Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1055
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 on solo airplane rides.
The brunt of the crisis falls on the shoulders of Colonel Norman Ross, who is a typical Cozzens hero. Although old and in precarious health, Ross accepts the responsibility for Beal’s job as well as his own, because he knows how quickly such incidents can get out of control. Ross acknowledges that the blacks have a basic right to equal treatment, but he is more afraid of disrupting the morale of the much larger group of white officers. In other words, the immediate practicality of the situation demands a moderate approach to the rights of the offended minority. A “parachutist,” he thinks to himself, “cannot climb back . . . . Gravity is a condition, not a theory. In our trouble with the colored officers we also have a condition, not a theory.”
Accepting this “condition,” Ross slowly works it out, devoting more energy to it than is good for his health and aware that nobody understands or appreciates what he is doing. He knows that “these are tough times . . . . We have a job; and a man who’s given part of it has to do it right—or else.” He also knows that, since some are not going to “do it right,” those others who see the difficulties as they arise must correct them immediately before they snowball into major disasters. Near the end of the book, a practice parachute jump ends in many deaths precisely because, in the early planning stages, small details are not worked out and small responsibilities not assumed.
Ross is not the only one to do more than his share. His problems are paralleled in those of several junior officers who take responsibility for the shortcomings of their men. The crisis is finally resolved when Lieutenant Willis returns to duty, takes over the leadership of the black officers, and moderates their demands.
Although Cozzens accepts well-intentioned failure with equanimity, he is less tolerant of overt challenges to authority. Lieutenant James Edsell represents the most destructive element in any organization, the individual who, acting out of a distorted moral sense, tries to force his own kind of solution to the problem. Edsell’s kind of liberalism refuses to see the complexities of the problem, and he agitates for a solution in accordance with his personal moralistic judgments. Edsell interprets all events in terms of his own assumptions and makes no attempt to learn the real facts.
Instead of helping the blacks to secure their demands, he intensifies the problem and sharpens the racial antagonisms by importing a black newspaperman to publicize the problem and Willis’s father to embarrass the Air Force. He not only attacks military policy, which he does not understand, but also competes with it. When the authorities attempt to move in the direction of his liberal views, he consciously avoids their help.
It is evident that Edsell is dedicated not to the betterment of the blacks at Ocanara but to the aggrandizement of his own self-righteous ego. Through the character of Edsell, Cozzens makes clear his attitude toward reformers and radicals who would force easy solutions to complex problems in accordance with their own abstract moral prejudices.
Cozzens makes no blanket approval of the system, but he demonstrates that its problems can be solved only within the institutional framework. There is, in Guard of Honor, no sudden revelation in time of crisis, only a painful awareness of the problems and of the methods necessary to solve them. At the center of those “solutions,” which are usually temporary, inefficient compromises—the only kind available to men in the real, everyday world—are men like Ross: rational, moderate, sensitive individuals willing to do whatever needs to be done, even at the sacrifice of self. The success or failure of human beings, Cozzens seems to suggest, depends on whether or not, in times of continuing crisis, individuals of reason can rise to the occasion.