Naked and
The Dead

Norman Mailer
(Picador USA)

Part I

It was a time of saving aluminum foil from your Wrigley's Spearmint and squashing old Campbell's soup cans in the kitchen for recycling. There was rationing of meat and sugar, and cars carried "A" "B" and "C" stickers in their windshields to determine the amount of gas they would be allotted each month. My dad hoarded tires, ham hocks, and Argentine corned beef up in the attic in case of shortage. (The ham hocks got raided by the rats, the tires eventually melted in the summer sun, and we ate corned beef monthly for the next ten years).

It was a noble war. When John Wayne charged up the hill against the machine guns, he shot the Japs, but it was a clean kill --- hardly any blood. They slumped over their weapons, as if sleeping. He or his fellow troopers may have been wounded, but they were clean wounds, and they were very brave about it. Just a scratch.

There were songs on the radio that taught us about the everyday aspects of our country at war. "Milkman, keep those bottles quiet" sang of of a defense plant worker who was on the "swing shift" --- thus needed his sleep in the early morning. "Coming Home on a Wing and a Prayer" told about a bomber that almost got shot down, but made it safely back, thanks to the intervention of the divine. "Saturday Night is the Loneliest Night in the Week" describes a sweetheart home alone, because he was off fighting in the war. "There's Something About a Soldier" spoke lovingly of the uniform and the sacrifice of "the boys in blue." "I'll Be Home for Christmas" was a soldier's plea that he not be forgotten. It was a noble war, our most wonderful war.

Then came the end, victory in Europe ("V-E Day") in the Spring, and victory in Japan ("V-J Day") in the summer. We had done a great job, We had followed the war on radio, in the local newspapers, in the magazines --- but there was little to suggest the reality of it. A year before it was over, Life magazine famously printed a picture of a dead American soldier face-down on a beach somewhere in the South Pacific. The editors were roundly criticized for being so negative --- for somehow diminishing "the war effort."

Then in 1948 Rinehart published The Naked and the Dead. I read it the summer after it came out. I was sixteen years old. My reading, heretofore, had been confined to the Hardy Boys, Captain Hornblower, the Saturday Evening Post, and Readers Digest.

It was written --- it is written --- in such a way as to confound any doubt about the smell and touch and taste of war, at least of WWII. The details of fighting on an island in the South Pacific are so exact that one would never question that this was the way it was.

It was brilliantly constructed. The ten or so soldiers --- all the way from the lowly privates up to the General --- are brought to life. The story it has to tell - - - of a useless mission across the back of the island to surprise the Japanese - - - is ghastly. But most of all, the book is a wonder for what it did for a whole generation of Americans. Which was, for the first time ever, to let us know what modern war was like, once it was freed of propaganda and heroic cant.

The descriptions of the sweat and stink and enervating air left nothing to the imagination. This on moving an antitank gun through the jungle at night:

    They would labor forward a few more yards and halt. In the darkness, distance had no meaning, nor did time. The heat had left their bodies; they shivered and trembled in the damp night, and everything about them was sodden and pappy; they stank but no longer with animal smells; their clothing was plastered with the foul muck of the jungle mud, and a chill dank rotting smell somewhere between leaf mold and faeces filled their nostrils. They know only that they had to keep moving, and if they thought of time it was in so many convulsions of nausea.

The main event is the Battle for Anopopei, Mailer's mythical south sea island. But there are dozens of other wars going on at the same time. There is the battle against the jungle. There is the battle against boredom, fear, and disgust. There is the battle against one's self, one's own body. My body doesn't want to be pushing this cannon in the dark, in the mud; my body doesn't want to go another foot in the stink of the jungle. I want out. What would happen if I pretended to go crazy, or shot myself in the foot? That kind of interior battle.

There are other wars. There is the one fomented by a general against his own men --- how to keep them tough, keep them fighting, keep them angry. There are continuing wars between him and the other officers, and the command above him for supplies and support. A major war of attrition rages between him and his subaltern, Lt. Hearn. It has touches of a Billy Budd war, so much so that the General finally sends Hearn to command the futile patrol across the island, where he gets done in, in effect, by the men of the squad who resent his imposition on their system. We sense that the general knew it would happen.

The worst battles involve the ten or so men of the squad. We are with them for so many pages that we get to eat with, sleep with, march with, fight with, and die with them. And most of them, it turns out, are sore losers, losers in this life, losers in their previous lives, revealed in a series of flashbacks. And these stories of Red and Wilson and Stanley and Croft and Brown and Martinez are uniformly awful, and uniformly believable. It is a motley, uninspiring crew that the author has created to fight the war to protect America.

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