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The Thin Red Line by James Jones
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The Thin Red Line (1962)

by James Jones

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I saw the 1998 movie version of this book in theaters when it came out. I remember that I was completely mesmerized and transported by it. It was a movie about war unlike any I'd ever seen before - it was mostly quiet and internal. Walking out of the theater, I found out I was pretty much alone in my enjoyment of it - people all around me said it was slow, boring, pointless. I mention this because I think the movie version prepared me for the book, which is probably just as divisive.

The story floats among a wide cast of characters as they arrive on Guadalcanal. (A special note at the beginning of the book points out that the terrain and battles contained in the book are fictitious, but that Jones placed the imaginary battles on Guadalcanal because of the emotion the island evoked.) You meet Pfc Doll, Cpl Fife, Sgt Welsh ... just about everyone has a simple, one-syllable name which is also a word: Band, Queen, Tall, Bell, Dale, Witt, Field, Cash, Beck. At the beginning, they're green recruits who miss the relative comforts of army life in a non-combat zone (and one where it's not constantly raining), apprehensive about what lies ahead. Shortly, as they're thrust into the thick of fighting, they become battle-tested veterans. How they react to their experiences is varied, and we are privy to each man's thoughts, reactions and self-assessments. The inability to ever really know what's going on in someone else's head is a theme visited frequently. You often see things from more than one point of view - what caused someone to act like they did, or what they were trying to convey, and how it was viewed by someone else.

I think that you have to just surrender yourself to the experience of the book. Jones' terrain may be fictional, but he is absolutely certain about how it looks and feels. He transports you to the humid, muddy island, its jungles and rocky hills. The progress made toward the next target is often slow, then suddenly shots are fired and you're thrown into confusion. People act heroically for the wrong reasons, cowardly for the right ones, and the reverse of both of those as well. The soldiers are frustratingly human, and occasionally disturbingly inhuman.

If you're looking for Band of Brothers, this isn't the war experience you want to read about. The men of C-for-Charlie company aren't members of Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation," they're just scared young men wondering how they can keep their fear from showing. They fight because there's no way to get out of it. The book explores the idea that a war is fought by an army, but the army is made up of individuals who are each fighting their own war. They all have go through the same things, and yet no one experiences them the same way. Through a number of different characters, Jones repeats the idea that "many more people were going to live through this war than got killed in it," and you realize its value as a mantra when you're in a life-and-death situation that often seems to be a lottery.

Recommended for: fans of Catch-22 and/or The Things They Carried, anyone looking for an antidote to the romanticizing of war, people who know better than to get too attached to characters in a war zone.

Quote: "It was easy to see, when you looked at it from one point of view, that all prisoners were not locked up behind bars in a stone quadrangle. Your government could just as easily imprison you on, say, a jungled island in the South Seas until you had done to its satisfaction what your government had sent you there to do." ( )
3 vote ursula | Feb 18, 2013 |
Soldiers war military ( )
  Poprockz | Jan 27, 2011 |
Almost as good as the movie. ( )
  br77rino | Apr 18, 2010 |
3707. The Thin Red Line, by James Jones (read 28 Feb 2003) This fictional account of the Army on Guadacanal has a lot of realistic-seeming battle accounts, but none of the characters inspired and furthermore the account was so diffuse that I was glad when I came to the last page. I remember enjoying From Here to Eternity (read 23 Apr 1961) much more. ( )
  Schmerguls | Jul 21, 2007 |
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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.
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The two transports had sneaked up from the south in the first graying flush of dawn, their cumbersome mass cutting smoothly through the water whose still greater mass bore them silently, themselves as gray as the dawn which camouflaged them.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385324081, Paperback)

"When compared to the fact that he might very well be dead by this time tomorrow, whether he was courageous or not today was pointless, empty. When compared to the fact that he might be dead tomorrow, everything was pointless. Life was pointless. Whether he looked at a tree or not was pointless. It just didn't make any difference. It was pointless to the tree, it was pointless to every man in his outfit, pointless to everybody in the whole world. Who cared? 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."

Such is the ultimate significance of war in The Thin Red Line (1962), James Jones's fictional account of the battle between American and Japanese troops on the island of Guadalcanal. The narrative shifts effortlessly among multiple viewpoints within C-for-Charlie Company, from commanding officer Capt. James Stein, his psychotic first sergeant Eddie Welsh, and the young privates they send into battle. The descriptions of combat conditions--and the mental states it induces--are unflinchingly realistic, including the dialog (in which a certain word Norman Mailer rendered as "fug" 15 years earlier in The Naked and the Dead appears properly spelled on numerous occasions). This is more than a classic of combat fiction; it is one of the most significant explorations of male identity in American literature, establishing Jones as a novelist of the caliber of Herman Melville and Stephen Crane.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:21:59 -0400)

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They are the men of C-for-Charlie Company. "Mad" 1st Sgt. Eddie Welsh, SSgt. Don Doll, Pvt. John Bell, Capt. James Stein, Cpl. Fife, and dozens more just like them, infantrymen in "this man's army" who are about to land grim and white-faced on an atoll in the Pacific called Guadalcanal. This is their story, a shatteringly realistic walk into hell and back. In the days ahead some will earn medals; others will do anything they can dream up to get evacuated before they land in a muddy grave. But they will all discover the thin red line that divides the sane from the mad, and the living from the dead, in this unforgettable portrait that captures for all time the total experience of men at war.… (more)

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