By Ray Elliott, JJLS Board member and past-president
Note: This article was first published in the Robinson Daily News shortly after James Jones’ death in 1977
Despite Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s assurance that “old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” old soldier James Jones did die. Of congestive heart failure on May 9, 1977. But he refuses to fade away — yet. With the recent posthumous publication of Whistle, the final book in his World War II trilogy, he’s still hammering his realistic view of war and warfare at you like a drill instructor hammering soldiering into a raw recruit. And with much the same success.
Jones had to be a lifer, a not-so-endearing term for the career soldier. That’s about the only way to explain his lifelong love affair with the U.S Army, war and effects of war on the combat soldier. But it was a strange love affair, almost schizophrenic in nature. He loved the Army, yet he hated it. War fascinated him, yet it terrified him. The effects of war touched him deeply, made him a writer, yet they made him an outsider in general, in most literary circles specifically. Not an intellectual, no middle ground existed for him. His was a black and white world. You were either a part of his world and understood, or you weren’t a part of it and could never understand.
Enlisting in the Regular Army after graduation from Robinson High School in 1939, he spent the next five years soldiering. Five years which included being stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii before, during and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941; landing and fighting on Guadalcanal, being wounded in the head by a mortar round, returning to duty and finally being evacuated due to an old ankle injury; being shipped to an Army hospital in Memphis where he was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star (without a V for Valor) that he or none of his decorated comrades wore because wearing them was “considered contemptible display”; and finally receiving a medical discharge in 1944 after being returned to limited duty. All of which was experienced along with much more, by one character or another in his war trilogy.
And that’s the trilogy, three novels which stand alone as complete and separate works that are closely related in theme and subject: James Jones’ life in the Army as a peacetime Regular Army soldier, a combat soldier and a wounded veteran returning to a society that couldn’t understand what the combat soldier had necessarily become.
Regular lifer characters only wanted to be 30-year soldiers — writing and talking about the war and the Army, telling what he saw, what he did and what he heard. Jones said in his later years, “I write about war because it’s the only métier I’ve ever had.” That’s why he wrote about it better than anyone else. And with all his writing faults (style, syntax, verbosity, irrelevant details, point-of-view aberrations) that’s the value of the trilogy. It is an accurate portrayal of a cross section of American life and history as it was.
The first book in the trilogy, From Here To Eternity, won the National Book Award in 1952 and brought him fame and fortune as the most promising novelist to come out of World War II. That was the pinnacle of his success, and he never quite lived up to his promise in subsequent books unless he wrote about war. Ernest Hemingway, a mentor of sorts, contended that Jones was a one-novel author who would live off of his Eternity reputation for the rest of his life. Perhaps. But no matter.
In Eternity, set in the peacetime Army in pre-World War II Hawaii, Jones becomes the universal soldier in a way Hemmingway never did and began the process of what Jones later called “the evolution of a soldier.” He’s Prewitt, the rebel bugler, boxer, straight-duty soldier, who loves the Army, but hates the system that takes away his individualism and honor; he’s Warden, the cynical, hard-nosed company 1st Sgt., who dislikes officers and runs the company, taking care of his enlisted men without seeming to care about them; he’s Stark, the Mess Sgt., who feeds the troops well and runs the mess hall with interference from nobody, including Warden. Regular Army men, hard drinkers, all. Undoubtedly based on real soldiers. But Jones speaks for and as James Jones, too.
As the rugged individualist, Jones broke the language barrier in literature with Eternity. Realism in literature became a reality, something Hemingway, Henry Miller and a host of other writers had failed to accomplish. Many people who had stayed on the home front filling their pockets during the war didn’t like that. But life in the Army is often frank and brutal. And if art is to mirror life, no censorship, no barriers can exist. Jones mirrored the peacetime Army, with its adventurers, bums, drifters, many escaping the Depression, and its Regular Army non-commissioned officers and officers waiting for a war to test their manhood or earn their promotions in a way he couldn’t without the realism. It’s a man’s world where the strong survive and the weak perish. Still, the writing is not particularly impressive for the greater part of the book.
But then the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. It’s a Sunday morning after a night of hard drinking, fighting and making the rounds of the whorehouses — the regular weekend for a soldier. Some of the men are eating breakfast when a blast rocks the mess hall.
“He (Warden) stopped in the doorway of the KP room and looked back at the mess hall. He remembered the picture the rest of his life. It had become very quiet and everybody had stopped eating and looked at each other.
“‘Must be doin’ some dynamitin’ down to Wheeler Field,’ somebody said tentatively…
“‘This is it,’ somebody said simply.
