I was cynically amused a few days ago when USA President Donald Trump puffed his bottom lip and pronounced that had he been on duty the day 17 school children and school workers were murdered he would have burst into the school and without hesitation executed the shooter.
I have no doubt the President believed the thought. And, I have no doubt that he has never been in a position where he was required to face the fact that if he opened the door in front of him it could be the last thing he ever did on earth. Others were also critical of police who failed to react as they had been trained that fateful morning. Cowardice was not an unspoken word.
My reaction was a little kinder, although I have never been in a situation where a well-armed man was waiting just beyond a door ready to kill me if I opened it. I have no idea what my reaction would have been or would ever be but many years ago, William Manchester, a writer of great integrity, told me how I might have felt and reacted.
He was writing one of his several classics – Goodbye Darkness, a memoir of the Pacific War. In the opening pages we find him flying across the Pacific to revisit old battle grounds. As he flies through the night, old memories, “phantoms repressed for more than a third of a century come back; (one) with a clarity so blinding that I surge forward against the seat belt, appalled by it, filled with remorse and shame. I am remembering the first man I slew.”
Manchester, in charge of a 19-member squad of marines, takes us to a beach on Motobo where a fisherman’s shack from which sniper fire had already claimed several victims, was barring progress. He was the leader. “Sweating with the greatest fear I had known until then, I took a deep breath,” asked for squad coverage and made a dash for the hut dropping every dozen steps, remembering to roll as I dropped.” He was almost at the door when he realized he wasn’t wearing his steel helmet and “that was a violation of orders. I was out of uniform and I remember hoping, idiotically, that nobody would report me.”
He remembered, too, how his jaw began to twitch and “various valves were opening and closing in my stomach. My mouth was dry, my legs quaking, and my eyes out of focus.” He struggled for control, kicked the flimsy door open, crashed inside where “my horror returned. I was in an empty room!” There was another door, another room which meant that’s where the sniper was – now alerted by the noise.Waiting.
“But,” wrote Manchester, “I had committed myself. Flight was impossible now. I smashed into the other room and saw him as a blur to my right. I wheeled, crouched, gripped the pistol butt with both hands and fired.”
He was the first Japanese soldier Manchester had ever shot, the first he had ever seen at close quarters.
“He was a robin-fat, moon-faced, roly-poly little man … squeezed into a uniform that was much too tight.” Manchester’s first shot had missed “the second caught him dead-on in the femoral artery.” As the sniper slumped down and bled out in a pool of his own blood, Manchester kept firing until his magazine was empty.
He reloaded his gun, and “then I began to tremble, and next to shake all over. I sobbed, in a voice still grainy with fear – ‘I’m sorry.’ Then I threw up all over myself. I recognized half-digested C-ration beans dribbling down my front, smelled the vomit above the cordite. At the same time, I noticed another odour; I had urinated in my skivvies.”
Another member of his squad arrived, checked to make sure the sniper was dead. “I marveled at his courage,” Manchester wrote.”I could not have taken a step toward that corner”. The squad member then approached Manchester but quickly “backed away in revulsion from my foul stench saying: ‘Slim, you stink.’ I said nothing. I knew I had become a thing of tears and twitchings and dirtied pants. I remember wondering dimly: ‘Is this what they mean by ‘conspicuous gallantry?’”
And as I read Manchester again, I wondered if President Trump could read him and identify and confess without shame a true warrior’s tarnished distress;and I wondered how many of the people quick to brand as cowards men who couldn’t cope with fear, would have handled the situation in the beach hut on Motobu.
I ask myself the same question and hope I never have to find out.