Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Thin Red Line - James Jones

Every man fights his own war.

 I don't usually read books by the same author one after the other as I feel they can run into one another, blurring, and become too familiar. After the disappointment, and sheer struggle, just to finish From Here to Eternity I really thought I wouldn't even be able to start the second of this trilogy. Well not only did I start it I finished it in only two days! It sounds good but in all reality it is only 477 pages long and the print is reasonably sized.

 First of all The Thin Red Line was written eleven years after From Here to Eternity. For whatever reason it is a far superior novel grammatically. There were several lines that made me grit my teeth but overall it is a far easier read that its predecessor. For this I was relieved as I wanted to read this the most out of the three as it is based on Guadalcanal, and of the three details solely with combat. The whole trilogy is well thought out with the first novel being about army life in general, the second being on combat, and the third about wounded soldiers and military hospitals. The trilogy canvases all aspects of army life.

 James Jones wanted each novel to be able stand alone as a novel in their own right and not be a standard trilogy. I think he has done well as there are marked differences between the first and second novel. ( My only criticism was the use of four characters from the first book and the change of their names. It seemed pointless and I couldn't buy into Prewitt becoming Witt after being killed in Eternity!! ). It was a relief then  to actually be able to read this without any real difficulty over grammar. Here are the only lines I found in the whole novel that made me cringe:

So there wasn't nothing left but.....

...and had never taken no shit off nobody and never would...

We none of us are...

...didn't like being no tool... get up and kick them all three in the ass...

You never got nobody told nothing....

Arrrgggggghhhhhhh terrible stuff isn't it??!! But no where near as bad as From Here to Eternity.

 As a novel I enjoyed this far more than Eternity. It wasn't just the better grammar even though it made it easier to read but more the subject matter. This is without doubt one of the most well thought out war novels ever penned. I think The Boat, and All Quiet on the Western Front are still superior, but The Thin Red Line looks at combat in a different light. Jones writes from the point of view of the individual. He subtly charges that even within an army, with all the discipline and orders,men are not automatons and still individuals with the ability to think for themselves. Many of his characters find this out and debate within their own minds their position within the army. Jones very ably puts the reader into the minds of his different characters and shows us how each deals with infantry combat. It is a unique perspective as each character finds things about themselves they never knew, and how each man, even though within a team environment, is still an individual fighting their own individual war, physically and mentally In a quiet way Jones is pushing across a well worn thesis that very few combat novelists explore or are even aware of.

 Jones does this by looking into the minds of a coward, a soft officer who is afraid to risk his men's lives, high ranking officers who are more interested in their own advancement at the expense of the men under them, the braggart, those who are initially unable to kill but when they do like it, the malingerers, drunks, selfish sadists, etc, etc,etc. Every conceivable personality angle is analyzed by Jones and it is quite brilliant. His eye for the human condition is incredibly sharp. He therefore writes with real authority and credibility.Terence Malik re-made this in 1998 into a  film which just does not in anyway capture Jones' characterisations and their individual outlook on the fighting. Malik tried and I admire the attempt but somehow I think Jones has written something that cannot translate at all well to film, and can only be expressed through the written word. It is a very complex issue Jones is expressing.

 I like for instance how Jones has quite accurately ( I believe ), described the attitudes to the wounded and dead. Men in combat lived with the constant threat of wounds or death, and corpses were a reminder of what could happen to them all. They all tried to get rid of corpses as quickly as possible because looking at them made them think 'That could be me'. Wounded were almost an embarrassment as again the feeling of it could have been me made all to real in their minds. They almost grew callous to those who were wounded, not in a physical way but in a mental way. In many respects Jones shows that they had to just to stay mentally sane amongst all the blood and agony. Here the meaning of The Thin Red line' becomes apparent as the line between sanity and madness caused by combat is harshly revealed to the soldiers. Many men felt indignant at being wounded and asked themselves 'why me', and not someone else to the point of wishing it on friends, anyone. Anyone else but themselves.

 The soldiers saw some terrible things but Jones doesn't really get overly graphic. He doesn't need to and what he does write is powerful enough for what he has to say. Corpses in the tropics stunk very quickly and in one part the green troops stumble onto a grave of Japanese corpses. They pull one out and the smell drives them off. I have personally read of this smell many times in my non-fictional readings. Robert Fisk in Pity the Nation describes it like no other after witnessing several massacres in Lebanon in 1982. It is said the smell of death is appalling ( Fisk states that human corpses smell worse than animal ones ), and Jones describes it vividly, to the point of it being an almost  visible poisonous vapour. The corpses in the grave are slimy green and I have read of such things from the Western Front of The Great War. It must be remembered that James Jones served in the American Army during WW2 and writes from his own experience and observations. It gives him a unique eye from which he wrote the three novels.

 Death is certainly the central theme of The Thin Red Line. Obviously war is about killing so this comes as no surprise. The combat scenes are well written but not the best I have read. All Quiet on the Western Front is the best novel on infantry written I believe. But Jones isn't writing a war novel here per se, more as what war does to those involved. He breaks it down from one whole mass to it being about a group of individuals, and how each sees, and copes, with what is happening to, and around them. I have not read a war novel that takes this stance even though it has been done non-fictionally, ie, John Keegan's The Face of Battle, who though writing a superb book on combat, never actually saw any.

