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Paul Schapiro

The Naked and the Dead – a Review

(6 September 1948)

From The Militant, Vol. 12 No. 36, 6 September 1948, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Naked and the Dead
by Norman Mailer
Rinehart and Company, 1948, (721 pp„ $4.00)

The Naked and the Dead is the story of a handful of men, the Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon of a U.S. Army division invading the island of Anopopei in the Pacific. Exposed to the war, with its long periods of intense boredom punctuated by shorter periods of intense terror, with its body-destroying fatigue and its nerve-corroding suppressed fear that one’s number must be finally coming up, each becomes at the core of his being a quivering mass of suffering around which he attempts to throw a hard, resistant protective covering. Each one, except for the defenseless butts, the Jewish Soldiers Roth and Goldstein and the slow-thinking dirt-farmer Ridges, jeers at the others and curses endlessly; each one, except Corporal Toglio, who repeats all of the patriotic platitudes and is held in contempt as a “boy scout,” grouses bitterly at the army. Their speech and action is presented so accurately and with such copious detail that not only former GI’s but those who have never been in the army will recognize its complete authenticity.

The platoon, however, not only has a group physiognomy; it is composed of individuals, men who were farmers, small businessmen, petty racketeers, salesmen and drifters. There is Red Valsen, who ran away as a boy from the grinding poverty and world of a Montana nursing-town and became a hobo, determined never to allow himself to become tied down; Martinez, the Mexican boy from Texas, near cracking but buttressed by his pride in being a sergeant in command of white Protestants; Gallagher, the Boston fascist, a “revolutionary reversed,” whose bitterness at the narrowness of his life finds vent against easy scapegoats. In synoptic accounts of their lives, interposed in the narrative where we are beginning to know the individual concerned, Mailer gives us a picture of the social milieu and the home environment which has made them what they are. Of diverse backgrounds each has nevertheless been in some way malformed by the society which has brought them together in the same blind, cruel manner in which it has shaped their lives.

The narrative itself, the story of the landing on Anopopei, the campaign, and the final defeat of the Japanese and the mopping-up of the island, moves slowly. Mailer is intent on showing what the campaign means for these men: it is a protracted, grueling experience, a weary treadmill of misery and shapeless horror and unending sameness. The novel consequently is almost entirely Static, but the photographic realism of the repetitive banalities and obscenities of the men’s conversation and of such incidents as the charge of screaming Japanese soldiers, the dragging of heavy, refractory anti-tank guns to the point of complete exhaustion and the drunken looting of Japanese corpses, maintains the reader’s interest.

Moreover, in the patrol which comes as the final tightening of the rack near the end of the book, the novel achieves a shattering climax. The patrol has its origin in General Cumming’s antagonism towards his former aide, Lieutenant Hearn, whom he has put in charge of the platoon. The patrol continues because Sergeant Croft, a killer who hates everything outside of himself, feels an overwhelming urge to bring the platoon in the top of. a mountain even though it entails driving the men beyond all reason and purposely allowing Hearn to walk into a Japanese ambush. It is meaningless from every viewpoint for Cumming’s stupid operations officer, in charge in his absence, finds himself obliged by the force of unexpected circumstances to mount a blundering attack which crashes through the Japanese, more worn out than was known, and sets Cumming’s clever planning at naught.

But the platoon knows nothing of this. It continues on its mission. One squad is to scale the mountain; another squad is to haul a wounded man back to the beach. The culminating irony is that both of the tasks on this utterly meaningless mission are not carried out. As the squad scaling the mountain is about to get to the top just as it has reached the utmost limit of its endurance, it is attacked by a nest of hornets, which is the final unbearable distress that routs it. Part of the squad of stretcher-bearers succumbs to exhaustion, but Goldstein and Ridges go on, so dazed by fatigue that, after the wounded man dies, they continue to carry the body through the jungle, only to lose it in a river.

Defenses Burned Away

In this inferno of suffering, Goldstein and Ridges undergo a searing moment in which the sheltering defenses of a lifetime are burned away and they are left naked and exposed, bereft not only of the dead body but of all which has protected and sustained them. Goldstein finds that his belief that Jews have been born to torment in order that they might act. as the conscience of humanity is an illusion. Their suffering has taught mankind nothing. It is a burden whose carrying has as little value as his carrying the wounded man. Ridges, who has always believed in divine, purpose, suddenly sees that all his life he has worked hard to no avail, as he has done just now, arid finds God’s way to be not beneficent but malicious. The blinding flash in which they see themselves naked and alone, stripped bare of all hope or purpose. is one of terrific power.

At a crucial point in the patrol, the platoon condemned itself to its agonizing experience because of its inability, as a result of lack of unity, to break the iron military discipline and rebel successfully against ‘Croft’ The failure of the incipient rebellion also meant the breaking down of Red Valsen, who has always been a lone wolf uncowed by authority, but finds that he cannot maintain his integrity in isolation from others. This breaking down of Red’s spirit is an illustration of the thesis of General Cummings, the theoretician of a .militarized America who delights in his power to control and manipulate men and who dreams of gaining new and greater powers outside of the army after, the war. The army, he tells Hearn, is arranged as a “fear ladder” in which “you’re frightened of the man above you, and contemptuous of your subordinates” in order to break the spirit of the individual soldier and cause him to lose any idea of his rights as a person.

General Cummings explains that Hitler’s dream of a 1,000-year era of fascism was sound but Germany was too weak to put it across. Now America was taking over the task.

The Naked and the Dead not only enables us better to understand the nature of the capitalist army; it enables us better to understand the nature of capitalist society of whose atomization of the individual the army is merely the most concentrated expression. And it enables us better to understand what life would be like in the militarized America which is the only future capitalism has to offer. “You can consider the Army as a preview of the future,” says General Cummings – but he reckons without the rising mass revolt against him and his kind.

Political Vacuum

Even our author, who when he wrote this novel was a kind of intellectual anarchist, opposed to all organized groups and parties, has now come to the conclusion that this is incorrect, and that you must. Work in an organized way “if you are going to accomplish anything in your own framework of time.” Norman Mailer now thinks that the book suffers a little because it was written in a political vacuum. “There’s a tendency among too many leftist writers,” he started in an interview with the New York Star, “– and I think I’m a little guilty of it in The Naked and the Dead – to avoid a lot of problems. The hero generally functions in a politically colorless framework.”

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