Book Review: ‘The Naked and the Dead’

‘The Naked and the Dead’, by Norman Mailer

It was not for several years after the cessation of actual hostilities that the various “classics: of the first world war, such as “Journey’s End,” “A Farewell to Arms” and “All Quiet on the Western Front” came before the public eye. By the time they did, the so called glory had faded from victory and the sting from defeat, and writers could view the situation far more accurately. World War Two is now bearing fruit of a similar flavour.

So far most of this work has come from Italy and America, the Italians dealing with the home conditions of defeat, and the Americans with the problems of a victorious army. It is announced that Hemingway is attempting to emulate his own post-1918 success. He has been beaten at the post by John Horne Burns with the “Gallery” (which in many ways reminds one of the Italian film “Paisa”) and Norman Mailer with “The Naked and the Dead.”

If some of the provincial ladies who gather at the vicar’s sewing circle to make comforts for the troops and talk glibly of the glories of war, dared read this book they would be most highly offended. Yet the author purports it to be no more than a portrait of an average American brigade in action in the Pacific during the years between 1941 and 1945.

There is neither grandeur nor glory, pomp nor fulfilment. Instead there is ugliness and cruelty, pettiness and frustration.

The peculiar circumstances in which these men find themselves, in a strange climate, living for months on end in an all male society, waiting to kill or be killed, brings out in them everything that is vicious. Between the men and those dressed in the brief authority of “stripes: petty grievances are magnified into major issues; and the same antagonism exists between the N.C.O.’s and officers, to such a degree that a sergeant wittingly sends an interfering officer to his death. And even among themselves, the officers, N.C.O.’s and men are constantly seeking an excuse to release their high strung tempers. The two Jews and other minorities are the first to suffer.

Behind the lines their conversation is centred almost entirely upon sex in its crudest terms. It is reminiscent of the two soldiers who, at the opening of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front,” muse upon the use of silk underwear in the officers’ brothels. The unnatural monastic order of their existence magnifies this function so much out of proportion that it looses all semblance of normality. Each man tries to outdo the other in the lurid tales with which they pass their time.

It is only a minor battle and they win. The Japanese are driven from the atoll and one prisoner is brutally baited and shot. Searching for souvenirs, the Americans find wallets containing photographs of wives and families in Japan, similar to those which they carry themselves.

Where is the victory? In a piece of jungle land? The dead Japanese may well have been dead Americans. As it is they must fight on, land on another island, fight another battle and continue to degenerate till the conflict ends.

That is the story. Well could it have been the story of a battle at the time of Napoleon, of the Spanish Armada, of Alexander the Great. Throughout the history of property-society wars have been accompanied by horrors beyond description. In the name of freedom, right or justice men have been fed to the Spanish Inquisition, Boers and Indians cast into British concentration camps, Jews and recalcitrants into gas chambers. Women have been raped and children slaughtered. It is impossible to train men to murder, cast them into pools of blood and expect them to retain a sense of proportion. Such conditions as these must breed the inhumanity we witness.

Neither this book nor the others mentioned point to a solution. That is not the task of the novelist. Nevertheless they are useful as pictures of what war is really like—pictures which may inspire the reader to ask himself, “Why should these things be?”


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