Saturday, September 04, 2010

Book Review: Helmet for my Pillow by Robert Leckie

Helmet for my Pillow is an account of the Second World War in the Pacific written by marine Robert Leckie. Leckie was a central character in the HBO mini-series "The Pacific" played by James Badge Dale. However, in the book "The Pacific" by Hugh Ambrose, Leckie is almost left out of the story by Ambrose - he gets just a short mention. So to get a fuller picture of the story of the Pacific - I decided to read Leckie's own account. The HBO series is largely faithful to Leckie's own account - his experiences were harrowing, violent, exciting, honest, patriotic, and brutal.

Leckie's book was first first published in 1957 and doesn't contain one word of bad language. Leckie writes (p17) that he was originally shocked by the widespread use of "the word....that four-letter ugly sound that men in uniform have expanded into the single substance of the linguistic world. It was a handle, a hyphen, a hyperbole; verb, noun, modifier. He also writes that it "stood for everything and meant nothing" and that it was used by everyone from "chaplains and captains". Fuck - what a way to describe the "F" word without actually writing it. 

A lot of the writing appears to me to be old-fashioned, and that Leckie would be at the mercy of modern Editors who would surely have prevented the almost poetic complicated and verbose staccato style, and liberal use of semi-colons. See what I mean from the following extract (p51):

Nothing was permitted to last. All had to be fluid; we wanted not actuality, but possibility. We could not be still; always movement, everything changing. We were like shadows fleeing, ever fleeing; the disembodied phantoms of the motion picture screen; condemned men; souls in hell.

Powerful stuff, but slightly tedious to read. 

There is no doubt that Leckie's willingness to risk his life in the cause of freedom , and his patriotism, shines through the book. He lost many friends and comrades - sacrifice was part of daily life in the battles of Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, and Peleliu. There is even grudging admiration for the "Japs", but the hatred was also certain - a necessary emotion for a machine gunner.  While the book is undoubtedly a glorification of the Marine Corps and the bravery of the individual marines, it can also be regarded as an anti-war message showing the brutality and ultimate futility of war.

Leckie died in 2001 aged 81, having suffered from Alzheimer's disease. I wonder what he would have made of modern America and Japan. At the end of the book he writes (p303) that he had "sinned" but that he also "rejoiced" at having survived the war.

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