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 that govern life. He forces Hearn to lead the platoon patrol in order to learn a lesson about what it takes to drive men to a goal.
The Naked and the Dead is a novel about what the shape of the post-World War II world would be like. The novel projects the possibility that fascists such as Cummings may dominate American politics even as the fascists of Asia, Germany, and Italy are defeated. The individuals in the platoon are largely seen as powerless to change this fate, for they are too tied to the circumstances of their upbringing and education, and to their ethnic and regional identities. Liberals such as Hearn, who might prove worthy opponents in argument, are subverted not only by those like Cummings but also by people like Croft, a lowlier sort who parallels in the trenches Cummings’ tactics in the strategy room.
Yet the novel does not suggest that fascism will ultimately triumph. Cummings’ military plans become obsolete as the Japanese surrender. Much of the history that Cummings thinks he controls by manipulation and power actually occurs by accident.
In the campaign against the Japanese during World War II, U.S. Army troops commanded by General Cummings land on the beach of Anopopei, an 150-mile-long South Pacific island held by the Japanese army. The platoon of Sergeant Samuel Croft is assigned to conduct reconnaissance on the beach. Croft’s men consider themselves lucky because this duty would keep them busy for a week or so while other troops go on the more dangerous patrols into the interior of the island. Red Valsen, however, resents any duties because of his disdain for authority. Croft is able to control all the men but Red. Sergeant Brown considers Croft the best and meanest platoon sergeant in the Army because he seems to love combat. Despite Croft’s courage and leadership, some of his men are fearful, especially after young Hennessey is killed by a mortar shell. After Croft begs for a replacement for Hennessey, he is given Roth, a pessimistic clerk who resents never getting anywhere in the civilian world despite his education. Of all his men, Croft likes only Julio Martinez, a reliable scout.
Lieutenant Robert Hearn, General Cummings’s aide, admires the general’s ability to put his thoughts into action but resents his own position, longing for a combat role. A snob who claims to know everything worth knowing, Cummings picks Hearn as his aide because he considers the lieutenant to be the only officer on his staff with the intellect to understand him. Cummings likes to remind...
(The entire section is 2,545 words.)