To Keep Our Honor Clean
This novel is prefaced by two quotations, one from the Marines’ Hymn and the other from William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The title of the novel has its source in the Hymn—“First to fight for right and freedom,/ and to keep our honor clean,/ We are proud to claim the title,/ of United States Marine.” From Shakespeare comes the commentary on the fantastic tricks played by proud men dressed in “a little brief authority,” the tricks that make the angels weep. These literary references indicate something about the subject of the novel, the fatal flaw that consistently has appeared in Western man’s character from the time at least of the Genesis story—the devastating sin of pride.
As the Marines’ Hymn proclaims, the Marine is proud precisely because his horor is clean and he fights for right and freedom. Meanwhile, the angels mourn the folly of man. In the first few paragraphs of the novel, the treatment that Edwin McDowell will give to this familiar theme of pride and punishment becomes apparent. The recruits on the bus headed for Parris Island “realized for the first time the finality of their decision to join the Marines.” Once they pass through the gates, there is no escape. Their irrevocable choice to become Marines—or, in other words, to make themselves proud—leads them into a miasma of brutality and perverted patriotism.
Thus, the fictional reality of the novel presents an ideal context for exploring the complex ontological question of sin and its relationship to suffering, the theological mystery that is one of the bases of the Judeo-Christian heritage. As McDowell creates his narrative of what really happens at the infamous Parris Island training camp, he has the opportunity to deal with a myth central to Western cultural tradition. A group of men have chosen to become Marines, to groom themselves to be the best, the most patriotic, the elite of fighting men. They enter basic training and subsequently are subjected to irrational, savage brutality and humiliation at the hands of their drill instructors.
As in every experience for which there is no rational explanation or justification, mythic interpretations of the world offer solace to the sufferer. The Marine recruit, who has believed himself capable of being superior, suffers Prometheus-like for his pride, and survives to become part of that elite group only if he is able to endure the senseless punishment that he has brought down on himself.
The fictional world created by McDowell is replete with possibilities for a profound exploration of man’s nature. Unfortunately, he ignores these possibilities and develops instead a narrative that turns out to be primarily a journalistic account of the techniques used by the Marines to convert normal young men into soldiers capable of killing before they are killed. This is partly the result of too much attention to the actions of his characters and too little development of their personalities. The reader knows what they do, but very little about what they really are.
Although this novel is the story of a large number of characters, the four most important form a representative group. Floyd Krupe is the senior drill instructor, a typical example of the tough, dedicated teacher of weak, untrained, young recruits. Thomas Dutton is the would-be soldier, characterized by the idealism and dedication of youth. Christopher Sanders is the hero, the assistant drill instructor disturbed by injustice and disillusioned by his inability to right the wrongs of the world. Susan Brewer is the young woman victimized by the Korean conflict, a war widow with a child, who falls in love with yet another man destined for the battlefield, Corporal Sanders.
Each of these characters is faced with a conflict in the course of the novel. Dutton, who has joined the Marines because his best friend died as a Marine in Korea, finds that the brutal training period has inured him to the injustices of the world....
(The entire section is 1637 words.)