TO BE a Marine is to subscribe to the idea that nothing in war is impossible—including the writing of books. Now, after years have passed and the jungle has reclaimed the scenes, comes this engaging story of a young man's personal adventures with the vast and ultimately overwhelming forces that defeated him. This is an old story, but it is told in a fresh and lovely voice. Robert Leckie writes with charm, with personal humility, with humor, with a rare gift for capturing all that is human in the most inhuman of man's activities.
He makes no bones about it—the war is what happened to him. The point of view is not the grand strategy of victory, but the immediate tactic of personal survival. By turns a boot, a machine gunner on Guadalcanal, a liberty hound in Australia, an intelligence scout on Peleliu—briefly a self-styled "brig rat" subsisting on bread and water and finally a casualty—Private Leckie fought the enlisted man's battle.
"Helmet for My Pillow" is the sort of book a man might write for his children, saying, in effect: "This is the way I remember it. The time I killed three Japs while on patrol. The day I went AWOL. The way it is for a man to die. And these are the men I knew—Captain Dreadnought, Lieutenant Commando, Pvt. Chuckler, Major Major-Share, Filthy Fred—some of them heroes, some cowards, some living, some dead but all inexorably part of my life." For Mr. Leckie writes of his companions as though they might be characters in a morality play—as, indeed, they were.
Like most Marines, he both loved and hated the Corps—loved it for the arrogance with which it relegated to itself the tough assignments; hated it for the sacrificial demands that were made on the individual soldier. There is no sentimentalism here, no gratuitous brutality; in the end, of course, it is a success story, for the irony of war is that injustice is not incompatible with victory. And how do you know when you've won? Mr. Leckie's answer deserves quoting: "An officer's mess is one of the surest barometers of military success. So long as the officers continue to pig it with the men, there is danger of defeat. But once the officer's mess appears—raised almost on the bodies of the foe, contrived of sticks or pieces of canvas or perhaps only an imaginary line like a taboo—once this appears, and caste is restored, we know that victory is ours."
—THE NEW YORK TIMES