Long before William Styron became famous for The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) and Sophie’s Choice (1979)  he wrote a slim fiction about Marine Corps reserves re-training to be deployed to Korea. The Long March (1952) is slender, barely a novella, and a bit of a puzzle even after all the pieces are put in order.

Opening with a gruesome description of eight dead marines, caught at camp-breakfast by live-fire short-rounds, stopping briefly at one of those dreaded training lectures with lights out and seat-mates snoring, the main part of the story is, indeed, a long march.  It’s in mid-summer in 1950s (North) Carolina.  Despite the death of the men in the neighboring battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Templeton — “a man to whom the greatest embarrassment would be a show of emotion”–  is determined to take his men on a brutal 36 mile, all-night, hike. (At the regulation 2 1/2 miles an hour that is almost 15 hours; forced). “The Battalion’s been doping off,” he says.  The men need some esprit.

The two major protagonists are Culver, a thirty-something Marine reserve, “one of the brightest juniors in a good New York law firm,” and Mannix, “a dark heavy-set Jew from Brooklyn.”  Both had fought in WWII and both have been called back called back to duty because of the escalating tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States over the Korean peninsula.  They have been in re-training for about 5 months

Lieutenant Culver,”felt weirdly as if he had fallen asleep in some barracks in 1945 and had awakened in a half-dozen years or so to find that the intervening freedom, growth and serenity had been only a glorious if prolonged dream.” He had fought at Okinawa, and “seen a lot of blood spilled” But now “[h]e was almost thirty, he was old, and he was afraid.”

Mannix is his angry foil, expressing his contempt at the whole military apparatus, and at being called back.

“Mannix despised everything about the Marine Corps.  In this attitude he was like nearly all the reserves, it was true, but Mannix was more noisily frank in regard to his position.  He detested Templeton not because of any slight or injustice, but because Templeton was a lieutenant colonel, because he was a regular, and because he possessed over Mannix — after six years of freedom–an absolute and unquestioned authority.” 

Called on during the lecture, through which he dozed, Mannix dares resist a senior officer’s question, In fact, he dares to speak back.

 “…there is hardly anybody in this room who knows that answer… they’ve forgotten everything they ever learned seven years ago.  Most of them don’t even know how to take an M-1 apart.  They’re too old.  They should be home with their families.”  His words “met with a complete, astounded hush”

Much of the book is about the march, the psychological battle in Culver, and others, to keep going:

“Culver was afraid he wasn’t going to make it… his fear was mingled with a vain, fugitive pride.”

Or

“Panic-stricken, limping with blisters and with exhaustion, and in mutinous despair, the men fled westward … they pressed into the humid, sweltering light of the new day.”

Most readers take from the story a view of anti-militarism and American complaint about conformity. “”None of this Hemingway crap for me, Jack,” says Mannix. What I read, however, is in a certain sense, a recruiting story: men pushed to the limit, and beyond, become men. Despite “despising” the Corps, Mannix responds as it intends him to do.

The courts-martial tempting outburst in the lecture does not stir rebellion. No argument is brought forward against injury to so many men.  The anger is directed not obviously to the colonel, or any higher-ups, but a) against themselves, and b) against those subordinate to them.  In a perfect example of the latest discoveries of male testosterone, its increase in middle status apes does not turn them against their superior tormentors, but much more brutally against their own subordinates.  As has long been said in the military, “all shit runs down hill.”

“… underneath his rebellion, Culver finally knew, Mannix — like all of them– was really resigned.  Born into a generation of conformists, even Mannix (so Culver sensed) was aware that his gestures were not symbolic, but individual, therefore hopeless, maybe even absurd and that he was trapped like all of them in a predicament which one personal insurrection could, if anything, only make worse.”

Under the nonconformity, conformity wins, masked by self-satisfaction at “rebellion”; the rebel rebels to prove himself to his master. It’s a training device as old as Homo sapiens. The colonel notices.

 “…he, too, had detected in the Captain’s tone that note of proud and willful submission, rebellion in reverse.”

