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Literature / The Naked and the Dead

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No, it's not a Film Noir.

The novel that put Norman Mailer on the map. Written in 1948, The Naked and the Dead is set During the War—specifically, World War II—and is based on the author's own experiences in the Philippines. The story follows a platoon of foot soldiers, led by the sadistic Sergeant Croft, during the campaign for a small (fictional) Pacific island. Meanwhile, a young lieutenant named Hearn is assigned as an aid to the divisional commander, General Cummings, only to learn that Cummings is a Villain with Good Publicity, who maintains a PR facade with his subordinates, especially the enlisted men, but is in reality a cruel tyrant trying to subtly break down the morale of his men to keep them in line. Eventually, both Plot Threads collide and hilarity ensues.

Critically acclaimed, it is notable for its dark, cynical deconstruction of the "Good War", The Squad and numerous other war tropes before they were even clichéd. It is also famous for the use of the word "fug" in-lieu of the normal "fuck". It also utilizes a concept called the "Time Machine", which is a flashback of the lives of the men before the war and further exploration of their characters.

Made into a 1958 movie, directed by Raoul Walsh, starring Aldo Ray as Staff Sergeant Croft, Cliff Robertson as Lieutenant Hearn and Raymond Massey as General Cummings. The film had a much happier and more hopeful ending than the novel.

This work contains examples of:

