Lee Miller explores the nexus of war, sacrifice and hardship through Norman Mailer's 1948 classic, The Naked and the Dead.
On this Veteran’s Day, it is appropriate to examine and salute the deep level of sacrifice made by American soldiers who have fought in war. This sacrifice is tenfold more difficult when one acknowledges the layers of illusion within a fighting army, a theater of conflict and a patriotic society—maya that the foot soldier must accept as reality and endure, along with other basic sacrifices. The soldiers recognized today are mostly survivors from the past decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, who faced the same layered sacrifice that author and World War II veteran Norman Mailer so vividly described in his 1948 classic, The Naked and the Dead.
The Naked and the Dead is a prodigious and ambitious book. On one level it is a story about war and the organization of armies and societies. On a different level it explores the relationship of humans to myth. It was published to significant acclaim when Norman Mailer was only 25 years old and three years removed from the Pacific theater of WWII. Mailer imitates the writing style of Leo Tolstoy’s Ana Karenina by constructing a collage of intertwined characters.
The book essentially follows the agonizing capture of Anopopei, a South Pacific island, by a US Army unit during World War II. But this is a long ordeal and allows ample time to for “Hennessey” (aka Mailer) to explore the society of his Army unit. There is a strict aristocracy within the formally ranked group. The Jew (Goldstein) and the Latino (Martinez) are both minorities within the tribe who endure vicious discrimination. Wilson is a white Southerner who simply wants to get drunk through the whole ordeal, escape the myth through substance abuse. Hearn is from a high-class Midwestern family in the “real world,” and for this reason he is allowed to play chess with the general. Yet when Hearn puts out a cigarette on the dirt floor of the general’s tent, he is sent on a risky recon mission as punishment. The Army’s aristocracy is even stronger than “normal” American society. Croft, a platoon sergeant, is a true military man who looks eagerly toward advancement thought the established Army structure. He cares deeply about each mission and strives 100 percent to move up the established ladder. Hearn, on the other hand, cares 0 percent for the Army myth, the mission or advancement, which leads to strong conflict between the two unit leaders. Here, Mailer shows that within a culture motivated by falsehoods and myth, aristocracy and rigid class lines are essential to hold a group together.
Mailer’s masterful stroke in The Naked and the Dead is his ability to expose the myths that motivate a WWII Army unit. There is palpable fear at the beginning of the book, as the men play cards on a boat, the night before the initial assault on the island. They invade the next day, under light air cover, and secure the western point with light resistance. Snipers occasionally attack at night, while they spend months building a camp, an airstrip and a road. When the area is secure, the Army leaders never allow the men to grow comfortable; otherwise, they would lose their motivation to press on to “victory” over the Japanese.
Yet pressing on to conquer the whole island is myth. Mt. Anaka is a sharp brutal peak at the center of the island, symbolic of nature’s power high above the conflicts of man. The jungle is too thick to cut or maintain a road. After months of futility, a reconnaissance mission is finally ordered to determine another avenue of attack upon the Japanese side of the island. The recon platoon takes a boat to a “Biblical” paradisiacal cove on the other side of the island, and attempts to cross raging streams and mountain ridges one foot wide and 1,000 feet up, to spy upon the Japanese camp. Wilson is shot by a sniper and the rest are stopped by a large hornets’ nest that they cannot circumnavigate.
In the end, the American Army has no other choice but an honest frontal assault. When they do this, they find a wildly undersupplied, abandoned, decimated and starving cluster of Japanese troops, the naked and the dead. All of the parrying between sides in war and within the American Army was based upon a myth. Knowing this makes the soldier’s sacrifice, of WWII and today, infinitely more difficult and admirable.
Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com), the story of how Hinduism influences Mrs. Sona Choudhury’s family and life in 20th Century India.