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Goodbye, Darkness - Book Review

Discussion in 'Biographies and Everything Else' started by belasar, Sep 21, 2013.

  1. belasar

    belasar Court Jester Staff Member

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    Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War, By William Manchester, Little, Brown and Company -Publishers., 1980, Hardcover, 401 pages, Photos, Maps.

    William Manchester is a respected author of biographies and histories, the most notable being perhaps his biography of Douglas MacArthur American Caesar. In the latter days of the Pacific War Manchester served as a Sergent in the USMC and participated in the assault on the Japanese Island of Okinawa.

    The author states early on that his reason for writing about his wartime experience was to come to terms both with what he did in the war and what the war did to him. He states that upon his discharge he figuratively and literally threw away all that reminded him of his time in uniform, but by the mid 1970's however, his dreams were beginning to be dominated by a figure he calls "The Sergent", a spectral figure that demands of him an accounting of all that had passed and of what it cost.

    Manchester travels thoughout most of the Pacific battlefields to see how they look after some thirty years and to allow his personal Jacob Marley to peel away the layers of his hidden soul and anguish.

    The author employs a disjointed style to tell his tale in which each chapter usually consists of three distinct parts, an overview of the course of the war that brings you to the battlefield he has come to see, a bit of a travelogue of the island as it appears now and a vignette of his wartime service to illustrate some point.

    Usually I have pretty good idea how I am going to review a book a fairly short way in. In this case I really did not how I was going go until almost the very end of the book.

    Those looking for a straight forward story are going to be deeply disappointed by his format. At times I personally found it distracting with only his eloquence in telling the story the saving grace. For lack of a better way I will comment on each part of the book.

    He says that his general history of the war should not be judged as complete and invites the reader to seek other sources for this. I agree emphatically with this as some of it is deeply flawed. Too many myths about the war get repeated here, the worst of which is his statement that Japanese comfort women took up the task willingly to do their part for the war effort. At times I felt it was a history of the war as offered by TV's Archie Bunker. By far this was the least appealing aspect of the book.

    His observations of the former battlefields and the locals who live among them is much better, though dated now as another 30 odd years have passed. It is clear that he has a great affection for nearly all of them even as he bemoans the fact that the locations are so far off the beaten path that most lack any real memorial to the sacrifice of his fellow Marines and GI's. Many of those that do exist are sadly decaying. What is also clear is that he still harbors some animosity towards his former enemy, though tinged with grudging respect to those he fought against.

    Telling his story of a skinny Marine NCO who never thought of himself a great warrior but only hoped to compare favorably to his father (a Great War Marine) when all was said and done is by far the most rewarding element of this book. Profane and shatteringly honest his account will make you laugh and cringe in equal measures. It is here that he brings the full force of his skill and ability as a writer.

    I can give this book only a qualified thumbs up. Deeply flawed but if you are willing to wade though the triple canopy jungle of his story there are some great moments to be seen.


    BR-XXXIV
     
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  2. USMCPrice

    USMCPrice Idiot at Large

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    Very good review. I read this book a number of years ago and the history is flawed. He has many personal axes to grind and does so. It is worth the read though, to see his interpersonal conflict caused by what he saw and did in the war and how he attempted to exorcise the demons.
     
  3. LRusso216

    LRusso216 Graybeard Staff Member

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    I have not read this book, but just looking at the copyright date, it is over 30 years old. Many of the myths, especially about the comfort women, were more commonly accepted then. If nothing else, it should encourage further research. A good review, though.
     
  4. belasar

    belasar Court Jester Staff Member

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    Thanks guys!

    If he had trimmed the battle overview to a just the facts minimum I would have rated this book far more highly because the two other elements are good to outstanding in themselves and are only held back by the former.

    It was just so disappointing to see a respected historian and journalist muck up basic facts. Fortunately this is not a 'first reach' book for those new to the subject and somebody with a few dozen reads under their belt can sift the wheat from the chaff.
     
