Sunday, November 15, 2009

Goodbye, Darkness

Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University


Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War
By William Manchester
Little, Brown/Back Bay Books; $16.95, paper
ISBN 978-0-316-50111-5


Late in William Manchester’s superb memoir of soldiering in the Pacific during World War II, he clarifies why no other generation since could do what they did. “To fight World War II,” he writes, “you had to have been tempered and strengthened in the 1930s Depression by a struggle for survival…And you had to know that your whole generation, unlike the Vietnam generation, was in this together…You needed nationalism, the absolute conviction that the United States was the envy of all other nations, a country which had never done anything infamous, in which nothing was insuperable, whose ingenuity could solve anything by inventing something. You felt sure that all lands, given our democracy and our know-how, could shine as radiantly as we did.”

Do we long for those days of absolute evil on our doorstep? No, we long for that fortitude, lost forever to the ages.

When I was in high school, we were required to read Manchester’s excellent narrative history of the United States, The Glory and the Dream, a history book like none I had ever read in school. Years later, while combing through someone’s junk at a garage sale, I found a perfectly good cloth first edition of that book. I purchased it, and thus began a mania for Manchester. I have since found almost every thing the man wrote, most of it, unfortunately out of print. He died in 2004.

Goodbye, Darkness is simply the most poetic memoir I have ever read. Part history, part recollection of a Marine’s life in the Pacific, the book reads like a novel. I finished it on Veterans’ Day, and I do not think I fully understood that holiday until I read this book.

Manchester begins with the first man he killed in war, a Japanese sniper, who was shooting down Marines and G.I.s alike. A man diametrically opposed to violence all his life who suffered greatly at the hands of bullies, Manchester finds himself pinned down by this enemy. If he remains in his foxhole, the sniper will eventually kill him, of that he is certain. He has one opportunity to rush the fisherman’s shack where the sniper is hidden. He takes his .45 and rushes up the hill, boots in the door, and finds an empty room. Another door awaits within, and he realizes that the sniper now knows he is coming. He smashes through the second door expecting to be killed in his tracks, except the sniper is tangled in his gun harness. Manchester squeezes off a round, missing the soldier. His second shot finds its target, shredding the enemy’s thigh and mutilating the femoral artery. “A wave of blood gushed from the wound,” he writes. “Then another boiled out, sheeting across his legs, pooling on the earthen floor.” The soldier sinks down, bleeding to death in minutes. Manchester vomits his C-ration beans and urinates on himself. He has killed a man and wonders: “Is this what they mean by ‘conspicuous gallantry?’”

From here, Manchester takes us through his life and history, but also the history of America and the great wars of the twentieth century. We see his father in the Great War, badly wounded by an exploding shell that kills a comrade instantly. On All Souls’ Day, the elder Manchester is carried on a litter into a tent “reserved for the doomed” and left there to die, a hopeless case. Gangrene infects his shoulder, and “He lay there in his blood and corrupt flesh for five days, unattended, his death certificate already signed.” He survives. His right arm becomes useless, “a rigid length of bone scarcely covered by flesh, with a claw of clenched fingers at the end.” He cannot sign his name to his discharge papers because of this injury, so he makes an X, “like an illiterate.”

We see the younger Manchester growing up in New England, a somewhat sickly child who takes early to books, and writes his own stories “derivative of Poe, on the Underwood” typewriter his father uses in his job as a social worker. “I cannot remember a time in my life,” he writes, “when I was not deep in a book.” His calling is clear, even though he is not a stellar student. His is an intellectual life, one that leads on naturally to his oeuvre of a few novels and a great number of history books, all written in a fluid and engrossing style that defies conventional history textbook writing.

Goodbye, Darkness becomes a journey. Manchester retraces the battles and skirmishes in which he participated during the war in the Pacific. The book jumps back and forth between his late 1970s return to the fields and atolls of the Pacific theater and the days of the war. He details the fighting and dying that went on, and then shows us the decaying monuments and rusting junk on the field upon his return. Many of the memorials are damaged by time, or worse, by vandals. We learn about the costs of war, the impact on one man’s life, and the heartbreaking moment when he realizes that all of it will one day be forgotten. There is bitterness and thanksgiving, the grace of a good death and the turning point of a young man’ life exposed.

The book ends as it begins, with Manchester killing a man, again a sniper, this time behind a boulder. The writer takes an action that is now second nature: he prepares to die to save lives. For one who has been bullied all his life, the Marine Manchester is a crack shot, and he puts his skill to the test by diving into the open, sighting in on the enemy, and preparing to fire. A mortar explodes in front of him, and he is showered with debris, but as the dust clears, he sees his target and fires, striking the man in the face. He pumps several more rounds into the body, and the soldier is down. He returns to his partner nearby to find his comrade’s face blown away. Another soldier dies. Manchester continues on, and as he passes the dead Japanese sniper, he gives the head a swift kick.

The war officially ends for Manchester when he is badly injured by a mortar round that vaporizes two fellow soldiers and leaves pieces of their bones inside Manchester’s body as shrapnel. He suffers a brain injury. He is sent to a series of hospitals, and in San Francisco, the news of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima reaches him. The days of war are done. Japan surrenders shortly thereafter, and Manchester returns to civilian life. He lists the men he knew before the war who accompanied him into battle. Many are dead, and Manchester gives a litany of names and their fates. It is a literal lost generation.

