The reality of World War II threatens to sink under its cultural weight. It was the last "good" war. It rescued Europe and the Jews, established America as an unmatched free world power and led to the creation of lots of decent movies. Neoconservatives, especially, with their refrain of "Munich!" and their need to sell the concept of "War—Get the Fever!" have burnished WWII's reputation almost to the point that we've forgotten how stupid or horrible a lot of it was.
For every D-Day landing, there's, well, a D-Day where we shot down our own bombers out of panic on the beach. For every celebration of our allies like the Battle of Kursk, there's the Katyn Massacre. For all of Churchill's inspiring rhetoric, there are his uninspired ideas like attacking the Axis through the "soft underbelly" of the Balkans' internecine ethnic hatred and high, broken and mountainous terrain — itself virtually a shot-for-shot remake of his World War I idea to attack the Central Powers through the "soft underbelly" of Turkey's broken terrain and a narrow beachhead on the Dardanelles.
If we're intelligent or at least vigilant, we should know these things. We should know that even the "right" fight got a lot wrong. If it did nothing else, our having lived through its aftermath, the Cold War, should prove that we focused so much on winning the war that we lost parts of the peace. It emphasized the problem that doing evil in service to good comes with complications (a reality we ignored at our peril in Vietnam and ignore again today, with a war without visible corpses, mandatory rations or homefront burdens — and a bill forever delayed). There's a famous line of Norman Mailer's about the war: that the use of the word shit enabled us to use the word noble. The high-mindedness we ascribe to our actions — the sort reflected in HBO miniseries like Band of Brothers or The Pacific — can only reasonably exist with an understanding of the foulness and murder that underlie them. To celebrate one without admitting the other amounts to kidding ourselves.
Many critics still consider Mailer's first novel, 1948's The Naked and the Dead, his masterpiece. It follows American attempts to defeat the Japanese on one fictitious Pacific island during the slow and deadly slog that was the island-hopping campaign. After meeting a group of enlisted men and NCOs, and after a deadly nighttime firefight, we encounter the bitter and fractious commander, General Cummings. Something of a Patton/MacArthur knockoff — the preening of MacArthur with the elegance of Patton — he spitefully orders his former "favorite" aide, Lieutenant Hearn, on a doomed end-around mission on Japanese lines.
Cummings sees Hearn as a weak and naive northeastern intellectual, and the mission is designed to humiliate him and teach him the realities of the naked brutality of war and man. We know that Hearn will either earn the distinctions and attitude of command, or he is doomed. We have already met the "melting pot" group of men he will lead, and we know that they will resent him and exploit his weaknesses.
This is the book. Like most Mailer books, finding 100 pages (or more) that could be hacked out without losing the richness of detail is no great shakes, but the overall atmosphere works anyway. Also like most Mailer books, it relies on pacing to give more impact to simple steps. Just as Gary Gilmore's release from prison and life as a free man lead up to his final crime with a steady sense of urgency, finally breaking into a surging momentum of criminal trials and appeals, here the bellyaching about food, sunburn, war and authority simmer until reaching the relentless final one-hundred pages of insane fixation.
Mailer is unquestionably a great writer, because on paper this book, like The Executioner's Song, really shouldn't work. His talent manifests itself by the fact that he makes these stories with no more than three or four big beats still feel compelling and necessary, something you want to see through to the end. In this respect, as a book about a battle, a mission and men, it's surely an impressive and well-crafted one. Any person who picks it up with the intent of reading a superior piece of fiction about combat in the Pacific theater will be pleased.
The trouble with it — apart from the obvious problem that an editor persuaded Mailer to change all instances of the word "fuck" to "fug" — is that it's always been lauded as a book with big ideas, and those ideas don't seem nearly as big as either the book's length or focus. Through the characters, Mailer sets up a lot of binary opposition, and much of it seems obvious, the sorts of things that might once have been insights but now are clichés and were probably even so at the time of their writing.
He devotes most of the intellectual heft of the book to the counterpoints offered by Hearn and General Cummings' ideological conflicts and petty attempts to assert control in their unspoken relationship. Hearn is a diffident young man who grew up in the atmosphere of the university, yet he's committed to the war with idealism, and the questioning and socratic attitude of his background has been usurped by national and political dedication. Meanwhile, Cummings, the career military man who should be the most rigid ideologue, considers democracy and the isms for which he wages war something of a joke. He sees no real substantial separation between the American military and Fascism. The home front is bombarded with propaganda, rationed, restricted and mobilized in a way akin to Nazi Germany. The military is a political-corporate partnership of force, designed in a way that those trained by it are forced never to question it as part of their indoctrination.
Similarly, Sergeant Croft, who tries to undermine Hearn, is the most certain of his course, yet he's also one of the most ignorant figures. The important thing he knows is that displays of certitude are more motivating than open questioning or exploration. Hearn undermines himself by wanting tactical intelligence; the sergeant undermines him by assuming intelligence that he cannot reasonably have. It's the latter that leads best. In his eyes, being chosen and able to lead is more important than the objective itself, with which Hearn is more seriously concerned than the ostensibly more seasoned military men.
