JAMES JONES literary society

THE

James Jones: His Evolution of a Soldier

 

By Robert L. McMahon

 

Senior Project, New York University

Project Mentor: Deborah Rossen

Submitted Nov. 7, 1997 to The James Jones Literary Society Home Page

Editor's Note: Mr. McMahon, a former enlisted Marine, kindly submitted this research paper he wrote as a Senior Project.

 

The acclaimed World War II author James Jones set down a trilogy examining the evolutionary process an individual undergoes to become a soldier when he wrote From Here To Eternity, The Thin Red Line, and Whistle. This process he experienced first-hand and influenced his writing for the rest of his life. In his book WWII he defined what this evolutionary process culminates in for a soldier:

 

I think that when all the nationalistic or ideological and patriotic slogans are put aside, all the straining to convince a soldier that he is dying for something, it is the individual soldier's final full acceptance of the fact that his name is already written down in the rolls of the already dead. (54)

The moment the individual soldier, sailor or marine accepts this idea, he or she has reached the end of this evolutionary process and will be better able to function and survive in combat. On the face of it, this may seem an odd or ambiguous notion; however when combat veterans instruct recruits they stress reflex, repetition and training. If one were to hesitate in combat, hesitate to think about being killed, the chances of being killed increase.

 

The characters and events that James Jones has created for this trilogy are taken from his own experience while in the United States Army before and during World War II. The Second World War began for James Jones during his breakfast on 7 December 1941. He was stationed at Schoffield Army Barracks, Hawaii and that morning he and the other troops in the mess hall thought the Air Corps was responsible for all the explosions echoing up the valley from Wheeler Airfield. As this blasting moved steadily toward Schoffield and them, the men moved gradually outside in confusion, at first, and then stunned disbelief. Just as Jones got to the doorway, he was immediately thrown back inside by the sight of a Japanese fighter plane roaring down the adjoining avenue, kicking up pavement a hundred yards in front. As the plane came abreast of Jones and the others huddled in the doorway, the rear-seat gunner gave them all a wave and a bit smile. Afterward, Jones remembered that it was at that moment that he became aware of the fact that he was witnessing history and wondered if he woujld be alive when this newly started war was over; then he thought that he may not be alive tomorrow. The previous month he had turned twenty years old.

 

Although James Jones was, and is, a popular author and his work has been acclaimed and turned into film, the academic community has largely ignored him. In his book James Jones, James R. Giles brings this fact to light within the first few pages; Giles writes,

 

For almost thirty years, James Jones was the friend, and frequently the benefactor, of American writers at home and abroad. Despite his clear importance in the writing community, the academy still largely ignores him. PMLA biographies from 1951 to 1976 list only ten articles about his work in scholarly journals and essay collections, three of which are in publications outside the United States. It often seems that, when academicians remember Jones, it is as the spokesman for an anachronistic male supremacy or as a writer of flawed naturalistic prose. (5)

The Giles book is in the minority of comprehensive works of criticism available for James Jones and helps to support this essay in its analysis.

 

The trilogy chronicles the complete soldiering experience of military life, the brutality of combat and the impact this may have on those that survive. It is this process that Jones came to call "the evolution of a soldier." The author firmly believes that it was an absolute miracle this country evolved such superb soldiers in such a short amount of time during World War II. Militarism was, and is, an anathema to the values this country is committed to and put us at a decided disadvantage when facing the powers of Germany, Japan and Italy. Jones writes of pre-war America in WWII.

 

While most nations were spending young fortunes for wars, and indeed often engaging in them in one form or another, we were teaching our young that war was immoral, and evil, and that, in fact, it was so costly in both treasure and spirit that mankind simply could no longer afford it. All conditions devoutly to be wished, but hardly a realistic description of the 1930s. (30)

In order to re-create this evolutionary process, Jones has us examine a fictionalized view of his personal wartime trilogy. In From Here To Eternity we see Army life in pre-war Hawaii; The Thin Red Line exposed us to intense jungle combat on Guadalcanal; and in Whistle the wounded come home to an Army hospital in the deep South. Each novel will present these experiences as they relate to Jones's evolution concept.