I found a picture of William Manchester from the archives of Wesleyan University where he was a writer-in-residence, teacher, and scholar for most of his career. It is the desktop background on my home and classroom computers. I greet him each morning. He stares at me, pipe in mouth, as if wondering why I have disturbed him at his work. I gaze back at him, thinking about that long ago senior history class at my high school. I kept my paperback copy of The Glory and the Dream all these years, bound in duct tape, the pages torn, highlighted, annotated.

Could we today ever accomplish what the men and women of Manchester’s generation did? I think not. The world has changed, the concept of war has changed, and America is no longer the country of right and good. Guantanamo, water-boarding, Dick Cheney, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have changed all that.

Manchester wrote his book to say goodbye to the darkness, the nightmarish days of war where smoke obliterated the sun, and blood ran into the sea. It is a different world today. Manchester has gone, but the darkness remains.


Addendum: I would like to thank Gabriel for joining The Teacher's View as a follower.

7 comments:

William Michaelian said...

A beautiful review — one of your best (again).

When my father was sworn into the army, he and the men he was sworn in with were told, “Congratulations, you now have a four-year Jap-hunting license!”

Without that kind of ignorance, without the blight of nationalism, war would quickly become obsolete.

Of course, as long as we are at war within ourselves, there will be war amongst us.

His brother came home from the war and rarely spoke during the first six months.

His other brother did not come home. He is buried in Italy, along with the dreams of his fiancé and their unborn children.

My grandparents were given a neatly folded flag in exchange. My father used to say he wished I could have known my grandmother as she was before the war. My grandfather did his crying alone in the vineyard.

This is war, multiplied by countless millions.

Paul L. Martin said...

Thank you, William.

I am grateful that journalists are now allowed to show the bodies arriving at Andrews Air Force Base and other places from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. We need to be reminded of the sacrifices that our men and women are making there. Hopefully, awareness will bring them home.

I also find it interesting that Manchester refers to the enemy as "Japs," as my father and his generation do. I know that we must dehumanize the enemy in order to go to war, but when the guns are silent, how do we recover our lost humanity. Manchester believes the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima were necessary and he is probably right, but I still feel conflicted about the fact that my country is the only one in the world to have actually used weapons of mass destruction on another culture.

Anyhow, so many thoughts jumbled together. I appreciate your poetic comment, and next up for book reviews is your new one. Coming soon...

Take care,
Paul

John Broussard said...

I just finished the audio book.
No doubt it is an intersting book, but I doubt every passage is true. The main character is always the introspective hero, granting the reader false self-deprecation before delivering another knockout self described hero account. It is very entertaining and certainly contains some of the intensity of war.
The author laments the innocent America of his youth a construct of his own imagination. He conveniently neglects to mention the 1898 brutal American invasion
of the Phillipines or fails to mention why an unconditional surrender was demanded of both Japan and Germany, resulting in what Pat Buchanaan has referred to as unneccessary bloodshed and slaughter of civilians. If the young Americans were innocent it is because they were naiive of skillful amoral older power brokers draped in the flag that manipulated them. He does today's youth a disservice by not fully exploring the reasons for his own eventual demonstrated angst and disgust at what the war had become at Okinawa.

Ableheart

Paul L. Martin said...

Thank you for your comment, John.

You present another view that is intriguing. I will always think of those men and women as heroes, but one must consider the entire scope of history and your mention of the Phillipines invasion raises some important questions.

Then there is the matter of the civilian casualties in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Our use of the atomic weapons will remain controversial, and Manchester makes clear his view that the bombs were necessary to end the war without millions more American dead. As I said in response to William's comment, I feel a certain amount of trepidation over our use of those weapons, but many believe, like Manchester, that it was the only course of action.

I also have trouble with many of Pat Buchanan's opinions, however the purpose of this blog format is to discuss our views, and you present us with something to think about, and for that I am grateful.

David Null said...

Mr Broussard's comment about the US role in the Philippines in misguided because it is taken out of historical context. If not the US, then some European power, probably Germany, would have made the Philippines a colony. As everyone admits, after suppressing the insurrection, the US's administration of the Philippines was benign.

As for the belief that "unconditional surrender' prolonged WWII, the Potsdam declaration (July 1945) modified "unconditional surrender". The Japanese dismissed it "with contempt".

Michael E. J. Stanley said...

Very much enjoyed exploring your site and contemplating the ideas expressed therein. I would enjoy reading more.

I am a faculty member - non-tenure track, which allows me to be creative, positive, and active as a teaching member of the staff - at Meiji University in Tokyo. For years I was a photojournalist based here; the website showing some work from that time is at www.mejstanley.com.

I will visit your site again soon...

Best from 'this side',

Michael E. J. Stanley

Paul L. Martin said...

Hello, Michael,

So nice to hear from you and that you enjoyed the site. I checked out our website as well and bookmarked it for later exploration. I look forward to talking with you about your teaching and work as a photojournalist.

Until then...

Take care,
Paul