Cummings' leadership is no less questionable. He possesses the most secure position of power of any man on the island, yet he is the most cruelly vindictive. He acts womanish toward Hearn, scorned and jealous, lashing out needfully. Mailer, as if unsatisfied with dialogue to establish these positions, elaborates on them with leaden exposition; he adds an unnecessary vignette in which we learn that Cummings engages in clandestine and violent homosexual sex.
This obsession with what constitutes manhood and authority no doubt has some biographical origin. Hearn is, for all intents and purposes, the author. Mailer left the comfort of Ivy League intellectual speculation for the war. But unlike Hearn, Mailer spent much of his war cooking food in the Philippines and saw little combat. Much of his authorial hand-wringing about who can convincingly seem like a real man sounds like a man working out the significance of what he could only imagine after coming so close to the real thing.
His proximity to such an authentic and formative experience probably goes some way to explaining how simple the irony is in Mailer's universe. He's created a framework where men and ideas subvert themselves but in ways so obvious that some innate reality is still easy to grasp. Men can have contradiction but not contradictions. Too many only muddies their emphatic point in being there. Notions can be played with, but it's as if he feels that there is still an indelibly real Meaning to the War and Meaning to Manliness that remains impenetrable and immune to cleverness and inquisition. Thus his ideas exist in a world with only the rudiments of irony, like Eris flinging a golden apple with "This Is Not An Apple" written on it. You can believe in the apple or in the words, but getting at the truth is still something like a 50/50 proposition.
This sort of criticism may seem like the brutality of retrospective — a more ironic age looking back on an earnest book, repulsed by its refusal to be less certain of itself. But the undoing of Mailer's book began much earlier than the present, by people much closer to the subject matter. It took less than 13 years for another east-coast Jewish intellectual, an actual seasoned combat veteran, to explode the high-mindedness of The Naked and the Dead with an approach to the war that was much more intellectually comprehensive. While Naked is still immensely readable as combat narrative, in 1961 Joseph Heller's Catch-22 made it obsolete in almost every other sense.
Because of its popularity with high schoolers, its humor, straw man characters and the stream-of-consciousness structure, Catch-22 has always been unfairly maligned as gimmicky, less serious, a Marx Brothers version of the adult fare that people like Mailer wrote. It's not only unfair to the book in terms of its content but also its context.
Heller's book has all the brutality of Mailer's, although its less relentless treatment disguises the mortal cost and gives the audience credit for noticing it rather than having it forced upon them. Just as Mailer has Hearn's damned march through a final reckoning, Heller sends protagonist Yossarian through "The Eternal City," a hellish walk of depravity and existential despair that echoes Celine, Gogol and Dostoyevsky — whores beaten, bodies in the darkness, the gritting squeal that comes from stepping on bloodsoaked teeth on a city street. As much pathos as can be found in Hearn's march up a mountain is matched in McWatt's flying into the side of one in desperation after the death of Kid Sampson.
Mailer's General Cummings sends men to death because of flaws in his character, capricious personal details and personal fear. Heller instead gave voice to the absurd depersonalization of war — one so great that shouting a poet's name into a phone can alter actions on the chain of command. Colonel Cathcart kills men because he wants a promotion. Actually knowing the men or feeling anything about them is totally unnecessary. General Peckem's obsession with correct grammar — memoranda rather than "memorandums" — is the sort of detail often singled out to malign the book as frivolously comedic. Yet his blithe unconcern with death in the face of so many split infinitives is less heavy-handed than painting a picture of a martinet who engages in violent pederasty. Expecting someone like Peckem to have a dark signifying motive for his morally weightless cruelty is as unrealistic as assigning sexual deviancy to all ugly displays of power. Cummings' argument — Mailer's argument — is that power justifies itself because of these intense personal reasons. Years before Hannah Arendt stared at Eichmann in the dock, Heller's argument is that power justifies itself as much through banality as anything else. Power neither requires nor offers apology.
This is not the space to discuss Catch-22 with any great detail, but it's hardly necessary, because the latter book both points up its own place along a continuum of war literature and also how The Naked and the Dead seems like an aberrancy. It's easy to take a modern glance at Mailer's work and feel uncomfortable with its relative moral, verbal and dramaturgical uncomplexity, but the book itself is doubtless a product of the war atmosphere that immediately preceded it and not the course of war literature as a whole.
For all its profanity and minor subversions, The Naked and the Dead reads more like a prose extension and high-minded update of Houseman and Tennyson, Victorian and Edwardian tragedies of leaders, men and boys off in the most fatal game, laid to rest by brooks too broad for leaping. Its damnation is the simple kind that comes from play that has sudden sharp consequences. It's as if things could be different if only the men in its pages could know better or learn faster — that there is some bargain that can be struck between men and war. And of course there isn't.
