Early in the novel, Knott tells readers that an Army briefing is an explanation and that “probably, in a certain way, this whole book . . . is a briefing.” His “briefing” is nothing less than a denunciation of the idiocy of war and a vigorous assertion of the value of friendship and love. William Wharton anatomizes the military experience from the point of view of immature soldiers—not, as films so often suggest, battle-hardened, fully grown adults—and the result is anything but an Audie Murphy paean to manhood achieved through combat.
These six soldiers are actually boys who wrestle with their emerging sexuality, desiring yet also fearing sex. Paul Mundy, a devout and aspiring seminarian, leaves his vocation after masturbating and thus breaking his vow of chastity. He is the squad’s conscience yet believes that he is a sinner and unworthy of respect. The others scheme to lose their virginity by purchasing the services of a prostitute before they ship out. Instead, they attract a girl no older than they are who is in mourning over a fiancé killed in the war.
Like all young people, these boys have elaborate plans for their futures. Stan Shutzer intends to rid the world of anti-Semitic Nazis and then set off on a career as an advertising executive in his own agency. Wilkins yearns to return home and start a family, Knott plans to satisfy his impulse to doodle by becoming an artist, and Mel Gordon vows to reject his father’s dental practice for a career as a doctor.
The theme of innocence confronting experience is foremost in the...
(The entire section is 647 words.)