 

James Jones uses three main characters in the trilogy to illustrate this process and to give the reader an in-depth view of the relationships among soldiers at all levels. However, before Jones envisioned his work as a completel trilogy, he had one of his main characters killed at the end of the first novel. To solve the problem of retaining this character in the remaining two novels, Jones merely changed all the characters' names. This dilemma added a three dimensional aspect to the main characters as the trilogy progressed. Jones explains this in "Whistle: A Work-In-Progress By James Jones:"

 

I solved the problem by changing the names. All the names. But I changed them in such a way that a cryptic key, a market similarity, continued to exist, as a reference point, with the old set of names...So in The Thin Red Line 1st/Sgt Warden (of From Here To Eternity) became 1st/Sgt Welsh...In Whistle Welsh becomes 1st/Sgt Winch... (3-4)

The author's choice of names serves an allegorical purpose as well. The name serves to represent the evolutionary stage of that character in the trilogy.

 

This essay will discuss one of the key characters; the First Sergeant. The discussion will center around the allegorical representation of the 1st/Sgt's names and how they relate to the evolutionary process, as well as the symbolic meaning of the character within the trilogy. Upon first glance this character would appear a stereotype, but this is part of Jones's camouflage. He has created a character that is physically overpowering on the outside in order to hide a more emotionally fragile inside.

 

The name initially given to this character in From Here to Eternity" is Milton Anthony Warden - 1st/Sgt Warden. It appears the name was chosen to make Warden a larger-than-life authority figure. His name is Warden and that is exactly what he is within his rifle company. The author intimates at the similarities between prison life and Army life, and has the stockade play a crucial role. If one were to think military life is like a prison, imagine life in a true military prison. To reinforce the image of Warden as the real commander of this rifle company, Jones juxtaposes the relationship 1st/Sgt Warden has with his commanding officer, Captain Holmes, Jones writes,

 

"Is there anything else for me to take care of today, Sergeant?"

 

"Yes, Sir. The company fund report has got to be checked and made out. It's due tomorrow morning."

 

"You make it out, fix it up and I'll be in early tomorrow morning to sign it. I haven't time to bother with details. Is that all?"

 

"No, Sir."

 

"Well, whatever it is you fix it. If there's anything has to go in this afternoon, sign my name. I won't be back." (61)

 

Another definition to the name Warden is in the play of the two words from which the name is derived: war and den. The character is the 1st/Sgt of an Infantry Rifle Company, 100 foot soldiers whose tools of the trade are rifles and bayonets. As such they have put aside their individuality and "civilian-ness" and live in a pack or a den like animals. Therefore the name Warden captures the true essence of what "the company" is: a warriors den. This name further reflects James Jones's personal experiences from his Army days at Schoffield Barracks; his old outfit was the 27th Infantry Regiment: "The Wolfhounds."

 

However, the most important definition of this character can be found in the colloquial pronunciation of his initials: M.A.W. or Mother. The reader's introduction to Warden comes as he is writing the "Company Morning Report" and "Sickbook." In a family it is usually the mother that writes the notes to a teacher to excuse a child from class if her child were sick and would then care for her child. In a Rifle Company that is the 1st/Sgt's job: he takes care of you and is responsible for your health and well being. In The Thin Red Line James Jones makes this point perfectly clear when he writes a scene requiring a pep-talk by the Company Commander,

 

"But I prefer to think of myself as a family man...I'm the father and...I guess that makes Sergeant Welsh here the mother...Now a family can only have one head, and that's the father. Me. Father is the head and Mother runs it..." (474)

In From Here to Eternity the references to Warden as a mother figure are symbolic in nature and not as blatant as the above passage. I do not believe that Jones missed the play on the word "infantry" when he put a symbolic mother figure in charge of an Infantry Company: A company of "infants." The following excerpt offers one of the most vivid images of Warden as a Mother figure in his role as disciplinarian,

 

First Sergeant Warden, with his apparently weird uncanniness of occult knowledge, was suddenly between them...to the dumbstruck audience he seemed an avenging genii of all Discipline and Authority...and his presence was enough... "If there's any killing in my Compny, I'll do it, not a couple of unweaned punks who the sight of a dead man would make to crap their pants." ..."Neither one of you is grown up enough to be allowed to fight. You have to be a man to fight. If you act like children, you can expect to be treated like children." (234-235)

Warden then refers to these two soldiers as "baby Maggio" and "baby Bloom" and proceeds to punish them by making them sit in opposite corners of the barracks facing the wall.

 

The tragic element of Warden is brought to light when a romantic relationship is established between himself and his commanding officer's wife, Karen Holmes. It is in this relationship that Jones draws a strong analogy regarding Warden's evolution in the trilogy; Karen Holmes physically represents what Warden will emotionally evolve into after experiencing the destruction of the young lives he has been mothering. Jones has made Warden and Karen Holmes maternal twin sisters in spirit. They recognize their similarities, their strengths and are attracted because of them. The author uses the following dialogue to validate this point:

 

"You know what?" Warden said stiffly. "We're just exactly alike. We're absolute opposites; and yet we're just alike."

