In “The 99th’s Last Mission” (Correspondence, October 2002), Brian Kirkpatrick discusses his father’s attitude toward service in World War II. I was born in 1920, a close contemporary of Dr. Kirkpatrick’s father. I served in six major battles of World War II, from before the beginning until after the end, and while one man’s experience cannot be representative of a group, I must say that Dr. Kirkpatrick seems to be talking about a different war. His father fought in Europe, whereas I served in the Pacific, and the 99th Division featured in the article was composed mainly of draftees, whereas my associates were U.S. Marines. While I do not discount these memoirs, they should not be taken as a measure of the attitudes of American servicemen in World War II.
In various reunions, my friends have often addressed the question of why men fight, and they have reached the conclusion that men like to fight. No one likes heat, cold, thirst, exhaustion, and pain, but when blows begin to be exchanged, the pervading emotion is one of exhilaration. None of my comrades, however, noticed any feeling of guilt.
In war, you kill because it is your duty but also, undeniably, because of the visceral thrill. I spent several days in a hospital bunk adjoining that of a very prominent Marine, who later retired as a three-star general. In those long, boring hours, he once told me that the thing that he enjoyed most in life was killing Japs. (That is the word he used.) His view was not unusual, and I am quite sure that vast numbers of young men who faced us in the Pacific felt the same way about killing Gaijin.
I do not mean to disparage Dr. Kirkpatrick or his father, but not all American fighting men are Ferdinands. It may well be that U.S. Marines are a different breed from civilian draftees. They may not be better fighters (though we would like to think so), but they certainly enjoy it more.
As we head into a really bad war now, America needs all the warriors she can get. Let us not pretend that they are an endangered species.
Editor-at-large, Guns & Ammo
Dr. Kirkpatrick Replies:
Mr. Cooper is correct in stating, as others have done at length, that the nature of the war in the Pacific was quite different from that in Europe. No doubt, in addition, a group of volunteers is often very different from a group of draftees, even if the draftees thought that they should fight, as the men of the 99th largely did. That difference is likely to be especially marked when the volunteers have a culture like that of the Marines.
A bit of the Marine’s age-old contempt for the U.S. Army comes through in Mr. Cooper’s letter. In the case of World War II, this is based on a misperception, for the reluctant warrior may be, nevertheless, a very effective one. To think otherwise is to make the mistake that the South made about the North in our own Civil War and the Germans and Japanese made about the Americans in World War II. Perhaps the Spartans underestimated the Thebans as well.
I also concede the point that there are men who love to kill, for whom, “when blows begin to be exchanged, the pervading emotion is one of exhilaration.” They run such places as Iraq, and, perhaps, we need them in this world. However, I for one do not want them to make decisions for the rest of us.