A novel based on 1942’s Guadalcanal campaign of World War II, written by James Jones and published in 1962. I read a Book of the Month Club first edition.
3 out of 5 stars.
James Jones (1921 – 1977) wrote several novels, all of them concerned with some aspect of World War II. He may be best known for his first: From Here to Eternity (1952). He served in the Army during WWII, witnessing the attack on Pearl Harbor and seeing combat on Guadalcanal. In The Thin Red Line, he describes the first combat experiences of a group of American soldiers.
This book is an odd case for me. I first read it twelve years ago and declared it as one of my all-time favorites. I expected it to hold up on a second reading and instead struggled through. Giving it three stars is a stretch; the only reason I bumped it up from two is because I felt guilty giving a poor rating to such an intense partly-autobiographical story. I’m giving Jones credit for having lived through some of this.
The Thin Red Line may be better known for the 1998 Terrence Malick film version. Preparing for this entry I rewatched the movie. It’s beautifully filmed with an incredible score but fails in its casting (too many distracting big names getting glorified cameos; smaller actors’ roles – important to the book – reduced to nothing). Malick’s distinctive style overwhelms and alters the source material until its no longer recognizable to Jones’s novel. Trying to use one to describe the other is a useless exercise, except to say both are arduous experiences.
There are difficulties in the book: the tone is static; the narration jumps between characters’ minds (sometimes within a paragraph); each chapter is between fifty and a hundred pages with no section breaks; Jones is not a strong writer; the huge cast consists of men with indistinct, one-syllable names (we have 84 characters with names like: Stein, Spine, Stack, Storm, Stearns, Band, Bead, Beck, Bell, Blane, Gore, Grove, Keck, Kline, Kral, Krim, Culp, Culn, Cash, Catch, Catt, Carr, Dale, Doll, Darl, Welsh, Weld, Fife, Field, Fox, Fronk, Park, Potts). Jones is juggling a lot of characters and though he does a good job keeping the main ten or so straight, it’s a lot for a reader to keep track of.
Something I’ll give The Thin Red Line: Jones appears to be trying to give the most truthful representation of his experience as possible. He shows no rose-tinted comradery, we’re-the-good-guys unselfish sacrifice perspective. Instead there’s fear, confusion, depression, and anger among men who care most about their own survival and safety. Acts of selfless heroism are outliers, not the norm. Not because these are bad or honorless men, but because they’re humans coping with an insane situation. Here’s the problem (and I feel terrible saying this): it doesn’t make a very good read. We’re not getting a narrative with a beginning, middle and end. Character growth is lacking, story development is almost non-existent. We come in during the middle of an event and leave without seeing the greater picture’s end. We don’t know where any of our main cast came from and we know less about where they are going.
 The dedication page. Is it sarcastic? I think it is… I think it has to be.
This book is cheerfully dedicated to those greatest and most heroic of all human endeavors, WAR and WARFARE; may they never cease to give us the pleasure, excitement and adrenal stimulation that we need, or provide us with the heroes, the presidents and leaders, the monuments and museums which we erect to them in the name of PEACE.
C-for-Charlie was not the last in any line. The numbers ran as high as seven and eight. But this did not give consolation. C-for-Charlie was not concerned with the unlucky ones that came after it; that was their problem. C-for-Charlie was concerned only with the lucky ones who came before it, and that they should hurry, and as to just how long it itself was going to have to wait.
Doll had learned something during the past six months of his life. Chiefly what he had learned was that everybody lived by a selected fiction. Nobody was really what he pretended to be. It was as if everybody made up a fiction story about himself, and then he just pretended to everybody that that was what he was. And everybody believed him, or at least accepted his fiction story.
 Interesting psychological statements and maxims suffer from the quality of writing. It could be argued that Jones is giving us his narrative in language the characters themselves would use but I’m going to argue back that almost all of these characters use exactly the same sort of language. This seems to suggest it’s coming from Jones. He’s not a very good writer and maybe that’s the biggest change between my opinion as an eighteen-year-old to a thirty-year-old; for better or worse, the quality of writing is now a distraction.
When Doll was younger, he had believed everything everybody told him about themselves. And not only told him – because more often than not they didn’t tell you, they just showed you. (…)
It was strange, but it was as if when you were honest and admitted you didn’t know what you really were or even if you were anything at all, then nobody liked you and you made everybody uncomfortable and they didn’t want to be around you. But when you made up your fiction story about yourself and what a great guy you were, and then pretended that that was really you, everybody accepted it and believed you.
Very slowly, the grin faded from Welsh’s face, leaving a look of black, ominous violence; a piercing, murderous scowl which was nevertheless somehow sly.
Doll was fairly tall, but Welsh was taller; it made for a disadvantage. And even though Doll knew the slow disappearance of the grin was deliberate, a theatrical bit of dramatics, it still affected him with a mild paralysis.
 Again, I like what Jones is saying, but the way he is saying it is bogged down by stylistic formality (overusing tics like “nevertheless,” “therefore,” “even though”). He’s combining regular down-to-earth language with college essay habits.
Curiously, Doll could not find it in him to be angry at Welsh, even though he wanted to be, and this filled him with even greater rage. Objectless, and therefore frustrated rage. But then who could be angry at an insane man?
When [Welsh] said coward, what he meant to say was that Fife had not yet learned – if he ever would – that his life, and himself, his He, didn’t mean a goddamned thing to the world in general, and never would. Whereas Doll was too dumb to understand such a concept, or even be able to conceive of such an incredible idea, Fife was smart enough to know it, or at least learn it, but he wouldn’t let himself admit it. And in Welsh’s dictionary, that was the worst kind of coward there was.