"We both imagine the other one's trying to throw us over," Karen said, "and neither one of us thinks the other appreciates us much as we appreciate him."

 

"We curse and we storm at each other for doing the same identical things," Warden said, "and we're both of us so goddam jealous we can't hardly stand it." (69)

 

The similarity between these two is intimated earlier in the novel when their affair is still new. Warden initiated the relationship fully aware of Karen's previous sexual exploits with members of her husband's Regimental Boxing Team and other sundry enlisted men within the Company. In a jealous fit, Warden confronts her with what he knows and would like to know how he stacks up when compared to the others. Jones works this encounter in such a way that Karen turns the situation around and throws it back at him.

 

"...I had to convince myself that you were different. I had to go and forget that you were a man. And being a man had the same rotten filthy mind the rest of them have. The same proud masculinity of conquest. Oh, I bet that you and Stark had a fine time I bet, talking it over, comparing notes on how good it was. Tell me, how do I stack up, anyway. With the professionals? I'm still an amateur, you know?" (371)

These same thoughts are on Warden's mind. He thought she was making notes and comparisons while using him. A part of his dual male/female character arises here as a woman's sense of sexuality; Warden does not want to be used or turned into a whore in this relationship. He wants to love and be loved. Whoring is something Warden would consider dishonest because it is not the real giving and receiving of love:

 

"In the first place it isn't confidence, it's honesty...I decided to believe in honesty, which is the opposite of celibacy...I believe that the only sin is a conscious waste of energy..."

One will also notice how Karen has to forget that Warden is a man. If he is not a man, then what is he? Another subtle comparison to Warden's dual sexuality comes to mind when another characater has a conversation with a homosexual while at a bar and the homosexual explains his feelings toward women:

 

"We do not get our kicks out of acting like a woman. In fact, the less I see and hear of women the better. Of all the things I dislike, I hate women worst....They're evil. So domineering. And so sickeningly confident. Did you know this society is a true matriarchy?" (423)

The reference to a "matriarchy" in this passage is another analogy to Warden and the Company. The reference to women as being "sickeningly confident" recalls the words that Karen Holmes uses to reproach Warden and his initial advances.

 

"My maid is liable to come home anytime you know."

 

"No she won't. Thursday's her day off. Today is Thursday."

 

"You think of everything, don't you Sergeant?"

 

"I try. In my position you have to."

 

"That's what I like about you, Sergeant: you have confidence. It's also what I dislike about you...Men and their confidence...At least yours is real confidence, Sergeant; not false confidence or bravado..." (138-139)

 

Warden and Karen Holmes are united through the family of the Company; each married to the same man, Captain Holmes; each experiencing the negligence of this man toward themselves and their respective families. Captain Holmes's actions were responsible for a death within the company and for infecting Karen with a venereal disease that led to a hysterectomy. The analogy to Warden can be found here; as she is barren physically, he will become barren emotionally.

 

The First Sergeant in Jones's second novel, The Thin Red Line, is now faced with the responsibility of leading his Company into combat with the Japanese. In this setting the character is far from being the man in control, now he realizes how helpless and out of control he is. The young men surrounding him are reminders of his impotence in affecting their chances for survival; random death is everywhere and it holds no prejudice. Perhaps it is this reason that Jones opted for Welsh as the name of the First Sergeant in this novel. The First Sergeant is always the man with the answers, always dependable and his job is to look out for you. But here, on this island, he can no longer keep the old promises or provide the answers; he is welshing on his primary responsibility to his Company, his family.

 

Unlike the introduction to the First Sergeant in From Here to Eternity, where Warden is busily making our reports, the introduction to Welsh is a lightning bolt of honesty and cynicism. His commanding officer has just finished a briefing with the platoon commanders and is talking to them very paternally about "the boys" in the Company and how he feels toward them; then he turns to Welsh:

 

"I think our outfit looks pretty capable, pretty solid, don't you, Sergeant?...Welsh merely grinned at him insolently.