 Because its focus is so death orientated the reader can easily find an identifiable character who they think matches they way they may act and feel in the same situation, But then Jones' changes the rules by showing how some characters change dramatically  from their experiences. We see one character, who is initially a clerk, thrown into the front line who thinks himself a coward. After he kills his first Japanese he changes and finds he can cope with combat, and its horrors, and emerges a changed man. Jones' also explores the world of combat fatigue. During the war it was still called shell-shock and was still somewhat mis-understood. It wasn't until the Vietnam war that it was recognised as a real malady and taken seriously. Up until then it was seen as malingering. It wasn't known that men could only stay in the front lines for a certain amount of time before their combat efficiency dropped, and they had to be pulled back. Jones calls it 'combat numbness'. He goes into how the soldiers coped with copious lashings of alcohol, and how once it wore off how they found themselves so dramatically changed, then how they collectively looked at each other.

 I also had an ulterior motive in wanting to read this novel. It has nothing to do with Malik's film either. I liked it but the sound track was poor and I couldn't hear much of it. It was also too long even after being edited down from five hours!! There is actually little recognisable from the book. No. It is the fact my Grandfather served on Guadalcanal with the 3rd New Zealand Division. So much of Red Line I can corroborate from my Grandfather. The mud, the constant rain, the humidity and heat, the rain, the clouds of mosquito's, the malaria, ( which NZ troops were better looked after than their American counter parts ), the poor rations, the rain, the mud, and the rain. Guadalcanal is virtually on the equator so it rained pretty much all year round. My Grandfather described it as ' The place God forgot'. Jones describes the same thing. Initially the soldiers are scared of the jungle and wonder why they are there as they hadn't received jungle training ( NZ troops were trained for jungle warfare in the NZ bush, and hence more prepared than most American troops ). The mud, and the inability to be free of it, combined with the swarms of mosquito's, are as much a fact of life as the ever present threat of death. This by all accounts was not a nice place to be let alone fight a battle.

 It was so bad that many of the soldiers were desperate to get off. Not only did they suffer wounds but there were a myriad of tropical diseases to catch. The poor rations didn't help in keeping the men healthy either. But the most pressing one was malaria. Virtually every soldier suffered it in one form or another. If it was too severe they were shipped off to rear area hospitals in Australia or New Zealand. most had to stay and just suffer the bouts and the fever as best they could. As much as many wanted to escape there were some who actually felt guilty at being sent off to hospital. They were rare cases though as most wounded were pleased to get away and hoped they were wounded badly enough to make it back State side and never return. By the end of the book Jones succinctly shows how the attrition of the campaign on the men had altered the make-up of C Company to the point where it was unrecognisable to those who did return. there were many new faces to in the way of replacements and field promotions were common due to wastage. There really aren't too many angles Jones hasn't covered here as he keenly shows what infantry warfare on Guadalcanal was all about.

 In all James Jones hasn't written a war novel in the classic sense. It isn't entertainment such as Sven Hassel, or Leo Kessler,etc, but an intelligent, prescient look into the minds of those who experience infantry combat. Also it is a very good representation of what jungle warfare was like to those who fought in the Pacific. The combat scenes aren't the best I have read but this isn't what Jones was pushing. He wanted to put across to those who have never been under fire in a war, or experienced its inherent horrors, what it is like, and how those who were could not come out the other side unscathed. May be not physically, but definitely mentally. In essence it is the same message as All Quiet on the Western Front. The Thin Red Line has gathered a reputation as being a great look at combat in the Pacific, but it is in all intents and purposes an anti-war novel as Jones uncompromisingly shows what war does to the individual.

 This is the key of the novel. Never does Jones wander from how war is about individuals, no matter how big the army, or the numbers involved. Each man fights his own war is the epithet for the book and it is spot on. I recommend The Thin Red line to all even if you have no military inclination. I think all Quiet on the Western Front is still its superior, but this is still in the top category of great anti-war novels. Right through out you can never can you escape the ever present grim reaper. If you want to know what you yourself may experience under fire then this is a fine place to start as it is intelligently realised and well written, especially against its predecessor.

 The last sentence of the book is very poignant and sums up so much the experiences of those who served, It goes:

 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.

 It all comes back to how each man saw and felt things differently in having had experiences unique to themselves, and how they dealt with them in their own individual way. They would remember it all from their point of view. And that is James Jones' point.


  1. Friend, I think you may have missed the point regarding the "incorrect" grammar in From Here to Eternity. Jones employed the vernacular of the characters speaking (or thinking) in the story. You will find few, if any, grammatical or syntax errors in the plain narrative sections of the book.

  2. helpful review, if repetitive

    stank. not stunk
    throughout, not through out

  3. yes, he is recreating some of the ways American GIs would have spoke at that time - note that their manners of speaking are different from one another as well