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The Suicide Run – William Styron

I picked this books up in New York a month back, but it got caught up in my travel bags and I didn’t read it on the plane. It has since languished in my room due to furious amounts of PhD work since I got back.

I’ll freely admit to not having read any of Styron’s work before. After finishing The Suicide Run it seems his best stuff was highly controversial and not at all related to this book. As literature, it is four short stories revolving around life in the US Marine Corps. What is interesting is that the stories are the forgotten half of service. Styron never saw action in WW2, and being denied the experience of combat seems to have had just as great an effect on him as it has on others. While I was reading, I couldn’t help but think of Jarhead by Anthony Swofford and, perhaps more tangentially, the blustering paratrooper commanding officer in The Eagle Has Landed, and David Schwimmer’s first episode turn in Band of Brothers. To put it mildly, I’m quite interested in the experiences of war that lie outside the normal infantryman-goes-to-combat-zone-and-shoots-people paradigm. Admittedly, the bang factor of the paradigm probably sells more than the sorts of stories I’m interested in. It seems to me that there’s a hidden seam of experience in soldiers that never got to shoot anyone. I think part of its hidden nature is that it is not the most thrilling of stories, but also that we’re culturally conditioned to forget it. We remember battles, we remember bangs and we remember body bags. We’re not inclined to remember the people that staffed training facilities, or held clerical roles. Kubrick’s _Full Metal Jacket_ might go against this grain, but I doubt that the movie would have been commercially viable without the midway transition to Vietnam.

I think part of the conditioning is that Styron’s stories are, for want of better words, remarkably civilian. Though framed in the strictures of life in the Marine Corps, they are human tales. The Suicide Run from which he book takes its title is an insane car/train journey that two marines on weekend passes repeatedly make to see women in New York City, returning to the south by Monday morning so as not to be declared AWOL. Had they been cast as civilians with a nasty boss, it would also be totally believable. In Mariott, the Marine, Styron’s lead castigates the marine corps, and shows clear disdain for its rituals and institutional memory. This is cast in his anti-war stance, but at the same time, as a person that has worked in pompous environments, its central premise is entirely civilian.

The problem with books like this is that they don’t fit into the neat military/civilian dichotomy that drives the genre of war literature. Civilians buy books about military people going to war for the unique experience. That soldiers might spend an entire war dealing with primarily civilian concerns, or indeed, react to events in a civilian manner and generally act as civilians except when on the parade ground, is neither here nor there. It is quite telling that the UK cover of this book has a picture of a fully kitted soldier running on the front cover, when not a single shot is fired in any of the stories, nor is anyone remotely near a combat situation. This kind of enforced dichotomy (of civilian expectation leading market production of cultural memory) is quite disturbing, in part because of its persistence. War is not merely a matter of male bonding under fire. It may have been at some point in the past, but it is far more pervasive these days. By defining war as combat, and restricting the memoirs and literature to this narrow slice of the total experience, I think there’s problems being stored up or the future, if not the near-present. In particular, it serves to distance the military from the people they serve.  Cantoning them in this manner, and blindly ignoring/forgetting anything that might muddy the gap between the two worlds, is a dangerous road to tread. I look forward to reading the Styron’s bred in the last ten years.