“Warden found his eyes and Stark’s were looking into each other. There was nothing on Stark’s face, except the slack relaxed peaceful look of drunkenness, and Warden felt there must not be anything on his either. He pulled his mouth up and showed his teeth in a grin, and Stark’s face pulled his mouth in an identical grin. Their eyes were still looking at each other…
“Down the street over the trees a big column of black smoke was mushrooming up into the sky. The men behind were crowding out the door…”
The evolution of a soldier had begun in earnest. Jones’ eyes were good, his mind clear. You begin to feel the power of his writing. And for most of the next 150 pages you see how the Japanese attack must have looked to those who were there. You see the grinning, waving Japanese pilot (who Jones actually saw) strafing Schofield Barracks, the beginning of a war, the birth of a new era for the United States and all the rest just as clearly as you see the excitement of Warden and Stark about the prospect of going to war, like two young boys about to have their first sexual experience. It makes all the faulty writing, detail after detail about each character and each mundane theme worth wading through in the peacetime Army to get to the real thing. Eternity may not be Jones best book, as he maintained it wasn’t, but it’s one of the best eyewitness accounts of the peacetime Army being forced into war, and the subsequent months following the attack that you’re likely to read anywhere.
It’s Jones at his best. You can even accept the compassionate prostitute Prewitt loved and the commanding officer’s cuckolding wife who loved Warden and had loved Stark. Even Prewitt’s death is acceptable. But for the benefit of the trilogy, which Jones would have us believe was conceived shortly after he began writing Eternity, Prewitt’s death was neither necessary nor realistic, despite Jones’ assurance that it was. In the author’s note to Whistle he said, “Unfortunately the dramatic structure — I might even say the spiritual content — of the book demanded that Prewitt be killed in the end of it. The import of the book would have would have been emasculated if he did not die.” Hogwash. That sounds more like a defense of a trilogy concept that was developed after the success of Eternity and the relative failure of non-military books. Saying the concept of the trilogy was developed then does not make it so. As Jones once said, there are very few “honest men, including myself.”
Whatever, Jones wasn’t done with the Army and needed the characters he knew so well. Killing Prewitt seems even more unrealistic because he resurrected him in the second book of the trilogy, The Thin Red Line as Whitt. This was necessary, Jones said, because he couldn’t “resurrect him, and have him there again, in the flesh, wearing his same name.” So he changed his name. He also changed Warden to Welsh, Stark to Storm, Lt. Ross, an officer in the Schofield Barracks company, to Capt. Stein. Although Jones said the name changing might sound silly now, it wasn’t then. But then he did the same thing in Whistle where Whitt (he didn’t die on Guadalcanal) becomes Prell, Welsh becomes Winch, Storm becomes Strange, and Fife from The Thin Red Line becomes Landers. What bothers you most about all this name changing is that you know the characters are the same, yet they’re not. They’re not quite the same personalities. And the evolution of a soldier doesn’t account for it, despite the marked similarities. By using the same characters, Jones could have truly shown the evolution of a soldier, utilizing the subtle and not-so-subtle psychological changes each man went through as he progressed from peacetime soldier to combat soldier to wounded veteran trying to adjust to a changed society where he didn’t feel he fit and didn’t particularly want to. The simple name changes and resulting changes in characterization cause the trilogy to suffer in a way it should not have.
In WWII, an excellent book of personal remembrances and perspective of the war, complete with the war art, Jones said, “The truth is, 35 years has glossed it all over and given World War II a polish and a glow it did not have at the time.” No question about that. But that’s not the point. The point is that Jones’ memory wasn’t as good as it was when he wrote Eternity. His own aging, maturation even, had to change his perspective of the war, his philosophy, his person concern — the Winch character in Whistle, for example, has congestive heart failure and must learn to cope with it as Jones did.
Even if the trilogy were conceived in 1946, as Jones said, it is shame that The Thin Red Line wasn’t published until 1962, 11 years, two books — one a post Pearl Harbor attack book, The Pistol — and another war after publication of Eternity; and that Whistle, the “big, big” book on the war, wasn’t published until 1978, 27 years, nine books — another one on World War II and one on Vietnam — and yet another war after publication of Eternity. And at the end of his career at that. Had he written the trilogy when it was timely, perhaps he would have outgrown the war, grown as a writer to where he could have handled contemporary themes and lived up to his early promise. But that’s history.
Nor does it take a way from the fact that The Thin Red Line is one of the best, if not the best, books ever written about men in combat. Published 17 years after the end of the war, Jones’ attitude seems to have matured slightly — he maintained that his books were actually antiwar in scope — from his early excitement with an adolescent view of war; if this is not totally true in the book, then it certainly is in the dedication. It’s not without a touch of irony that he dedicates the book: “This book is cheerfully dedicated to those greatest and most heroic of all human endeavors, WAR and WARFARE; may they never cease to give us the pleasure, excitement and adrenal stimulation that we need, or provide us with the heroes, the presidents and leaders, the monuments which we erect to them in the name of PEACE.”
