Norman Mailer and the 'good war'

November 23, 2007

The media memorialised Norman Mailer after his death on November 10 with accolades about his stature as a literary giant, two Pulitzer Prizes, larger-than-life celebrity persona and reputation as an egotistical curmudgeon. But the substance of his ideas and his life beyond the image and the awards got little attention.

Mailer grew up in a working-class family in Brooklyn. His life was shaped by his service in the army in the Philippines and during the Second World War, and the disaffection he felt. He identified with the 1950s beat counterculture and 1960s anti-war movement, both in his writing and as a participant in social protests.

Mailer's political engagement came through in non-fiction books like Why Are We in Vietnam?, Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, which combined journalism with his own highly personal reflections as a participant-observer in the tumultuous protests of the anti-war movement.

Also missing from many mainstream tributes to Mailer was any acknowledgement of his disturbing streak of sexism. Mailer cultivated a "macho" image and declared himself an enemy of the women's liberation movement. In his rants against feminism, he attempted to justify opposition to birth control, and he blamed the struggle for equality for destroying the "mystery" of sex.

Each obituary did at least mention The Naked and the Dead, Mailer's first and most important novel. It is one of the great anti-war classics in literature and a book that speaks to all activists committed to ending the brutality of wars for empire.

Yet The Naked and the Dead is barely known today outside of academic circles — because it challenges the standard assumptions about the Second World War as "the good war", and unmasks the hidden motives of US involvement.

The Naked and the Dead is the story of a suicide mission by a reconnaissance patrol that is ordered to assess a Japanese rear position on the island of Anopopei. If the soldiers survive and return, General Cummings plans to send out a company for a surprise attack, a daring tactical move that would likely lead to his promotion.

However, from the beginning, the mission is fraught with problems. Lieutenant Hearn, the newly assigned platoon commander, has no field experience; Wilson, married with a daughter, has contracted a painful case of gonorrhea and can barely function; and anti-Semitism directed at Roth and Goldstein divides the platoon.

Other obstacles develop as tensions mount between Hearn and Staff Sergeant Croft over leadership of the platoon. Fatalities, a near mutiny, exhaustion and finally a furious hornets' attack cause the mission to be aborted.

Nakedness is a theme throughout the work. Mailer, in his distinctive realist style, undresses the characters and reveals the material conditions behind their motivations and fears.

Mailer shows how the grunts in Croft's platoon elected to join the army not out of a patriotic fervor to fight fascism, but because of dire circumstances and the lack of opportunities at home. As Gallagher, an Irish Catholic from South Boston, bragged to one woman, "I'm tired of my job, I'm getting' a better one ... Something big ... I'm on my way, I'm going places."

Others have joined the military to escape. Red, for example, grew up in a company-run mining town in Montana and lost his father in a mining accident. He decides while working at a flophouse to join up rather than get married.

Similarly, Martinez, a Mexican American from San Antonio, gets Rosalita pregnant and enlists. He ultimately finds himself reliving the racism he experiences in the civilian world, as he weeds the officers' yards and serves as a houseboy at their parties.

After spending time on Anopopei and in the Pacific theatre, many of the soldiers begin to question the true motive behind capturing a desolate island from the Japanese. As Red ponders, "Of course, they died in vain, any GI knew the score. The war's just t.s. [tough shit] to them who had to fight it."

In a dramatic scene, one member of the platoon, Wilson, dies from a stomach wound. Symbolic of the deeper feelings of loss and despair among many, another platoon member, Ridges, weeps "from exhaustion and failure and the shattering naked conviction that nothing mattered."

Red expresses the feeling that many of the soldiers have come to hold about the war: "What have I got against the goddamn Japs? You think I care if they keep this fuggin' jungle? What's it to me if Cummings gets another star?"

Mailer points out the stark differences between the working-class troops and their officers. As in all wars, "workers in uniform" must labour for generals who are out for promotion and popularity, rather than protecting the welfare of their men. "They slept with mud and insects and worms", Mailer writes, "while the officers bitched because there were no paper napkins, and the chow could stand improvement".

In particular, the character of General Cummings, with his silk monogrammed handkerchiefs, represents the emerging military-industrial complex.

At one point, Cummings divides the meat rations to the unit so that half go to the 180 enlisted men — and the other half to the 38 officers. Cummings explains his grander purpose: "Break them down. Every time an enlisted man sees an officer get an extra privilege, it breaks him down a little more ... they also fear us more ... Every time there's what you call an Army injustice, the enlisted man involved is confirmed a little more in the idea of his own inferiority."

Thus, Mailer lays bare the class realities that separate the officers and the enlisted men and challenges the idea that all US people were united for a common cause.

In a series of dialogues between General Cummings and Hearn, Mailer reveals the twisted ideology of the ruling class. "There's one thing about power", Cummings explains. "It can flow only from the top down. When there are little surges of resistance at the middle levels, it merely calls for more power to be directed downward, to burn it out."

This attitude, still prevalent among the generals and war planners to this day, explains the mindset behind the atrocities committed by the US and other Allied powers during the war — such as the terror bombing of the German city of Dresden, which killed more than 100,000 people, mostly civilians, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed more than 210,000 people instantly, with another 130,000 dead from radiation and illness over the next five years.

The terror unleashed by the US during the war is accepted today as a necessary evil, committed in the goal of fighting fascism. Yet the US had deeper war aims. As General Cummings explains to Hearn about "the good war": "For the past century, the entire historical process has been working toward greater and greater consolidation of power ... Your men of power in America ... are becoming conscious of their real aims for the first time in our history. Watch. After the war, our foreign policy is going to be far more naked, far less hypocritical than it has ever been. We're no longer going to cover our eyes with our left hand while our right is extending an imperialist paw."

The general and policymakers like him are the product of a system that has always created — and will continue to create — atrocities and war crimes.

If you're looking for a brilliant novel that debunks the mythology of "the good war", read Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead. You'll discover a book that the Bushes, the Clintons and the Obamas, with their talk of potential nuclear threats from Iran and Pakistan and an endless "war on terror", would prefer to bury.

[Martin Smith is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Reprinted from the US Socialist Worker (]

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