Although Guard of Honor was one of the best military novels published shortly after the end of World War II, the war itself seems almost incidental to the action. The central problem of the book is how to manage a huge, complex, necessary institution in which a large number of men and women from all social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds reflecting the full spectrum of cultural, political, and racial attitudes must cooperate. The war only exacerbates preexistent social problems and underscores the severe dangers that can result if the system fails to function as it should.
James Gould Cozzens sees two likely problems in any institution: Incompetent or inadequate individuals will inevitably be placed in positions of authority, and the impersonal necessities of the organization will conflict with the justified personal needs of its functionaries. Reconciling these problems is the test to which Cozzens puts his characters. The “heroes” are those who recognize both the system’s fallibility and its necessity, those who try to compensate for the weaknesses by accepting more than their share of responsibilities. The villains are those who cannot or will not accept their responsibilities within the system, as well as those who try to “solve” the problems outside the system.
Cozzens introduces the reader to a number of authority figures who fail for a variety of reasons to do their jobs adequately: old Colonel Mowbray, who simply lacks the requisite intelligence to perform in the job that seniority has given him; his superior, Major General “Bus” Beal, who is a strong leader in times of active crisis but cannot handle the kind of problem that demands a slow, patient untangling of complex attitudes and relationships under continuing pressure; and Beal’s copilot, Lieutenant Colonel Benny Carricker, whose youthful, impulsive courage predisposes him to recklessness. Nevertheless, Cozzens suggests, such human weakness can be overcome if wiser and more dispassionate men are willing to accept additional responsibilities without thought of recognition or recompense.
The major action of the novel revolves around the racial tensions that surface at Ocanara when black Lieutenant Stanley Willis is struck by Carricker in a dispute over Willis’s violation of the right of way. Subsequently, a confrontation ensues when the blacks are banned from the white Officer’s Club. Willis, the potential black leader, is hospitalized, removing him from the situation, and Beal, the base commander, issues hasty and extreme orders and then escapes by going...
(The entire section is 1055 words.)