  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Several characters, Brown most vehemently, fear this to no end.
  • Accidental Marriage: Wilson woke up married after one drunken night. He wasn't bothered by it; he stayed with his wife and had a child with her, though continued to sleep with other women as well.
  • Anti-Hero: Pretty much every character, except for maybe Goldstein and Ridges, and Croft and Cummings who are straight-up villians.
  • Anyone Can Die: Several of the characters are dead by the end of the book, including Wilson, Roth, and Hearn.
  • Armchair Military: Cummings, who is fairly competent nonetheless. Also Dalleson, who blunders his way into winning the campaign through luck.
  • Armoured Closet Gay: General Cummings makes it clear that he has homosexual inclinations if you read between the lines of what he says in his conversations with Lt. Hearn. The General also makes clear that he leads a "respectable" (but childless) married life with his wife and doesn't act on his inclinations. It's strongly implied that Cummings sent Hearn on what was likely to be a fatal mission because in a moment of weakness the General let Hearn know his secret.
  • Bawdy Song: The patrol members sing "Roll Me Over in the Clover" near the end of the book.
  • Bearer of Bad News: Father Hogan to Gallagher.
  • Believing Their Own Lies:
    • After Wyman loses his grip on a some equipment he's hauling up a hill and denies responsibility due to fear of Croft, he spends a moment thinking he really is blameless.
    • Martinez lies to Hearn about the presence of Japanese soldiers in a pass because Croft ordered bun to, but later denies responsibility and insists that he told Hearn the truth and Hearn ignored him and lied to the rest of the platoon (something a skeptical Red eventually calls Martinez out on). His desire to bury his guilt and responsibility for the patrol going into dangerous territory and multiple people dying make Martinez start to believe the lie he's telling.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Hearn is dead, Croft and Cummings get away with their crimes and the platoon are implied to be taking part in the Battle of the Philippines. That been said, Croft and Cummings are at least somewhat humbled, the platoon earn some pride from being able to almost make it to the top of Mount Anaka and there's no certainty they'll be killed in further combat.
  • Blood Knight: Croft, a villainous example, relishes killing enemy soldiers above all else.
  • Bring My Brown Pants: New Meat Hennessey soils himself during a mortar bombardment. When he leaves his foxhole to clean himself, he is killed by said mortar. The veterans Lampshade this with an oft-repeated expression, "Keep a tight ass-hole".
  • Butt-Monkey: Roth is picked on the platoon, sometimes for his Jewishness, and others for his patheticness. Even his death is ridiculous; he tries to leap a gap in Mount Anaka and falls to his death.
  • Cannon Fodder: Red has no illusions that he and his comrades are this.
  • Conscription. Most of the soldiers are draftees.
  • Cultured Warrior: Cummings and Hearn often discuss politics and philosophy amongst themselves.
  • Death by Racism: While many of the officers and enlisted men alike are pretty racist or anti-semitic, Wilson probably uses the most racial slurs of all them and dies from an Agonizing Stomach Wound.
  • Death Notification: Inverted. Gallagher learns from the chaplain that his wife has died in childbirth.
  • Disappeared Dad: Martinez enlists in the army to escape an unwanted pregnancy.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Both Cummings and Croft target this against Hearn. Cummings, humiliated by the self-loathing he showed in front of Hearn and irritated when Hearn soils his tent floor with a cigarette, sends him to the platoon for the patrol. Croft, humiliated when Hearn assumes command of the platoon and forces him to apologize for crushing Roth's bird, sends him to his death.
  • Drinking on Duty: The platoon getting drunk in the rear camp. Wilson ends up drinking on guard, and shoots a .30 cal into a bush, which gets him chewed out by Croft.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Hearn, who has perhaps the most detailed background and characterization, gets killed off quickly and unceremoniously.
    • And Roth, who doesn't even get the somewhat "honor" of being killed in combat. He falls to his death because he fails to make it across a gap in Mount Anaka.
  • During the War
  • The Eeyore: Roth is easily depressed and very pessimistic.
  • Ensign Newbie: He's been an officer for some time, but when Hearn is assigned to the platoon, he fits this trope.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Even Croft calls Red Valsen "Red" most of the time. Also, to a lesser extent, "Japbait" (Martinez). "Polack" as well.
  • A Father to His Men: Deconstructed. Croft doesn't even bother; he considers officers and squad leaders who buddy with their men "womanish". Cummings puts on a pretense of this to hide his tyrannical nature. Hearn tries but most of the men, especially the veterans, reject him. (Then again, many of them loathe all officers).
  • Fatal Family Photo:
    • Croft once captures a Japanese soldier. Croft first treats him so nicely, that he ends up showing him a picture of his family. Croft then shoots him in the head.
    • No photos are shown, but Roth and Wilson, both married father's, are killed off. In an Inversion, Gallagher's wife dies in childbirth, but Gallagher survives.
    • Averted with Goldstein, who shows a photo of his son to Gallagher, but survives.
  • Field Promotion: Stanley to Corporal.
  • Forever War: Many of the protagonists, particularly the veterans, view it as one, although the novel is set in 1944, one year before the end of World War II.
  • Friend to All Living Things: The death of a bug and a bird both upset Ridges.
  • Freudian Excuse: Croft's "time machine" tries to explain his sadism, whether it was his father beating him, or his wife cheating on him. It is implied he was born that way.
