I read this for the 2014 War Challenge with a Twist at the reading challenge blog War Through the Generations
The Last Parallel: A Marine War Journal – Martin Russ, 0880642378
I hadn’t read a Marine Corps combat narrative for long time. I picked The Last Parallel, expecting gory tales of bloodshed and destruction, with the primary literary influence being Mickey Spillane. Hey, it was March in Western New York, the punishment phase of winter, so I needed a pick me up, something to take me out of myself.
In fact, The Last Parallel is smart and often funny diary-based account of his training in Camp Pendleton, transport to Korea, and his time in the static war from December 1952 to September 1953. Film director Stanley Kubrick was so impressed with this story that he took out an option to make it into a movie.
Sailors and Marines are forbidden to keep diaries, so it’s a minor miracle that books like this one and Fahey’s immortal Pacific War Diary even exist. When asked what he was writing, Russ would say, “Letters.” I assumed later he edited the entries for publication but the writing is understandably uneven. Some parts are humorous and exciting, while others go on and on.
There’s much to interest readers who are into things military: gear, weapons, landscape, patrols and skirmishes. Many of the fighting scenes will carry the reader away such as in Cross of Iron and With the Old Breed. He describes an ambush:
A tremendous volume of fire, coming from our right front, at a distance varying from twenty to fifty yards. These were the first muzzle blasts I noticed. … Fire of equal intensity came from our left but at a greater distance. The ambush had been deployed in an inverted V formation and the fire from its apex was obviously the most deadly.
For those not so into dispositions tactiques, there are excellent passages too. This on Chinese propaganda efforts.
… “Ike is one of the leaders who could bring peace in Korea, but like the rest of the big-money boys, he is not interested in peace.”
A woman sang a song, a very sentimental piece but quite moving “The Last Rose of Summer.” I looked back at the other three men and could see the outline of their brush-covered helmets. They were listening too, not aware of each other and maybe for a moment unaware of the surroundings. When the song ended, a woman said, “Did you enjoy my song, Marine? If so fire your rifle twice and I will sing another.” A wag on the MLR fired an extremely long burst from a machine gun. It echoed for several seconds. A few miles to the east, in the Army sector, five or six parachute flares hovered above the mountains. Artillery rumbled in the distance, a kind of muffled thunder. The woman sang another song. It was unfamiliar, a semi-art song. This was followed by a haunting, 1920-type number played by an American dance band of that period. I listened hard for the sound of Bix Beiderbecke or at least Henry Busse. It may have been Whiteman.
I had an imaginary picture of the Chinese nearby, listening to the record, thinking how well it must typify the atmosphere of money-mad capitalist, warmonger infested modern America. Poor bastards realty do need a new propaganda system.
Sure, we wonder what a “semi-art song” might possibly be but quibbles don’t spoil the comic relief guys enjoyed in a grim situation.
Theodore Roosevelt – called by Henry James “a dangerous and ominous jingo” -- once maintained that only under wartime conditions is the character of man ever fundamentally tested. Suffice to say, this book is an example of how often the war experience may radically alter a soldier’s entire approach to life. Russ narrates his growth from misfit-goof-college smarty-pants to novice to seasoned professional.
In his last month in Korea, he was promoted to sergeant, as he had been doing a sergeant’s duties for months as an acting squad leader. Post Marines, he wrote several popular histories of the Marines in combat, the best known of which was Breakout : The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950.