"Yeah; for a bunch of slobs about to get their fucking ass shot off." (11)

 

The apparent callousness that Welsh is exhibiting is in keeping with the "honest" aspect of his character established in the first novel. Welsh is not kidding himself or anybody else about what will happen to all these young smiling faces in the coming weeks, months and years. At the same time, he accepts the idea of his own death and may as well consider himself dead already. It is this honesty and acceptance that places Welsh over a line from the other characters. Welsh has taken himself out of the game and is beyond all pretense of worrying and wondering what the future holds. The author writes in The Thin Red Line:

 

They were a sorry lot, any way you took them. Almost certainly, nearly all of them would be dead before this war was over, including himself, and not a damn one of them was smart enough to know it. Maybe a few did. They were getting in on virtually the very start of it, and they would continue all the way right on through it. Hardly any of them were able or willing to admit or see what an alarming drop in chances this gave them. As far as Welsh was concerned, they had it coming to them and deserved everything they would get. And that included himself. And this amused him too. (22)

Based on Jones's definition of what the evolution of a soldier eventually comes to - the realization and acceptance of your own death - Welsh seems to have arrived at this same conclusion and that, to him, all the worrying is just wasted energy.

 

In contrast to Welsh who has accepted his condition, Jones shows us what the alternative condition would be; vividly illustrating the emotional breakdown of another Sergeant:

 

John Bell...was able to see several important things. He was, for instance, the only man who saw Sgt. McCron cover his face with his hands and sit down weeping...Four men of McCron's squad went down at once...Wynn was shot in the throat...Next to him Pfc. Earl, a little shorter, was caught in the face. He went down without a sound, looking as if he'd been hit in the face with a tomato. To Bell's left two other men tumbled...All this was apparently too much for McCron, who had clucked over and mothered his squad for so many months, and he simply dropped his rifle and sat down crying. (226)

One will again notice the use of the "mother" symbolism in that passage. This can be directly tied to 1st/Sgt. Welsh.

 

In one of the rare instances in The Thin Red Line where Welsh is shown as having some control, the author returns to the theme of maternal symbolism. In a scene that recalls the words of 1st/Sgt Warden in From Here to Eternity,

 

"If there's any killing in my Company I'll do it...." (234-235)

Welsh is called upon to commit a mercy killing of a wounded member of the Company.

 

The situation involves a soldier named Tella who is almost cut in half by machine-gun fire, but manages to cling to life. To complicate matters further, he is laying out in the open, a medic has been killed trying to help him, he keeps screaming in pain and is being shot at by snipers. Welsh has finally had enough and he takes off down the hill to try and help this kid:

 

"How goes it, kid?" Welsh yelped inanely...

"Fuck you!" Tella piped. "I'm dying! I'm dying, Sarge!"..."How are you going to help me?"

 

"Take you back."

 

"You want to help me, shoot me!"

 

It was then Welsh noticed the dead medic's belt pouches and began rummaging...Welsh tossed Tella two morphine syrettes and began attacking another pouch...Tella called for more...Welsh handed him a double handfull and then turned to run..."Goodby, Welsh!" "Goodby, kid," .... (242-243)

 

Later that afternoon, they found Tella surrounded by ten empty syrettes and an eleventh one stuck in his arm. This is the turning point for Welsh. He has killed one of his charges, one of his children and there will be a heavy emotional price to pay.

 

III

When the trilogy moves on to the third novel, Whistle, the character of the First Sergeant is suffering from a heart ailment that is getting progressively worse. He experiences nightmares that become hallucinations and is in the process of having a mental breakdown. The name chosen for the character at this point is 1st/Sgt Winch. From an allegorical standpoint this name represents the progressive action of his heart condition and his mental state; his heart and mind are being pulled out of him. This would be in keeping with the analogy to Karen Holmes, and, as far as the mother image is concerned, could be likened to a mother whose heart is wrenched from her by the loss of her sons. The character's overall condition certainly suggests that he is heartbroken; the author writes,

 

Hell he wasn't even wounded. He was only sick. An unaccustomed hollowness opened up in him at the word. Shit, he had never been sick a day in his life. Under the hollowness, the booze seeped through him its insidiouis, seductive, golden-honeyed, poisonous message of sunshine and good will. (13)

The first allusion the author gives of the simultaneous physical and mental breakdown of Winch comes when he goes to visit an old Army buddy who has been stateside and getting rich off the black market:

 

"Tell me, what's it like out there, Mart? Pretty rough? Hunh? Where were you hit?"

