Anyone who has read “The Naked and the Dead” will recall the supposedly impervious scout Martinez who, when surrounded by sleeping enemies, “felt like weeping” then committed a dreadful error. Anyone who has read “From Here to Eternity” or “Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids” will remember their caricatures of authority: “Eternity’s” officers who are malevolent power-mongers or buffoons; and “Nip the Buds’” symbolic adults who spread the plague then flee.
These are two hallmarks of World War II fiction: a cynical view of courage and patriotism as façades for fear and apathy; and a bitter nigh rancorous mistrust of superiors.
Readers of Kazuo Ishiguro’s “An Artist of the Floating World” should recall Suichi’s speech following his brother-in-law Kenji’s funeral: “Those who sent the likes of Kenji out there to die these brave [war] deaths, where are they today? They’re carrying on with their lives, much the same as ever. Many are more successful than before … the very ones who led us to disaster. And yet it’s the likes of Kenji we have to mourn … Brave young men die for stupid causes, and the real culprits are still with us.”
This last sentiment of “stupid causes” is especially applicable to World War II fiction inspired by the Pacific Theater. For unlike the European Theater, which constituted a battle against the unmitigated evil of Nazi Germany, the Pacific Theater
was a clash of imperialistic delusions much like World War I. To learn more about this jaded legacy, read the six fiction pieces listed below.
“From Here to Eternity” by James Jones
This 800-page tome unclothes the amusingly bemusing sordidness of the “regular” U.S. Army. It’s early 1941, war is expected – and while they wait, the soldiers frequent bars and brothels as often as they can (They devour hotcakes and eggs to mitigate hangovers). Corruption and favoritism run rampant in the Army. Good athletes are promoted to private first class, great ones to sergeant.
Pvt. Prewitt and First Sgt. Warden recognize, revile and revel in the corruption. Overall, they love the Army. But when their Army-love conflicts with self-love and romantic-love, the consequences can be both comedic and terrifying.
“The Naked and the Dead” by Norman Mailer
“The Naked and the Dead” is unparalleled in craftsmanship, power, biting irony and sheer scope. It follows the hellish trials of a Marine platoon battling on the fictional island of Anopopei. Soon, what poses as a war novel morphs into a quasi-philosophical critique of life, war’s meaninglessness and the inanity of authority. Mailer writes, “Fighting a war to fix something works about as good as going to a whorehouse to get rid of a clap.” Beloved characters die. Hundreds more men whom
we never meet are killed. Through and over it all, there is Gen. Cummings: “At this moment he got his idea. He could jazz up the map-reading class by having a full-size color photograph of Betty Grable in a bathing suit, with a co-ordinate grid system laid over it … Hot dog!” Mailer doesn’t like authority.
“Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids” by Kenzaburo Oe
Oe’s first novel, “Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids,” is an allegory of the highest order, a cross between Camus’ “The Plague” and Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” Juvenile delinquents are imprisoned in a plague-ridden town that the villagers then desert. The young boys are forced to fight the plague alone – alone, that is, until the adults return and punish them for surviving. If that doesn’t sound like every wartime youth’s predicament – survive the adult-created mess, then pay for it – I don’t know what does.
“Tales of the South Pacific” by James A. Michener
This short story collection-novel explores the behind-the-scenes of the Pacific Theater. The main characters are chaplains, airplane mechanics, nurses and Seabees. Different stories highlight different facets of the rear echelon. The hilarious “Dry Rot” is about an aimless soldier stationed on a tiny island. “The Cave” is an insightful tale about the soldier’s need for something – e.g. family, books, gambling,
etc. – with which to shelter. “An Officer and a Gentleman” is a frightful story about many soldiers’ sexual perversion and sordidness. Lastly, “A Cemetery at Hoga Point” is a profoundly touching tale pondering who will replace the hundreds of thousands of good men who have died.
“An Artist of the Floating World” by Kazuo Ishiguro
Masuji Ono is an old man and a painter. He learned to paint with Mori-san, a master of the ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) style, which depicts scenes from Japanese pleasure districts. With the advent of war, however, Ono began to paint imperialistic propaganda. He was very successful and beloved by the jingoistic government. After the war, however, his art becomes extremely unpopular in pacifist, pro-democracy, U.S.-ally, postwar Japan. Ono’s pictures are suddenly of a bygone era, a floating world—and he is forced to re-evaluate his artistic legacy, authenticity and the import and importance of his closing life.
“Lucky Dragon” by Viet Dinh
This moving tale of two traumas isn’t set in World War II, rather a few years later. It tells the story Japanese fisherman who, just off Bikini Atoll, are poisoned by the fallout of nearby U.S. nuclear weapon tests. The protagonists, two crewmembers named Yoshi and Hiroshi, are World War II veterans. Through them, Dinh
poignantly represents the impossibility of escaping the war’s horrific legacy, whether embodied by their stigma as survivors – each a “False Hero; A celebration of cowardice; a shame upon our nation” – or by their radioactive poisoning, a product of the war they thought to survive. In the end, all they have is each other, as Yoshi tells Hiroshi, “Keep going. I’m right behind you.”