This is #62 on the Modern Library’s Top 100 list, and yes, I’m still plugging away at that list!
I started this last summer, but got a little bogged down in it, so I set it aside for other books after making it about halfway through. (It’s an 860 pager, so I’d already read what would normally be considered a fairly good-sized book.) I recently returned to it, and I was still struggling with it a bit. Although Jones was very descriptive, he tended to get a little too wordy at times, and I was to the point where I was almost ready to give up...but I was over 60% of the way through (I read this on my Kindle), so I decided to keep going.
I’m so glad I did. By the time I got about 85% of the way through, the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, and after that, I just didn’t want to put it down.
You can read the synopsis elsewhere. A very brief description is that it takes place in Hawaii, with the main location an Army base, in the time leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor and our entry into WWII. We get to know several characters quite well, including Sgt. Milt Warden and Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt, and I came to care about these characters very much. We follow them through various Army-related and decidedly NON-Army activities, such as love affairs, drunken binges, and visits to town and its bars and whorehouses. One of the main reasons I kept reading was because I wanted to find out what happened with some of these characters.
The main thing this book gave me was a glimpse into the lives of the WWII-era soldier. I have never read or watched anything that brought them to life as much as this book. I read the restored version rather than the original 1953 heavily edited version. All the profanity, all the sex, all the anger and hostility and human frailty is there. With the passing of several decades, I believe we have come to see WWII veterans as noble warriors, and have mythologized the Greatest Generation to a remarkable degree. I’m not saying this is wrong. My Dad and several of my uncles were WWII veterans, and they were remarkable men who did remarkable things.
However, they weren’t saints. I don’t know how much of a hellraiser my Dad was during the war, although I know he was a bit of a one before he joined the Army! He didn’t talk about the war much, and it wasn’t until I was probably in my late twenties that he told me a few stories. I think he had his share of fun...there was one story he told me about wandering around some city in North Africa with one of his buddies. It sounded like they were having a pretty good time!
This book showed the bravery as well as the humanity. The soldiers weren’t all innocent young rubes who walked on water. They were ordinary men who went into an extraordinary situation and sometimes did extraordinary things; sometime they just did ordinary things. Like every other human being.
I am very glad that I persevered on this book. I enjoyed the weaving together of the characters’ stories, but most of all, I enjoyed it for the sense it gave me of what my Dad might have been like as a young soldier, about 15 years before I was born. I don’t think that his experience was necessarily like those of some of the guys in the book, but I bet he knew guys who DID have similar experiences. It helped me to think of them as human beings rather than vague “Greatest Generation” demi-gods.
That makes me appreciate even more what they did.