Winch thought his own mind must be deserting him, because he felt ice-cold all over...Old T.D. refilled his glass. Winch's teeth clenched. He wanted to pick up the beautiful, precious bottle of Seven Crown and crown T.D. Hoggenbeck with it, split his skull...A picture of his blank-faced, fear-eyed platoons, bleeding and breathing mud for every yard of ground, passed across the inside of Winch's eyes...All this had nothing to do with this, nothing at all. (71)

 

As this exchange continues, Winch's friend, T.D., asks him if he has had a heart attack. Winch responds that it is nothing more than a "murmur." The implication is that this murmur will turn into a roar as the novel progresses.

 

The other main characters also begin to notice a change in Winch. Throughout the course of the trilogy these characters all know the First Sergeant to be someone who cares about the men and is in complete control of himiself. Now, however, after experiencing combat and the daily death of his troops, he's a much different man.

 

One of the main characters that returns stateside with Winch, is a Corporal named Prell. Prell's legs have been badly wounded by machine-gun fire and there is some question as to whether or not he will ever walk again; the doctor's are talking about amputation. Winch has known Prell since before the war and knows that such a fate would slowly kill the Corporal. In what can only be called a paradox of sympathy and caring, Wince theorizes that what Prell needs is an enemy to focus his mind on so as not to dwell on his wounds and feel sorry for himself. Winch's expression of his caring is a "heartless" display which is in keeping with his character's condition; Jones writes the following,

 

What Prell needed was enemies. An enemy he was going to fight....

"You reckon they'll give me a tin cup and some G.I. pencils to sell...."

 

"They'll do better than that. They'll give you a pension. And a leather leg...Just don't tell them about your squad." (His squad was cut to pieces in the same action in which he was wounded and cited for the Medal of Honor."

 

"You son of a bitch, I'll kill your sharecropping-ass...if it takes the rest of my life..."

 

"I don't think so. I'll probably be dead long before you're well enough...."

 

There was probably more truth in that than he realized when he said, it "Winch thought and grinned. Oh well. He would be Prell's enemy. Everybody needed one enemy. (153)

 

Four days after Winch and Prell had this conversation, Prell's legs started to improve remarkably.

 

The nightmares Winch experiences gradually turn into hallucinations. This is another indication that his condition is deteriorating:

 

...he thought about how the Company in the midst of its anguish of change was forgetting them. Forgetting him...and he dozed again...suddenly something, a dream, woke him up wanting to shout a command, "Get them out! Get them out of there! Fast! Move them left! Can't you see the mortars have them bracketed!" (198)

In his dream Winch mutters these words while on a bus, but soon these words will become audible to his friends and other patients at the hospital; another sign that "murmurs" are growing louder as his condition deteriorates. The hallucinations soon follow as Winch's conscious and subconscious begin to blend together:

 

Suddenly...a white picture formed on the windshield, as if etched by Steuben....Winch stared at it, engrossed...and recognized it...it was Jacklin. Pfc. Freddie Jacklin...one of the dead, from the platoons. The forever beleagured platoons of Winch's mind....It was the first time any of his nightmares had actually impinged upon his outside physical world and affected it. (302-303)

The face of Pfc. Jacklin is significant here because we find out that this soldier, in Winch's nightmare, is connected to the incident that Welsh had with Tella in The Thin Red Line. The difference between the two is that, in Whistle, Winch could not get to Jacklin to ease his pain. He was pinned down with the other troops and watching as Jacklin was repeatedly sniped at. This is his recurring nightmare.

 

The parallel relationshiop between Winch's physical condition and his deteriorating mental state recalls to mind analogy to Karen Holmes. She considers herself an empty shell because she has lost her womb, the essence of her womanhood. The First Sergeant, however, is emotionally empty and has lost his heart. Karen has lost the ability to be a mother and Warden has lost his troops, his children.

 

Though each novel is strong enough to stand on its own, when read together the reader experiences something of what the author actually underwent during a brief piece of his life. A life where he and his generation were thrown into the history books. But his trilogy asks us to remember that the process was not as antisceptic as the history books present things. Real people, just like the ones we know and meet everyday, were crippled, maimed and died horribly, sometimes alone, sometimes for no other reason than they were told to "get up and move that way" and they did; they were sons, they were brothers, they were fathers, they were soldiers.

 

On 9 May 1977 James Jones succumbed to congestive heart failure.

 

Bibliography

Giles, James. James Jones. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Jones, James. From Here to Eternity. New York: Dell, 1985. --. The Thin Red Line. New York: Scribner, 1962. --. Whistle: A Work-In-Progress By James Jones. New York: Delacorte, 1978. --. WWII. New York: Ballantine, 1975. MacShane, Frank. Into Eternity: The Life of James Jones, American Writer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

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