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.

Missing The Caine Mutiny would be a crime

Sixty years on, ‘s 1951 novel The Caine Mutiny remains a testament to the complexity and perversity of human nature.

Pleasant, bright but not brilliant, Willie Keith’s goal in life is to get away from his mother. When his draft number comes up, he joins the Navy.

Assigned to a Pacific minesweeper, Willie quakes, expecting a life where his life hangs by a thread every minute.

Reality is very different.

A floating rust bucket, the Caine ferrys supplies and hauls targets. Her scuzzy crew does their jobs offhandedly, ignoring Navy regulations. Willie is appalled.

Then Captain Queeg takes over the ship. He’s a by-the-book man. Willie initially applauds his attempts to enforce standards . Gradually, however, Queeg is revealed as a petty tyrant, a lousy seaman, and quite probably a coward.

Inevitably, Tom Keefer, an officer whose spare time is devoted to writing a novel, suggests that Queeg may be mentally unfit for duty. The “mutiny” grows from that seed.

As Willie realizes that Queeg’s judgment cannot entirely be trusted, readers realize that Willie’s judgment can’t always be trusted either. In all honesty, we have to see that, like Willie, we sometimes dislike people with too-little reason, and we like people whose behavior we should consider despicable.

The Caine Mutiny: A Novel of World War II
by Herman Wouk
International Collectors Library, 1951
498 pages
#2 on the bestseller list in 1951 and 1952
My grade: A

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni