Where are novels that honor America’s military?

On this Memorial Day weekend, in honor of the American military I wanted to suggest a handful of good novels that reveal the courage and loyalty of America’s military without falling into sentimentality or glorifying war.

I was surprised to see how few novels I had to choose from.  Among the almost 700 novels that made the bestseller lists from 1900 to 1969, few are about America’s military and even fewer portray the military in a positive light.  Satirical send-ups like Rally Round the Flag, Boy don’t count, and it seems tactless to recommend novels such as Melville Godwin, U.S.A. as Memorial Day reading.

The best written, most respectful stories about the military seem to be written by people who experienced war on their home soil. Abroad, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Cruel Sea are tales by people who lived through war in their homelands. There’s nothing comparable on America’s bestseller lists from 1900-1969.

Judged by the number of novels it inspired, the most memorable of America’s wars is the War Between the States. Gone with the Wind, Action at Aquila, House Divided are just three of the novels about that conflict that made the bestseller lists. Their authors weren’t in the Civil War, but their families lived on its battlefields. As anyone who has lived in the South can testify, memories of those years are still vivid. The scabs of Civil War wounds haven’t sloughed off yet.

Instead of reading a book, go to a Memorial Day celebration. You’ll get closer to the real military men and women who deserve your gratitude there than in the pages of a second-rate novel.

Battle Cry mingles boredom and terror

Ship sinking after Pearl Harbor attack Dec. 7, 1942
Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1942

Battle Cry is a fictional account of a “gang of beardless youths” who enlist after Pearl Harbor and are molded into a Marine “battalion of invincible boys” under the leadership of Maj. Sam Huxley.

The narrator, known only as Mac, tells mainly about his boys who on first sight are, “an anemic Indian, a music lover, a lumberjack with ten thumbs, a farmer, a feathermerchant, …the All American boy… [and] a renegade trouble maker.”

Most of the novel is boring. The men drill and hike,  drink and  hike, play poker and hike, talk about women and hike faster, gripe louder and hike even faster and further with heavier loads.

They curse Huxley for their misery and idolize him for never asking more of them than he demands of himself. They take pride in being “Huxley’s Whores.”

Battle Cry was Leon M. Uris’s first published novel. It suffers from the usual problem of first novels—insufficient practice—and the usual problem of historical novels: making the story fit the history.

A battalion is too many characters to make a good story. Novelists ought to follow Marine Corp’s procedure and look for a few good men.

Battle Cry also does what a war novel should do: it makes the non-boring parts of war so horrific readers wish for boredom.

Battle Cry
by Leon M. Uris
Avon Books paperback edition, 2005
692 pages
1953 bestseller # 4
My grade C
© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni