Quote of the Day:
“The natural role of the twentieth century man is anxiety.” General Cummings, The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer
A couple of years ago, TB stopped by my local library to check out their book sale. I stuffed about a dozen books in a sack, paid my five bucks and brought the books home to gather dust. A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled over the bag. I decided I ought to read the damn books if I paid for them, even if it was only five bucks. I pulled out The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer. For the last two weeks, reading only a couple of chapters per sitting, I have been through the emotional wringer.
I can’t review the book other than to say, it’s good. There are just too many angles, too many issues that are timely, timeless I suppose, for a book about a World War II island campaign written just a couple of years after the shelling stopped. For instance, Mailer delves into the relationship between the conservative, cynical, calculating, near-genius and self-loathing campaign commander, General Cummings and his liberal, conflicted and unwise aide de camp Lieutenant Hearn. Their debates about post-war politics and the ultimate direction of America in the post-war world are frighteningly illuminating and accurate. At one point Cummings says to Hearn, “You’re a fool if you don’t realize this is going to be the reactionary’s century, perhaps their thousand year reign.” Mailer could have written this yesterday.
Mostly what one is left with after reading the book is a sense of nonsense over a word that is always in mind but never once to my memory used by the author–heroic.
The Naked and the Dead tells the story of a Recon Platoon filled with veterans and replacements in the middle of the Pacific Campaign. Interspersed with the story of their progress through the campaign are “Time-Machine” chapters that introduce readers to each of the men and their pre-war lives. None of them are perfect, most have a lot to be ashamed of–after all, they were all about 20-30 years old, poorly educated, coming of age in an era of national poverty. They were petty crooks, they slept around, they were bigots. Not once in my mind’s eye did I visualize John Wayne or Frank Sinatra in this platoon.
As the campaign grinds to the finish, the Japanese line has still not broken. General Cummings decides to send Recon Platoon on an impossible patrol behind the line to probe for a weakness he can exploit. After falling out with Lt. Hearn, he sends his former aide to lead the patrol. The platoon is taken by boat around the island and dropped on the beach. They toil through miles of jungle via the middle of a shallow river with their fifty pound packs. Then they hit the treeless hills under the baking sun for a day. Then they get to the mountain they must either climb where undefended or penetrate through the fortified pass. They are rebuffed at the pass and suffer their first casualty, Wilson, who is then carried all the way back by first four, then two comrades on a stretcher made from two bamboo poles and a GI blanket. That is probably the most inadequate sentence I have ever written, but the confines of what folks will read on this blog requires brevity. I was brought to tears reading the exquisite details of the suffering of not only Wilson with his belly wound but his litter detail who were reduced by exhaustion to jerking him forward just yards at a time, all the while listening to him beg for water, beg to be left to die, beg them to be gentle.
The rest of the platoon is forced to scale the mountain. They are weighed down by their packs. Jungle sores cover their feet, hands and faces. Through cycles of torrential downpours followed by blistering heat, up one hill and down another then up again for days, then shimmying cliffside along a foot-wide ledge and leaping the occasional gap. More inclines and more ledges and what awaits them if they make it over the peak is a reconnaissance that will probably end in an ambush and a retreat over this same peak. The fact they are committing suicide does not even occur to them because they are too mentally and physically exhausted to consider the outcome of the patrol beyond taking one more step forward. They hate their sergeant, the commanding general, the campaign, each other, but most of all they hate the war that leaves them no choice but to keep trudging forward until they are all dead. Why they continue is not really addressed by Mailer, we are left to contemplate that issue on our own.
I love to read adventure books with happy endings. I love John Wayne and Sinatra in World War II movies. I love heroic tales of derring-do. The Naked and the Dead is different. It is about the nonsense of that John Wayne idea of heroism. It is about the worthlessness of heroism to the hero and the hypocrisy of heroism to those of us who were not there. It’s about the reasons our veterans don’t talk about what they had to do “over there” when they come home, and yes, it’s clearly about the debt we all owe them. But even more, it’s about how imperative it is that we avoid incurring more of this debt.
In the end, the patrol faltered just before reaching the mountaintop after being assailed by yellow jackets of all things. It didn’t matter. The division moved forward and found the Japanese were already broken from exposure, starvation and exhaustion. General Cummings, who was a week behind schedule in winning the campaign was not on the island that day. He was off lobbying (successfully) for a destroyer to cover a landing on the other side of the island to envelop the Japanese line. Returning to find the campaign won without need of his destroyer, he ordered his new aide to proceed with that landing anyway. The official history of the battle credited the General’s tactics with winning the island. There was no mention of Recon Patrol.
After the tortuous march back with Wilson, the litter bearers lost him in the river. He died a few hours before they lost him.
Lieutenant Hearn got killed at the pass. General Cummings thought little of it, though he did briefly recall his own pass at Hearn earlier in the campaign that led to their falling out.
The rest of the platoon was sent to Australia for a couple of months to recuperate. There would be another island when they were rested.