  5. larso

    larso Member

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    From memory he also talked about the Japanese knee mortars as actually being used on the knee. Some of the battle stories are scorchers though.
     
  6. larso

    larso Member

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    Here's a review I did a few years ago for this book. I hope it adds something to the excellent review posted to open this thread.

    Goodbye Darkness by William Manchester

    Subtitled : A Memoir of the Pacific War

    Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Corp, NY, first published 1979. My ed. 1987. Paperback, 450 pages.

    Manchester was a celebrated historian, who wrote notable books on the Kennedy’s and MacArthur ('American Caesar') amongst others. This work is his reflections on his service in the Marine Corps and in particular, the battle on Okinawa. It is also a selected history of the key battles the US fought in the Pacific theatre and the author’s reactions to these places when he visited them over 30 years later.

    This is my second reading of this book, the first was over 20 years ago, so my comments reflect both my initial awe but also that of a now middle aged ‘veteran’ of over a 100 other memoirs of WW2. From either viewpoint, it can readily be said that Manchester can certainly write! I often read the first page to students to illustrate just how the written word can knock your socks off! His descriptions are vivid and powerful. He is not shy of writing explicitly, including occasionally about sex – though not in the way you might expect and in terms of battle, there is some searing stuff. In both cases there are some shocks, so this is absolutely not a children’s book.

    The memoir is triggered by Manchester’s recurring war nightmare, to the extent that he returns to the various battlefields to confront his experiences. He gives the history of these battles and intersperses his own combat experiences where he feels they appropriately fit. In some respects it is at times almost a travel-log, with observations of the people and practices he encounters but the war is by far the main theme and these are mentioned more to contrast the modern world with the horror that occurred a few decades before. So it is not like Eugene Sledge’s account where bitter combat features virtually every page. Aside from the last 50 pages or so, Manchester doles out his own fights sparingly.

    This leads us to what I guess is the controversy of this book. Despite his visits to a dozen battlefields and the implication he was in action on several, he actually only fought on one – Okinawa. He was a Sgt in the 2/29 Marines of the 6th Marine Division and he spent over 2 months in that maelstrom that shredded units into fragments (he spells out what this means too). However, when he clarifies this it comes as a shock and I was on the lookout in my second reading for exactly what he wrote on this. Certainly there are qualifiers, he says that he came to Guadalcanal after the great battle. Yet he also writes about being unable to find his old foxhole on one key battlefield and earlier that “most of the 1st Marine Division had sailed for Guadalcanal from …(various ports named) but our port of embarkation would be Dago” (San Diego). He also talks about wearing his old ‘raider’ hat. So it can easily be read that he took part himself, rather than trained there much later when the 6th was being formed. Some readers have described this as being deceptive (and I can see the argument for this) or worse. Kenneth Estes, a 24 year post-war Marine who has written many books on Marine topics, calls it a ‘curious mixed fiction and autobiography (intro to ‘Tanks on the Beaches’). I’m not sure exactly what to make of it all but I distinctly remember being surprised and disappointed at the admission first time round. Manchester defends himself and his associated use of the collective ‘we’ and though I can see it this time as an arguably legitimate structural technique, it is rather sly and does undo some of what came before.

    My overall impression of this book is very favourable though. The author’s early life, in awe of his First World War veteran father and of society of the time is fascinating. He makes the occasional mistake (writing that Japanese knee mortars were actually fired from the knee for instance), has some strong views (eg. on the 27th Division) and strongly admires MacArthur the general, if not the man. Yet, when he turns his pen to writing of combat, in all its viscerality, he is supreme. So a powerful, wide-ranging book, with some exceptional passages and I’ll let each reader decide regarding the denouement. 4.5 stars
     
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  7. belasar

    belasar Court Jester Staff Member

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    Excellent review that captures my perceptions almost to a tee. I sincerely hope you will become a regular contributor to our book reviews!
     

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