Jones is particularly good at describing enlisted men. This virtuosity, prominent in his earlier novel, From Here to Eternity (1951), can be seen throughout The Thin Red Line. In fact, these two books form the first two parts of a trilogy about World War II, despite their publication eleven years apart; the third book in the trilogy, Whistle, was not published until 1978. Jones’s fame as a writer will probably ultimately rest upon these three books—they are his major achievement. Jones knew his recruits very well, and few other writers about World War II can match him in probing their psychology. Jones is also quite good with his officers, although he tends to view them from the enlisted man’s point of view. Captain Stein, Captain Gaff, and Lieutenant Colonel Tall are complex characters, their motivations subtly, probingly investigated. It is natural to compare Jones’s novel to Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948): Mailer’s fictitious Pacific island, Anopopei, and Jones’s Guadalcanal closely resemble each other, Mailer’s Colonel Cummings and Jones’s Tall perform very similar functions, and the two authors share an animus against the battalion commanders. Although Tall lacks the paraphernalia of a “Time Machine” to fill in his background, he is just as sharply drawn, vivid, and complex as Cummings. The portrait of Captain Stein is fuller still, and one of the most sensitive depictions of a company commander in World War II literature.
Jones’s recruits, as noted above, are drawn with even more exactness and a surer knowledge or experience. Most of the members of C-for-Charlie Company are recruits. The realism of these portraits is open to no doubt—the pertinent question to ask, instead, is, How interesting are they? Though lifelike and...
Edward Welsh, the first sergeant in Charlie Company. He enlisted in the Army at the beginning of the Great Depression, believing that he had shrewdly escaped the general economic calamity but convinced that, as a career soldier, he would not escape the next war because of the pattern of America becoming involved in wars at roughly twenty-year intervals. His personality is full of paradoxes. Even though he cynically dismisses all ideals as empty and believes that all wars are struggles over property rights, he is completely uninterested in acquiring property and respects only the most fatalistic acceptance of the insignificance of the individual. Even though he has no combat experience before the Guadalcanal campaign, he instinctively understands and accepts the demands of battle and the likelihood of death. He takes every opportunity to exhibit his contempt for his subordinates and his superiors alike, but he has an underlying pity for their limitations and a desire to compensate for them. He lives up to his nickname of “Mad Welsh,” but at bottom he conceals a reflexive compassion to which he will not admit, even to himself. In particular, he singles out Corporal Fife for verbal abuse, recognizing that Fife is too self-reflective and has too strong a sense of self-preservation to be suited to combat. When Fife is finally injured seriously enough to be offered evacuation, it is Welsh’s further derision that, ironically, makes him decide to accept the offer. In effect, Welsh has saved Fife by allowing Fife to think that he is spiting him. In another instance, a soldier named Tella is gut-shot and left lying in screaming agony on the open ground cleared by enemy machine-gun fire. When a medic is cut down trying to administer morphine to Tella, Welsh insanely runs across the open ground to the wounded man. Although he cannot rescue Tella, he is able to administer the morphine to relieve his suffering and to quiet the screaming that is unnerving everyone. Afterward, he is so embarrassed at having revealed how much he cares for the men in his company that he loudly threatens Captain Stein for wanting to recommend him for the Silver Star. When the Guadalcanal campaign is almost over, Welsh contracts malaria but refuses to accept evacuation because it will mean being permanently separated from the company.
Storm, the mess sergeant in Charlie Company. In many ways, he is Welsh’s opposite. Whereas Welsh is explosively abusive of his men, Storm tries to be consistently self-controlled and reassuring. Whereas Welsh finds his emotional equilibrium in combat, Storm is appalled by the little combat he sees, in particular by his participation in the abuse of some Japanese prisoners after an especially fierce hand-to-hand engagement. When he is wounded, he gladly accepts evacuation, wanting only to prepare one last meal for the company before departing. At bottom, he believes that the levelheaded performance of his duties is all that he owes the men of Charlie Company.
John Bell, a private, later a sergeant, and finally a lieutenant in Charlie Company. A commissioned officer in the regular army in the years before the war, he resigned his commission when given an assignment that would require a prolonged separation from his wife, Marty. When he is drafted as a private into Charlie Company, the other soldiers regard him as something of an enigma because he exhibits no bitterness or presumptuousness about his having been an officer. Initially, Bell goes into combat...