War is Hell – I: The Battlefield as Open Toilet

The smell of the battlefield is, quite often, a recurrent theme in the ‘war is hell‘ school of military writing. As the dead decay, slowly putrefying in the open, their remain are worked on by maggots and flies and slowly leach into the ground beneath them. The malodorous miasma that results from these corpses hangs over the field of combat, seeping into the nostrils, sensibilities, and undying memories of those who fought on it, and those who are left with the pitiable task of cleaning it up.

But the battlefield is not just host to the dead; it is also host to the living (among them the soon to be dead.) The living still need to eat. And after humans consume food, after a process of biological digestion and processing, they need to defecate. Human centers of habitation have tackled this basic need by building toilets of varying–and the with the passage of time, increasing–sophistication. When human beings congregate in large gatherings like rock concerts, organizers provide portable toilets; campgrounds often feature these nods to a simple human function too. When the humans leave, their waste leaves with them, taken elsewhere for disposal. But on a battlefield,  on a stretch of land dedicated to killing humans and fending for survival, a portable toilet–complete with toilet paper and in American national parks today, even a bottle of hand sanitizing liquid–is an unimaginable luxury. So as men go about the business of killing and eating, they go–because when you have to, you just have to–anywhere and everywhere. And so they do their dirty business–that of killing–surrounded by, and in the midst of, their own waste.

A notable member of the ‘war is hell’ canon is Eugene Sledge‘s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. In this memoir of his time with the Marines in two of the Second World War’s bloodiest battles, Sledge describes an often ignored aspect of the battlefield with a clear, unsparing eye:

Added to the awful stench of the dead of both sides was the repulsive odor of human excrement everywhere. It was all but impossible to practice simple, elemental field sanitation on most areas of Peleliu because of the rocky surface. Field sanitation during maneuvers and combat was the responsibility of each man. In short, under normal conditions, he covered his own waste with a scoop of soil. At night when he didn’t dare venture out of his foxhole, he simply used an empty grenade canister or ration can, threw it out of his hole, and scooped dirt over it next day if he wasn’t under heavy enemy fire.

But on Peleliu, except along the beach areas and in the swamps, digging into the coral rock was nearly impossible. Consequently, thousands of men—most of them around the Umurbrogol Pocket in the ridges, many suffering with severe diarrhea, fighting for weeks on an island two miles by six miles—couldn’t practice basic field sanitation. This fundamental neglect caused an already putrid tropical atmosphere to become inconceivably vile.

Conjure up, if you can, with your nose’s ‘eye’, the odor Sledge describes. The glory of war indeed.


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