“The first note was clear and absolutely certain. There was no question or stumbling in this bugle. It swept across the quadrangle positively, held a fraction of a second longer than most buglers hold it. Held long like the length of time, stretching away from weary day to weary day. . . . This is the song of the men who have no place, played by a man who has never had a place, and can therefore play it. Listen to it. You know this song, remember?”
For novel readers who care about war and warriors who cared about novels, a great memory is the picture, seen in tens of millions of imaginations, and finally in a film, of Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt playing taps at Schofield Barracks, 25 miles from Honolulu, on the eve of Pearl Harbor, in James Jones’s great novel, “From Here to Eternity.” It was published 55 years ago and sold three million copies, and it is on my mind today because I’m thinking about the taps we will all hear this Monday, Memorial Day, at ceremonies and in cemeteries throughout the country. When I hear it I’m going to think of what my father always said when he heard taps. “Play it, Prewitt,” he’d say. Because that character was like men he’d known in the American army of World War II.
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It is good that we have this day to remember heroes, to think again of those who over the centuries put themselves in harm’s way for our country, for us. It is good that we remember, and take inspiration from, tales of valor, of flags carried uphill, like the one carried by the intrepid young First Lt. Arthur MacArthur, during a Union charge in the Civil War (he would go on to become a lieutenant general and the father of a son named Douglas), and heavily defended positions taken by a lone soldier, like Sgt. Alvin York in World War I. It’s good to remember the simple human potential for bravery that lives within all of us, and that in some is fully tapped and met with brilliant, unforgettable actions.
The starkest description of the meaning of what the members of the armed services do, and have done, is the simple observation that freedom of speech was not secured for us by editors, readers and writers, but by soldiers who gave their lives to win it and would give their lives to defend it.
But thinking of “From Here to Eternity” has me thinking of the old American Army of the 20th century, the Depression era, peacetime army that Jones captured as no one else ever had. It was an unspectacular thing, that Army, or seemed so until December 1941. Jones’s Pvt. Prewitt was a lost Southern boy who found a home in that Army. He and his friend Angelo Maggio of New York “could live better Inside.”
They came from little, had no money, had received indifferent public educations, and the 1930s Army they joined was neither racially integrated, gender-neutral nor adequately funded. The great divide, the caste system, was between officers and enlisted men. The latter were given training and discipline and were left with a passionate and passionately mixed attitude toward the institution that made them part of something as it chipped away at their individuality, that employed them and enslaved them, that made them men and often treated them like children.
When James Jones himself joined the Army, in 1937, a young man whose options seemed limited, he wrote back home, “This place is hell. They herd you around like cattle; they order you around like dogs; they work you like horses; and they feed you like hogs.” In the 1953 film of the novel, directed by Fred Zinnemann, the first shot after the credits is of men marching in brisk formation. But all you can see are their boots on a dusty field, perfect but anonymous.
They were not, the men of the peacetime, Depression-era Army, especially respected by the public they served.
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Our current Army is very different. Our people respect it, and its members are comparatively well-educated, largely middle-class, highly professional, and integrated in race and sex. Chances are good its members will be thanked when they return home from wherever they are—Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, elsewhere. It is a good thing we finally appreciate them, a good thing we, as a society, give them the honor they deserve. There are heroes among them, and their exploits too will be spoken of this Monday, and in Memorial Days of the future.
So here’s to them. May they flourish and be safe. Here’s to the heroes down the ages who did valorous, death-defying, death-ignoring things. And, this Monday, here’s to someone else. Here’s to the uncelebrated of the armies of the past, to all the men who went unlauded, who wanted to serve brilliantly, who didn’t always quite make it or didn’t quite get the call, who were replacement troops never sent to the front, whose service was comparatively undistinguished or unrecognized, but who were there, and did their job, and for us. And that’s enough. Here’s to them, and to their fictional counterparts Prewitt and Maggio, and all those who once found a home in the army.