Conflict is inevitable. War is not.

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Posted on: January 27th, 2014 by BWNWAdmin No Comments

Posted by Dorothy Sampson:

The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer (1948)

When Norman Mailer titled his book The Naked and the Dead, he was not just describing bodies on the field of battle.   He exposes and leaves naked the feelings, the needs, the suffering and the motives of the men in his story.  The system they are trapped in kills their humanity.  If they survive, they may be breathing, but an essential part of their humanness is dead.  Mailer, who was a rifleman in the Philippines in World War II, has written a compelling classic that leaves no doubt about what war is to the men who fight it.

Mailer’s description of the war experience of this marine platoon is unflinching.  For the men who do the fighting, the emotions range from distaste to horror, from anxiety to panic, from anger to hate, and every negative feeling in between.  There is no joy and little kindness in their role.  They slog through mud, wade through rivers, sweat in the heat, shiver in the rain, inch along narrow ledges with sheer drops down the mountain, and contend with insects and reptiles.  Moments of terror while reconnoitering a path through enemy lines punctuate the tedium and hard labor of cutting a trail through the jungle.  Their rations as they march are the unappealing contents of cans they carry in their heavy packs.  They are at the bottom of a top down organization.  They obey their orders because they understand the power of those above to punish them.  This engenders their hatred of their fellows, their leaders, and the system.

General Cummings uses the men as he would pawns on a chessboard.  He was determined that they were going to learn “if he had to rub their noses in the dirt that the line of their least discomfort lay in winning the campaign.” Lieutenant Hearn tells him, “You’re up so damn high you don’t see anything at all.  The moral calculus on anything is too involved ever to be able decently to make a decision.” That doesn’t stop Cummings from making decisions including sending Hearn and the recon platoon on the patrol that results in the cheeky lieutenant’s death. The final irony of the story is that the patrol contributes nothing to the success of the campaign.  It only demonstrates the General’s power over his men.  As he says, “There’s one thing about power.  It can flow only from the top down.”

This type of top-down, vertical structure predominates in history. In Mailer’s novel, we see the devastation this organizing principal causes to the human spirit and to the hope of a peaceful world.  There are alternatives to the top-down principle.  Our last BW book selection, “Walk Out, Walk On” offered another possibility in its description of social groups organized horizontally with the focus on restoring agency to the individual and through them to the local community.  Isn’t it time for us to reject a domination society and work together toward a better future than death and violence?

-Reviewed by Dorothy Sampson

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