The Thin Red Line by James Jones

James Jones enlisted in the army in 1939. He witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor, which was the basis for his first novel From Here to Eternity. The Thin Red Line is a kind of sequel to From Here to Eternity, since it’s based on his experiences as an infantryman on Guadalcanal, the Pacific island the Allies invaded nine months after Pearl Harbor.

The novel is 500 pages long, but engrossing and fast-moving. If I were a military recruiter, I would not recommend this book to prospective soldiers. 7,100 members of the Allied forces, mostly Americans, died on Guadalcanal, and 31,000 Japanese. It’s hard to believe that the men who survived lived through it. In addition to the actual fighting, there was heat, exhaustion, lack of food and water (especially water), lack of sleep and malaria.

It’s hard to follow the battle scenes sometimes, since the geography is confusing, and it’s sometimes hard to remember which character is which, since there are so many of them, but that’s o.k. Combat is said to be confusing. Jones does a great job expressing the inner thoughts of his characters, almost all of whom would rather be anywhere else. Among these recurring thoughts are fear of dying, fear of cowardice, the pleasure and relief that comes from killing instead of being killed, the numbness that results from extended combat, and the love and hatred of one’s fellow soldiers.

One minor complaint: for some reason, 90% of the characters have single-syllable last names. Maybe it was common practice to use shortened last names in the Army, but it’s distracting to see a bunch of characters named Stein, Band, Whyte, Blane, Gore and Culp (the officers); Welsh, Culn, Grove, Keck, Spain, Stack, Storm, Beck, Field, Fox, Potts, Thorne and Wick (sergeants); Fife, Jenks and Queen (corporals); and Bead, Cash, Dale, Doll, Earl, Fronk, Hoff, Land, Marl and Park (privates first class).

Jones describes some relatively pleasant moments for his characters, but they are rare. Much more common are descriptions like these:

“Digging. Their neverending, universal digging. Sweating and panting with exhaustion, digging. Like last night. And almost every night in the world. And sometimes two or three times in the day. A place to lay your head. Three by three by seven, slit trench. Only the very lucky ever inherited another outfit’s holes. Nobody ever dug the round deep foxholes here because there weren’t any tanks. Here the home was the slit trench.”  

“As they crawled, suddenly, for no real reason, he found himself remembering that young, foolish, innocent, gullible Corporal Fife, that total stranger, who once had stood forth in the dawn on Hill 209 and had stretched out his arms willing to be killed for mankind, and the love of mankind. Well, fuck mankind, that bunch of ‘honorable’ animals. Piss and shit on them. That was what they deserved.”

No wonder these guys dreamed about getting wounded, just seriously enough to get the hell off that island.

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