Again, as in Eternity, Jones is the universal soldier. Only this time the honor of the individual isn’t what’s at stake. Honor doesn’t keep you alive. Survival does; survival of the individual soldier in any possible way. And survival is all that counts in combat. The glory of war quickly vanishes. You see the collective behavior of a cross section of American men forced into a situation where they have no choice except to fight; you see man at his lowest, most base level. Patriotism means no more to Jones’ combat soldiers that it did to their later counterparts in Korea or Vietnam. Only in World War II there was nowhere to go. They fought and died. And the evolution of a soldier takes the final step.
Warden, who seemed eager to go to war at the time of Pearl Harbor — he gleefully went to the barracks roof to shoot at Japanese fighter planes — isn’t quite so eager to fight as Welch on Guadalcanal. He’s still cynical and hard-nosed and takes care of his men. But “the way Welch chose to see it, he had beaten the Depression in his country and had outsmarted the nation, and now today, November 10, 1942, he was preparing to pay for it.” That sounds like a mature Jones saying, “There ain’t no free lunches, baby. You’ve had it, now pay for it.” Welch knows that war is for one thing: Property. With which he wants nothing to do. He seems almost content with his canteens full of gin; he volunteers for nothing, does his job and usually nothing more — exactly what Jones later said he did. Not much glory in that. It does make survival easier.
Only Whitt seems to be unconcerned about survival. Still the rebel, he has been transferred to another company because he is a troublemaker. But he rejoins the company to fight when he pleases and according to whether he’s under the command of someone he respects. The soldiers’ soldier, Whitt swears he’ll never return to the company when the green company commander makes a tactical error and all but two of a squad-size patrol Witt is on are killed. Shortly before the company leaves for New Georgia, however, Witt returns. His loyalty is with the company. But he’s still Prewitt, fighting for his individuality, demanding that his superiors be as competent a soldier as he is. Yet he’s a different man.
Jones’ understanding of the emotions of men in combat and his knowledge of military tactics is overwhelming. You participate, vicariously, in the strategies and battles for each hill. You feel with the men, for them. And you know what he’s articulating what thousands of combat veterans know but slowly fade from memory as the years pass, and they begin to lose the feeling of what it was like to a degree — the de-evolution of a soldier. Perhaps that’s why Jones says at the end of the novel as the survivors of C-for- Charlie — a puerile designation he uses for Charlie Company — leave the island to prepare for the New Georgia campaign: “One day one of their number would write a book about all this, but none of them would believe it because none of them would remember it that way.”
Or perhaps it’s because Jones is the universal soldier, believing that “a writer should be able to be everybody,” remembering it all. Even the old cigar-chomping doctor who treats Fife for an identical head wound that Jones received on Guadalcanal has evolved as a soldier. Fife wants to be evacuated, even though the wound isn’t serious. “Quite suddenly his (the doctor’s) smile disappeared from around the cigar butt in it. His eyes got flatter, as if some veil had fallen over them…
“Old Doc Haines stared back at him obdurately now. ‘I don’t make the rules, son,’ he said. ‘I just try to live by them.’”
Fife goes back. He has no choice. This time he learns that he too can kill. And does. Death becomes so casual that it no longer affects you. Death is a part of the brutality of war; it’s natural — as long as it’s not you own. But as Prewitt thinks in Eternity, “‘When you cut with life you had to use the house deck, not your own. ’”Combat doesn’t deal a very good hand, and Jones leaves you with no illusions that it does. Even for the survivors.
That’s particularly true in Whistle, the last book of the trilogy and the beginning of the de-evolution of the soldier, which wasn’t quite completed when Jones died. Just a little more than three chapters remained unfinished, not even written, really. But Jones dictated notes for the remaining chapters up until two days before his death with the urgency of an old soldier bent on completing his mission before dying. He still had something he wanted to say about war and wanted to etch his place in literary history with what he wrote best about. Posterity will undoubtedly grant him that in spite of his intellectual critics of today.
The final chapters were written by his friend, Willie Morris, in synopsis form. Not a very satisfactory conclusion to a lifer’s career who said in the author’s note, written in Paris in 1973 before he wrote WWII, that “It (Whistle) will say just about everything I have ever had to say, or will ever have to say, on the human condition of war and what it means to us, as against what we claim it means to us.” The “dramatic structure,” even the “Spiritual content,” may suffer because of the synopsis ending. But if you’re still interested in war, Jones still has something to say. If you’re not interested in his war, he has something to say about other ones —past, present and future. Still, it’s a very personal book, reflecting his personal concerns of today, coupled with those of long ago.
