The Naked and the Dead centers on a platoon of soldiers on the Asian island of Anopopei sent on a mission behind enemy lines. As the platoon advances, the novel flashes back to the soldiers’ lives at home, showing how their identities have been shaped by their ethnic, racial, and regional cultures.
There is, for example, Wilson, an easygoing Texan, who favors strong drink and women. Joey Goldstein is self-consciously Jewish but good with his hands. Roth, another Jew, dislikes dwelling on his Jewishness and is bitter about his inability to get a job during the Depression, despite his being a graduate of City College in New York. He is countered by the anti-Semitic Gallagher, a Boston Irishman, and Sergeant Croft, another Texan, brutal and intolerant. Croft clashes with Lieutenant Hearn, a Harvard graduate who takes over leadership of the platoon. Croft is responsible for leading Hearn into an ambush that costs his life. Mexican and Italian characters round out Mailer’s impressive geographical and ethnic study of American identity.
The main conflict in the novel is the debate between Lieutenant Hearn and General Cummings. Hearn is a liberal who resists the authoritarian nature of the Army. He wants to lead men because they voluntarily acknowledge his right to rule. Cummings disdains what he considers Hearn’s sentimental view of human nature and government. To the general, it is discipline, force, and imagination that win wars and...
(The entire section is 420 words.)