The final campaign we see is the invasion of Okinawa, April 1-June 21, 1945. This was the greatest infantry fight in the Pacific. More than three hundred thousand soldiers fought each other; more than half were casualties, almost all the Japanese ending dead. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed during the three-month campaign. The deep defenses of the Japanese got deeper – their determination to shoot only when they could inflict the most damage – their willingness to slaughter civilians – their willingness to engage in suicidal attacks.
Again, battalion after battalion, regiment after regiment – the men knew where the fighting was done, they knew their turn would come to lead the assault, & that they would die like everyone before them. Unit after unit was pulled out – unit after unit went in to relieve them. The ones could hear nothing but the shellfire, the others could do nothing but think of it. The rainy season started; the island turned to mud; the Marines had to bail the water out of their foxholes but nobody could stay dry; the boots rotted on their feet. There were too many corpses to bury, the weather & the terrain barely allowed covering them with mud; infestations of maggots ensued.
Extermination is not the American way of war, but reliance on logistical excellence is, enhancing all the abstract tendencies of modern, highly scientific warfare. It proved difficult for men to know where they are & why they are doing what they are doing. The knowledge required for command somehow had to reconcile the abstract art of war with the indomitable love that connected the men.
Victory was not an obvious thing. Happily, the men were let know. Invasion turned into occupation. Some got to their home for the parades; others only returned in 1946. They had their parties wherever they could, to celebrate their freedom. War over, they could sit around waiting, or go swimming in the Pacific, or maybe think about what to do with their future.
In the end, we hear a girl reading to some Marines in a hospital. She read from Homer’s Iliad of the grief of Achilles, whom sleep cannot conquer as he mourns his beloved Patroclus, his mind designing a dark revenge that perhaps rivals the injustice of Troy.
We see the two Marines – one of them knows the poem, the other does not – & we see that they would rather go through the comics. We never get to learn whether that girl was thinking, or of what, because the Marines then learn the war is over, the Japanese enemy having surrendered unconditionally. The men went to their home & they lived their private lives by their best lights.