Four of the old company go to a Luxor, Tennessee, (a combination of Memphis and Nashville) Army hospital after being evacuated from New Georgia. All four have “the peculiar numbness of soul that combat caused in everybody.” Only Winch, the 1st Sgt., isn’t wounded. He has fever, hypertension and congestive heart failure. “Death,” the narrator tells you, “usually occurred from congestive heart failure in the fifties.” Jones died of it at 55. Winch quits his hard drinking. Jones quit, too. Winch drinks a glass of white wine occasionally. So did Jones. Both were two-fisted drinkers whose drinking was almost legendary. Winch still has his men to take care of in spite of his condition. Jones had a trilogy to complete. Unlike Jones, Winch doesn’t die in the end; he went mad from the terror of his combat memories.
This is not to say that Winch is Jones. Jones is still the universal soldier, the old soldier now, pouring a lifetime of study of war and warfare into his characters. Back “home” the characters in Whistle think much differently than they did in the first two books of the trilogy. Shortly after the hospital ship arrives in San Francisco, Winch goes on liberty and gets drunk (before he quits drinking). Walking through an area where “all the old duffers (were) on their soapboxes, droning out their worn-out, ancient, old-fashioned political speeches,” Winch gives one of them a five-dollar bill to borrow the soapbox.
“The concept for it was one he had had quite a while. It had occurred to him first on Guadalcanal, last year, lying up under a mortar barrage. He had developed and expanded it later, playing with it at times when he sat alone drinking, or watched from a ridge with the company commander as their overheated, mud-breathing platoons tried to advance. He had summarized the whole concept in the slogan he had worked out for it, ‘Soldiers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your guns.’ That was what he began to shout from the soapbox.
“A crowd of amused servicemen formed fairly quickly. At first they were laughing, and cheering him on, but some began to get disturbed as he went on. ’Hey, you,’ he singled out a private. ‘What are you making a month? Thirty-eight bucks, right? What do you think you’d be making if we organized, hah? No, don’t laugh. Think about it. What couldn’t we do, if we were organized? Every country needs us, right? Everybody ahs unions, why not us? Jap soldiers, German soldiers, English soldiers, US soldiers. Russians, French, Australians. All united. We’d corner the market. Hell, we could take the explosive charges out of the mortar shells and artillery! Put white flour in them instead! How would that be? ‘ A couple of derogatory whistles came from the back of the crowd. ‘You don’t like that? Why not? No more casualties!’ Winch bellowed in his command voice. ‘You simply walk to the rear. We could have arbitration committees to decide where the battles would be held.’ He spread his arms. ‘No more jungles, right? Who’d pick a jungle?’”
A mad man speaking, perhaps. But a mad man trying to make sense out of the horror of his combat experience in a war that he knows will soon be forgotten and the countries friendly again, like little boys who become fast friends soon after a ferocious fight. He goes on to say that he’s more like a Jap or a German 1st Sgt. than he is like a civilian. Which is the problem you see each of the men coming back with him have. Prell, the Medal of Honor recipient, has taken .50 caliber machine rounds in his thighs and is fighting to save his legs. Strange has an injured hand. Landers has a smashed ankle. All are faced with the problem of adjusting to a new life where the enemy is a changed society, torn apart by war. And there are no introduction centers to help them assimilate into that society, as there were when they entered the Army and began preparing for their evolution as soldiers. You experience the agonies and frustrations each of these men has as he copes with the pain and depression from his combat experience and wounds and the shock of the world around him.
Before going mad, Winch does what he can for each of them — even though they all hate him. None of them make it. Strange finds his wife in love with an officer who did things to her sexually that Strange had never done, that he found perverted. Taking he $7,000 he and his wife were going to use to open a restaurant after the war, he throws it all away on a hotel suite, booze and women for himself and his old company. On the way to Europe after being returned to duty, he commits suicide by jumping over the side of the ship. Landers receives the discharge he thinks he wants. With it in his hand, he walks into the path of an oncoming car. Prell conquers his last battle, saves his legs only to pick a fight in a bar while on a bon-selling tour and is killed when a soldier hits him in the head with the big end of a pool cue.
The evolution of a soldier and his de-evolution are complete. Not a very pretty picture. But these are the men that fight the wars in this country, in every country. You may not like the picture Jones paints, the language he uses, but he shows you the men and the way they live while they’re off fighting the wars in the name of freedom, high ideals and moralistic philosophies conceived by people who don’t fight the wars and don’t comprehend the cost to those who do.
Critics who find fault with more than Jones’ writing (which improved through the years) have said that the only thing he found meaningful in life other than war was sex. And casual, mechanical sex at that. Perhaps. But Jones wrote about soldiers, about war and warfare. The sex, like the drinking, the fighting, the gambling, is an integral part of soldering, as real as life itself. And James Jones wrote about soldiering the way it was, is. He spent his whole life doing it, a life well spent. Perhaps he’ll fade away now, but like him or not, you’ll know he was here — if you read his war trilogy. Too bad we in society don’t learn to avoid war from the sordid picture he paints of the effects.