 This is good. Just damn good.
[It was] a regular business venture, not war at all. The idea was horrifying to Fife. It was weird and wacky and somehow insane. It was even immoral. It was as though a clerical mathematical equation had been worked out, as a calculated risk: Here were two large, expensive ships and, say, twenty-five large aircraft had been sent out after them. These had been given protection as long as possible by smaller aircraft, which were less expensive than they, and then sent on alone on the theory that all or part of twenty-five large aircraft was worth all or part of two large ships. The defending fighters, working on the same principle, strove to keep the price as high as possible, their ultimate hope being to get all twenty-five large aircraft without paying all or any of either ship. And that there were men in these expensive machines which were contending with each other, was unimportant – except for the fact that they were needed to manipulate the machines. The very idea itself, and what it implied, struck a cold blade of terror into Fife’s essentially defenseless vitals, a terror both of unimportance, his unimportance, and powerlessness: his powerlessness. He had no control or sayso in any of it. Not even where it concerned himself, who was also a part of it. It was terrifying. He did not mind dying in a war, a real war – at least, he didn’t think he did – but he did not want to die in a regulated business venture.
 This never comes up again. No man is noted to be taking photographs; souvenirs are taken for the sake of trading for whiskey or money, not in a tourist fashion.
It was an interesting thing which Bell had noted before about the American Army that wherever they went, and no matter what dangers they expected to encounter, they went prepared to look and, if possible, to record. At least a third of every outfit carried cameras, lens filters and light meters tucked away somewhere. The fighting tourists, Bell called them.
I expected this to pay off somehow – either with someone stupidly tourist-ing around or the men finding/ditching a pile of cameras.
It was in her, that female puissance.
noun – (1) a competitive test of a horse’s ability to jump large obstacles in show jumping.
(2) archaic literary great power, influence, or prowess.
A curious Rabelaisian mood swept over them.
Francois Rabelaid (~1483 – 1553): major French Renaissance writer, physician, humanist, monk and Greek scholar. He has historically been regarded as a writer of fantasy, satire, the grotesque, bawdy jokes and songs. Merriam-Webster defines the word “Rabelaisian” as describing someone or something that is “marked by gross robust humor, extravagance of caricature, or bold naturalism.”
The increased bombing affected different people in different ways. Fife, for instance, discovered he was a coward. Fife had always believed he would be as brave as the next man, if not perhaps a little more so. He realized with surprise and dismay after two raids that he not only was not more brave, he was actually less so (…) He was terrified, would have given anything he possessed in the world – or anything he did not possess, if he could get his hands on it – not to be here defending his country. To hell with his country. Let somebody else defend it. That was how Fife honestly felt.
Fife would never have believed he could react like this, and he was ashamed of it.
Welsh discovered something, too. What Welsh discovered, after all these years of wondering, was that he was a brave man. He reasoned this way: any man who could be as terrified during these raids as he was and not either roll over and die or else just get up and walk away forever – that man had to be brave; and that was him.
 I know I’m harping on Jones but his awkward delivery confuses this profound thought:
When compared to the fact that he might be dead tomorrow, everything was pointless. Life was pointless (…) It was not pointless only to him; and when he was dead, when he ceased to exist, it would be pointless to him too. More important: Not only would it be pointless, it would have been pointless, all along.
This was an obscure and rather difficult point to grasp. Understanding of it kept slipping in and out on the edges of his mind. It flickered, changing its time sense and tenses. At those moments when he understood it, it left him with a very hollow feeling.
“It was not pointless only to him” can be interpreted two ways: (1) Many saw it as pointless, or (2) He was the only one who didn’t think it was pointless. The second is what Jones is going for; the first is the more likely interpretation from a reader.
 I always pay attention to descriptions of a character’s relationship (or non-relationship) with God. It’s a tricky concept. I like to see how authors handle it.
Fife did not believe in God. He did not disbelieve in God. It was just that it was a problem which did not apply to him.
It was here the S/Sgt Stack, platoon sergeant of the third lead platoon for an even longer time than Keck had been sergeant of the second, a lean hard-faced tough old drillmaster and disciplinarian, was found sitting by the trail with his legs pressed together and his rifle in his lap, crying in agony at them as they passed: “Don’t go up there! you’ll be killed! don’t go up there! you’ll be killed!”
 Welsh could have been an interesting character; in the beginning, he doesn’t seem as internally crazy as everyone around him assumes him to be. By the middle and end, he’s a caricature of Crazy Army Man but, seemingly, not because of his combat experience. It’s like Jones forgot he had set up layers to Welsh.
All Welsh knew was that he was scared shitless, and at the same time was afflicted with a choking gorge of anger that any social coercion existed in the world which could force him to be here.
Welsh has the chance to be shipped out at the end and refuses, wanting to stay in combat, which goes against his feelings here. Frankly, the sentiment should have been given to Fife, if Jones wanted to keep his characters consistent.
“Sammy Baugh! Sid Luckman! Rah rah rah! Who wants footballs! Bronco Nagurski! Jack Manders!”
Sammy Baugh (1914 – 2008): American football player and coach. Played for the Washington Redskins from 1937 – 1952.
Sid Luckman (1916 – 1998): American football player. Quarterback for the Chicago Bears from 1939 – 1950.
Bronco Nagurski (1908 – 1990): Canadian-born American football player and professional wrestler. Played for the Chicago Bears from 1930 – 1937.
Jack Manders (1909 – 1977): American football player. Running back for the Chicago Bears from 1933 – 1940.