Men do what men must do: they prove they can do even the unnecessary and harmful, in order to gain and retain status in a group, as measured by their own cup of self-respect,

Though Mannix knows the march has been ordered as an “exploit,” his response is not to protect his troops, but to prove himself to the Colonel.

“He looked up at the Colonel  “You’re goddam right, Jack, we’re going to make it sir,” he said. My company’s going to make it if I have to drag in their bodies.”

Then,

All right! … Saddle up, saddle up!  get off your asses and straighten up! 71  voice with a note of desperation,,,wildly fanatic about one idea:P to last. Not because the hike was good or even sensible…but out of hope of triumph, like a chain-gang convict who endures a flogging without the slightest whimper, only to spite the flogger.”

Culver, despite some seventy-two hours of being awake with training exercises and work vows, on a radio watch that “he would stay awake”  Mannix not only doesn’t refuse to not march but berates and urges men below him to stay off the trucks and keep on marching.

At the end of the long march, a good part of it with a nail driving into his swelling foot, what does Mannix say?

“What the hell,” he whispered, “we made it.”

I’m not sure what Styron intended but this is the essence, the boiled down wisdom of marine (male) pride: Overcoming even the unreasonable and irrational and be a man.

Ω

Then, at the end, we get something else.  Waking from a restless sleep,

“Culver felt a deep vast hunger for something he could not explain, nor ever could remember having known quite so achingly.  He only felt that all of his life he had yearned for something that was as fleeting and as noncommunicable, in its beauty, … a serenity, a quality of repose — he could not call it by name, but only that, somehow, it had always escaped him.  he felt that he had hardly ever known a time in his life when he was not marching or sick with loneliness or afraid.

And Mannix?  We meet someone we have not been introduced to, a Mannix Culver has held within him, not sharing with us.

“Old Al, with the back unbreakable, the soul of pity– where was he now, great unshatterable vessel of longing, lost in the night, astray at mid-century in the never-endingness of war?

And then the first appearance of real, human pity and concern — from neither a marine, nor a man, nor a Caucasian.   Covered with a towel and barely able to walk down the corridor, Mannix  meets an old Negro maid.   She sees his swollen ankle, and sympathizes.

“Oh my, you poor man, What you been doin?”  Do it hurt?”

And he answers  “not with self-pity but only with the tone of a man who, having endured and lasted, was too weary to tell her anything but the truth.”

“Deed it does,” he said

Ω

We are left with a question.  What does Styron see here? Protest against military stupidity, or acknowledgement of its utility?  Early on, Mannix grumbles

“He was nobody’s lousy hero, and he’d get out of this outfit some way.  Yet, Culver speculated, who really was  a hero anymore?  Mannix’s disavowal of faith put him automatically out of the hero category, in a classical sense, yet if suffering was part of the hero’s role, wasn’t Mannix as heroic as any?”

And then goes on:

“No, perhaps Mannix wasn’t a hero, any more than the rest of them, caught up by wars in which, decade by half-decade, the combatant served peonage to the telephone and the radar and the thunderjet– a horde of cunningly designed, and therefore treacherous, machines.”   “…his one particular suffering had made him angry, had given him an acute, if cynical, perception about their renewed bondage and a keen nose for the winds that threatened to blow up out of the oppressive weather of their surroundings and sweep them all into violence.”

And yet, Mannix’s “we made it” and the ” ‘deed it does” are the essence of the heroic, exactly what men aspire to, and their militaries demand of them.  Almost as if, starting out with one thing in mind, Styron grudgingly comes to the other.

Or, perhaps it’s just a story, without thematic intent. In that story are men who hate the military and accept it at the same time, with stoicism and pride.

Ω

Though still warming up to his most celebrated books, Styron occasionally shows us that wondrous prose he used so powerfully, later.

“Culver  turned dizzily away … and watched the wreck of a Negro cabin float past through the swirling dust: shell-shattered doors and sagging walls, blasted faςade — a target across which for one split second seemed to crawl the ghosts of the bereaved and departed, mourning wraiths come back t

 

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