THROUGHOUT HISTORY, MUCH HAS been written about what it's really like to be a soldier at war. Grace -- or the lack of it -- under the pressure of combat is a subject that fascinates us all. But equally fascinating to me is the way in which different writers approach the realities of war.
There is, for instance, the idealized vision of men in combat as seen by Ernest Hemingway in novels such as "A Farewell to Arms" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls." Romantic understatement was Hemingway's literary weapon when writing war scenes such as this one from "In Our Time":
"It was a frightfully hot day. We'd jammed an absolutely perfect barricade across the bridge. It was simply priceless. . . . They tried to get over it, and we potted them from forty yards. . . . Their officers were very fine. We were frightfully put out when we heard the flank had gone, and we had to fall back."
So, does life imitate art? The answer seems to be no, if you compare Hemingway's fictional characters to the real-life Marines written about by William Manchester in his war memoir, "Goodbye, Darkness."
A Marine sergeant in World War II who served in the Pacific, Manchester does not write about officers who were "very fine." No romantic mists float up from his first-hand account of the battle for a piece of ground known as "Bloody Nose Ridge" on the island of Peleliu in 1944. He writes:
"The Ridge had become a monstrous thing. Wounded men lay on shelves of rock, moaning or screaming as they were hit again and again. Their comrades fell and tumbled past them. Some men committed the ultimate sin for Marines, throwing away their rifles and clawing back down the slopes. Down below, a shocked company commander yelled, "Smoke up that hill!"
When "Goodbye, Darkness" was published 10 years ago, I interviewed Mr. Manchester. He admitted that before his own tour of duty in the Pacific he had accepted Hemingway's battle narratives as realism. Then he found himself in combat:
"War is horrible for the men who have to fight it," he said. "The men I knew scarcely behaved like Hemingway characters."
But they did behave heroically, he said.
At Tarawa, for instance, where the Marines were pinned down on the beach behind a sea wall and "doomed" unless someone made the decision to go over the wall, Mr. Manchester saw individual men make the decision -- on their own -- to take that risk.
"I saw acts of extraordinary heroism, men who did things that are absolutely inexplicable," he said.
He himself did something inexplicable: Already wounded, Mr. Manchester left a hospital bed to rejoin his unit for one final, savage battle at Okinawa. Why did he do that? he was asked. His answer was simple: "I knew my people would be there and I had to be with them."
Seriously wounded, that decision almost cost him his life. But soldiers in battle, he explained to me, are driven not by fear but by love.
"You know, men do not fight for their flag or their country or for the Marine Corps or glory. What we did for each other was an act of love."
Some things, it seems, never change.
About three weeks ago, I turned on the television and listened as Brig. Gen. Thomas B. Draude, assistant commander of Marine ground forces in Saudi Arabia, prepared his troops for battle. Pacing up and down before the young Marines kneeling in the sand before him, their rifles slung over their shoulders, General Draude said:
"Nobody ever shared with me the things that would have made it easier for me to have done the job that I had to do in combat, so I vowed to God if I survived the tours in Vietnam that I would never pass up the opportunity to talk to warriors about combat leadership. Combat is absolute chaos. . . . Everything that can go wrong will go wrong at the worst possible moment."
The general in desert fatigues paused and stared out at the troops. Then he continued, addressing the fear that was there, etched into every Marine's face:
"And love is what you use in order to overcome the feelings of fear -- which are natural. . . . What will cause a Marine to jump on a hand grenade, killing himself in order to save his fellow Marines? Love. They don't fight for the Marine Corps. They don't fight for apple pie, motherhood, Sally Lou or Lost Overshoe, Iowa. They fight for their buddies. They fight for their buddies."
Semper fi. Always faithful.
May goodness and mercy follow such men all the days of their lives.