should be happening. They had their own opinions about what should and shouldn’t have been done, and after all, they are the ones wielding the guns, so they most of all should have had their voices heard. The fog of war effect contributed greatly to the decreased morale of the group, even after the war was won, evident through the fact that they didn’t even care (223, Sledge).
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It was the fog of war rather than the war itself that truly destroyed those men’s spirits.