The Officers' Wives
When Ernest Hemingway, in A Farewell to Arms (1929), had Frederic Henry state “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, sacrifice and the expression in vain,” most writers and readers felt that a new era had come for the novel of men at war. Hemingway’s chief literary rival at the time, Erich Remarque and his book All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), was making the same point. For later generations, there have been books such as Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948), Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), each more insistently reinforcing the empty rhetoric of war-makers and the absurd pointlessness of the bitter sacrifices involved. Thomas Fleming, a man of great knowledge of military history and no novice at novel-writing, seems, in general, to have ignored his literary forebears in writing The Officers’ Wives in 1981. So do most of his characters, for of the major ones, especially throughout the debacles of Korea and Vietnam, only two ever question the relevance of those “abstract nouns,” and of them, only one questions the way the Army is applying them, not their existence as a true ideal for every officer and soldier to realize in his vocation. The wives’ function is primarily to help them achieve these goals, as well as to improve their husbands’ chances for promotion.
If Fleming’s attitude toward heroism and other traditional military values undermines the credibility of his novel, an equally serious problem is structural: in spite of Fleming’s grasp of history and the military, and his mastery in interweaving intricate plot lines, the counter-theme of the male-female “war” threatens to dominate the novel, pushing it toward soap opera.
No one who has been even briefly connected with the military will doubt the author’s expertise after his brief descriptions of American bases such as Ft. Ripley, Ft. Staunton, and Ft. Leavenworth. Only the name, the size, the climate, and the terrain change, not the separation of ranks: the rows of barracks; the married enlisted men’s quarters crowded with minority groups; the almost all-white population of the officers quarters, very small, almost lacking in privacy, overflowing with young children in the junior officers section; the separate senior officers quarters, growing in size and elegance appropriate to rank—all orderly and clean, at least on the outside. Fleming describes the Officers Club, the dances and parties where the men gravitate to one end of the room for “army talk” while the wives are left together to chat about “women’s things”; the Officers’ Wives Club and its endless committees, coffees (sherry is served), luncheons (cocktails are served), the bridge lunches or afternoons, the “official” officers’ wives book; the endless lines at the base hospital, the competent doctors who soon become bored dealing primarily with pregnancies, deliveries, and childhood diseases; the overflowing commissary on pay day.
Fleming is convincing in his evocation of the life-style and physical presence of Mautbrunnen, and Donaulinger, Germany; of Ankara, Turkey; of Yokoshima, Japan; the Hawaiian beaches and Schofield; and Bangkok, Thailand—all have an authentic ring. Occasionally, the settings become symbolic of interior states of mind: the city of Boston as opposed to Ft. Staunton as Joanna has her first anxiety attack; the omnipresent ice coating all of Ft. Leavenworth while Joanna’s marriage and her attachment to the Army “team” freeze over. The darkness, chaos, and evil of the night in Korea when Honor is raped (a bit of heavy-handed symbolism, especially since it almost happens again when Adam is in Vietnam) become rapidly symbolic of the chaotic evil of the entire Korean situation.
The historical background which surrounds and gives meaning to these locales reminds the reader of the dangerous potential for crises beginning in small, distant nations to become full-fledged wars, as physically and morally debilitating as Vietnam. The atomic bombs of today, the military tactic of overwhelming force seems no longer viable in such situations, as Fleming has Adam Thayer conclude in his fictional doctoral dissertation, an idea fought about in the Pentagon, but...
(The entire section is 1766 words.)