What is Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions about and who are his characters?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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As we are limited in space, below is a general description of what the approximately 700-page book is about and its three main characters, as well as links to further information.

Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions is a tale about the stories of three different soldiers in World War II. The three main characters are Michael Whitacre, an American from New York; Noah Ackerman, a Jewish American from Santa Monica; and Christian Diestl, a German from Austria. At the climax of the book, all three soldiers' lives unite while walking through the woods of the Hurtgen Forest along the Rhine river and between Belgium and Germany, a position the Allied forces took as they advanced from France, pushing the Germans towards the Rhine and into Germany. When Christian sees the two Americans who are making their way back to the front line of the battle at Hurtgen Forest, he decides to attack them in one last final attempt at victory instead of defeat. In a very symbolic ending, Christian the German successfully kills Noah the Jewish American and wounds Michael the vain and complacent New Yorker, but Michael kills Christian and, just like all the Americans who took on the responsibility of rescuing the Jews from injustice, carries Noah back to the platoon at the front line.

Just like the climax of the book, the characters themselves are also very symbolic of attitudes and circumstances that were typical of the era. Michael is a typical rich American who is a successful writer for Broadway and Hollywood and has a beautiful wife. He enlists in the war because he hates fascism but, like a typical, vain, complacent American, really has no intention of getting his hands dirty. He especially changes his mind about wanting to fight in the war when at boot camp he realizes he will be fighting alongside "fellow Americans who are uneducated, prejudiced, and unthinking," and just generally of a lower class than Michael is (eNotes, "Characters"). Hence, after boot camp, he uses his friends in high places to be transferred to a unit that is not active in combat. However, after being injured by a truck during an air raid, while waiting to be reassigned to a safer zone, he meets Noah the Jewish American who also attended the same boot camp as Michael. Michael is so taken by Noah's attitude towards fighting the war and defeating the Germans that he agrees to go with Noah through the Hurtgen Forest to the battle's front line, knowing that if he looked back on the war, he would regret his reluctance to act.

Just as Michael embodies the typical American upper class, Noah embodies the brave and suffering Jew. The more Noah suffers, the braver he gets. Though he suffers from the anti-Semitic feelings of the soldiers in his own American platoon, he proves to be a very brave and successful soldier during the all-important Battle of Normandy. Though, just like millions of other Jews, Noah is killed by the Christian German, ironically named Christian, Noah emerges as a hero in the story who even transforms Michael into a hero as well.

Finally, Christian, the German from Austria, embodies the bitterly ironic Christian German that was characteristic of this time. Throughout the book, the author describes Christian's "moral deterioration" as the early Nazi successes lead him to his own conquests over the spoils of war, such as women (eNotes, "Summary"). What's more, as he becomes indoctrinated by the Nazi's belief in supremacy, he becomes more and more brutal, especially as Nazi failures lead to Nazi retreats and Christian's own personal need to survive. He even resorts to abandoning his own men and even killing guiltless civilians. Hence, Christian clearly symbolizes the state of moral decay the German Christians fell into as they began living out their supremist philosophy massacring innocent people.

As the book progresses, all three characters learn a very important lesson of survival--survival depends on the company of others, not just on one's self. Michael especially reflects well on how survival depends on the company of others when he observes that it is on the front lines there are the fewest soldiers, as we see in the passage:

Only here, in the face of the enemy, were the numbers sparse. Only here, in the dreary autumn weather, among the damp and slit-trenches, did it seem as though the Army were representing a decimated, impoverished nation of beggars.

Hence we see that the book is a mixture of symbolic representation and a portrayal of the horrors of war and moral decay. 

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