Heller's work, on the other hand, extends the outrage of liberal historians and the general despair of those who were part of the first war at all. With respect to the former, the book's adoption by the budding early 1960s counterculture has tended to post-date it in the cultural consciousness, seeing it as a result of that zeitgeist rather than an influence. Elements like Milo Minderbinder's immensely profitable M&M Enterprises — which bombs America's own airfields — is rightly read as a criticism of the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned about in January, 1961. But that's only partially the case, as the economic self-interests of arms manufacturers and a war-profiteering motive for American intervention in 1917 was the dominant revisionist historiographical argument of the 1920s and 1930s. Anyone seriously trying to appreciate either the first or second war encountered this argument to some degree.
The same is the case with soldiers' narratives of WWI, documenting the absurdity, meaninglessness and despair of the conflict. Soldiers like Heller and Mailer would have known Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves and Erich Maria Remarque, if not at the time of the war then at least by the time of writing. Moreover, in the service, they would have encountered the biting satire generated by the troops themselves. In World War I, the most famous example is the British soldiers' Wipers Times, a kind of proto-Onion, named after the Englishman's mangling mispronunciation of Ypres, one of the nightmarish focal points of the British lines on the Western Front. In World War II, dark humor became less eloquent but was omnipresent. Heller's allied counterpart is probably Kingsley Amis, whose collection of short stories is blackly titled, My Enemy's Enemy, in which the enemy is very obviously his own commanding officers.
Mailer's drama is atavistic not just by the standards of World War II but even of World War I. Intellectually and ideologically it's as if it were written without the preceding conflict ever happening, which is itself partially mad, because the profound absurdity of World War II is that the same horror was happening again so soon, in many cases to the same generation of soldiers. The Naked and the Dead's blackwhite treatment of irony results in a war book without comedy, ignoring one social component that's historically absolutely vital to men in uniform. Even Reader's Digest understands this much.
Instead, the book seems to be of a piece with the high-mindedness of the late depression and the war years, the serious sense of purpose that temporarily killed American and British satire and replaced it with things efficiently saccharine, nourishing and able to be dispensed to the most people — the ersatz of intellectual content. It's the same mentality that made H.L. Mencken unpopular and gave national voices to men like E.B. White and James Thurber, the east-coast WASP versions of soft-middle Garrison Keillor fare for their day.
Apart from the ham-handed discussions about authority and the ugliness of men like Croft, Mailer's book tonally relies on the "We Have a Job to Do!" mentality of people who saw the war as a time for earnest values and earnest people to defeat the new dark age of perverted science by doing pushups, carrying a gun and walking on the sunny side of the street. By adding some counterpoint darkness to each character, by having a running theme of "each person is ugly in his own way," he achieves something that looks like depth by having the mass-marketed or mass-propagandized become slightly more complicated. It's the literary equivalent of painting a picture of a Ronald McDonald statue and adding a tear to its cheek.
In fairness to Mailer, in 1947, conversations like Hearn's and Cummings' were probably enough to be subversive. An atmosphere in which HUAC and paranoia about communists in China drove the news cycle was one in which even simple questions about our moral authority could be dangerous. While that might give Mailer more credence in terms of his place in time, it doesn't change that his book is rightly anomalous in its place along a continuum of "serious" war literature. Only in the years immediately following World War II can it not seem odd that it was written after, say, 1930. On the other hand, changing dates and technological details could make Catch-22 sound like it was about any Western conflict since 1914 and explains why it was resonant for veterans in Vietnam and remains so for men in service.
One has to wonder then if The Naked and the Dead is strictly necessary, and it's tough to argue that it is. As a novel about combat, it's surely a beautiful and moving one, well-crafted and intense. But, as fans of HBO's The Pacific have discovered, one can read about these same things in non-fictional form — and far more graphically and chillingly — in E.B. Sledge's outstanding memoir, With the Old Breed. Further, as a novel about "war" and ideas, it falls flat, superseded in every conceptual way just over a decade later by Catch-22 and a man with a similar background and deeper insights about the same conditions.
In many respects, Mailer caught a lucky and a bad break. He published at a time when less complex questions about the war yielded more complex answers and subverted less complex assumptions. He was visceral and daring before readers expected to see received and sanitized depictions of the war undermined. But the vacuum of such literature could never be permanent. It's unfair to dismiss good work just because subsequent literature did the same thing only better, but those pressed for time or wanting deeper approaches to the same things can't be blamed for looking elsewhere.
It probably seems a bit heartless to rank a "great" sort-of canon book so low. I worry about it especially because of the reviewer disease of hating anything new that comes out that doesn't supersede the achievements of the old, or hating anything old because something new came out that did the same thing slightly better. There's no value in scrapping literary history just because someone one-upped it to some degree. The same reason why we read Dickens when there is Upton Sinclair or James Joyce is the same reason why we should read this book — or why someone should read it, at any rate. And that's the thing: this is still a great book for war buffs or for literary completists, who feel they need to run down the lists of books other people tell them to read. Those not beholden to war tales or to anything like a western "canon" would probably be better served by fuller experiences elsewhere. Catch-22 addresses the same social and military criticisms more fully and thoughtfully, and it also reflects the black comedy of combat in a way that this simply doesn't. Similarly, those looking for an "authentic" war experience should probably skip the alterations of fiction and go straight to Eugene Sledge's memoirs in With the Old Breed. Then again, those who wish to save time might find this book ideal because it splits the difference between the two.