  • Glory Hound: Sergeant Croft and General Cummings both fit this role, though Croft is the foul-playing war-lover, whereas Cummings is part of the Armchair Military. Cummings believed war can be calculated with a formula, whereas Croft is just bloodthirsty. Either way, they're both out for glory regardless of the cost, and both attempt to send Lieutenant Hearn, one of the protagonists, to his death. They are successful. Cummings assigns Hearn to Croft's squad, and Croft sends Hearn ahead to lead the group, and he gets killed in an ambush because Croft deliberately failed to tell him that he was walking towards a machine gun. Stanley is also constantly looking for a promotion by brown-nosing.
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck!: Famously, "fug". Mailer's editor persuaded him to change it, because the word is used liberally throughout the text. However, the word "shit" and other softer swears remain uncensored. Allegedly, when Dorothy Parker was introduced to Mailer at a party, she introduced herself with: "So, you're the man who can't spell fuck?"
  • Gonk: Some of the descriptions of several soldiers, notably Gallagher, Ridges, Hearn and Roth, border on this.
  • Happily Married: Goldstein and his wife, Natalie as shown by his "Time Machine". Theirs is the only happy and harmonious marriage in the novel.
  • I Will Only Slow You Down: A wounded Wilson repeatedly tells his litter bearers that he’s going to die and they shouldn’t risk their lives trying to carry him further.
  • In Harm's Way: Croft loves combat.
  • Instant Death Bullet: Averted when Wilson finally dies of his stomach wound after an agonising haul through the jungle. Played straight with Hearn.
  • Lighter and Softer: In the Film of the Book, Hearn survives his wounds and Croft is killed in combat, while Hearn died and Croft never faced any consequences for his behavior in the book.
  • Karma Houdini: Croft. Also Cummings, who is humiliated when Dalleson wins the campaign by accident, but mentioned in dispatches as the victor nonetheless. Nonetheless, this is somewhat punishment for Cummings, as it is a major blow to his ego, and Croft has learned he has limits to his power.
  • Kick the Dog: Croft, when he captures a Japanese soldier. First, it looks like he's going to Pet the Dog: he gives the man cigarettes and chocolate, and he shows Croft a picture of his family. Croft then shoots him in cold blood. Later, Croft sadistically crushes a wounded bird to death as a punishment against Roth. He actually feels the urge both to pet the bird and to kill it, but he does the latter. This almost sparks a mutiny.
  • Last-Name Basis: The soldiers among each other.
  • Leave No Survivors: Croft killing a Japanese prisoner for fun. At the end of the novel, this is described as happening amongst several U.S. units.
  • Mildly Military: The platoon would be this if they had their way, but Croft disapproves.
  • Military Moonshiner: An unseen mess cook who sells three canteens to the platoon.
  • Modern Major General: Averted with Cummings. Whatever his personality faults, he is a competent officer
  • The Mutiny: The Platoon, led by Red, when Croft makes them climb Mount Anaka and Roth falls to his death. Croft threatens Red with his M-1, Red realises that Croft masterminded Hearn's death and backs down.
  • My Girl Back Home: Several of the platoon, and they worry incessently about them cheating.
  • The Neidermeyer: The platoon views Hearn as this. In a Subversion, he is actually fairly competent if inexperienced, but the men just hate officers in general.
  • New Meat: The replacements, and Hennessey.
  • Nice Jewish Boy: Goldstein is probably the nicest guy in the platoon.
  • Not So Above It All: Croft cracks a few jokes and, despite his straight-laced nature, gets drunk with the other soldiers on moonshine.
  • The Noun and the Noun
  • Obfuscating Insanity: Minetta feigns madness in an attempt to get a Section 8. The doctor calls him out on it and he is sent back to the fighting.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Minetta is gazed by a Japanese bullet. This gets him to the hospital, but he panicks when he realises he is going to be sent back to the platoon.
  • Politcally Incorrect Anti-Hero: Gallagher most notably, and several other characters. Ridges, for example, displays some racial prejudice.
  • Psycho for Hire: Croft again. It is revealed the first time he killed a man was during a riot when he was serving in the National Guard. The military and the war gives him an opportunity to act on his sadism without consequence.
  • Screw the War, We're Partying: The platoon buys three canteens from the aforementioned Military Moonshiner and end up scavaging dead enemy corpses for souvenirs.
  • Semper Fi: Averted. Although the Marines are famous for fighting in the Pacific, the novel centers on an army platoon.
  • Soldiers at the Rear: Headquarters Company and Hearn before he gets reassigned to the platoon. The platoon wants very much to be these soldiers, except for Croft, who hungers for more combat.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: The patrol, as the returning squad members find out, was completely pointless, since the Japanese forces on the island were defeated during the middle of it. Also, Goldstein and Ridges try to carry back the injured Wilson to the base, but he dies before they'd arrive, and they even lose his corpse.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Martinez appears to be turning into one. He's one of the most experienced soldiers in the platoon, but he is constantly on edge and full of self-doubt, has bad dreams and harmless noises set him on edge.
  • The Sneaky Guy: Martinez.
  • Sociopathic Soldier: Croft, oh so very much. Cummings as well.
  • Soft-Spoken Sadist: Croft and Cummings rarely raise their voices.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Hearn
  • Southern-Fried Private: Croft, Wilson and Ridges.
  • The Squad: Deconstructed. Their Sergeant Rock is a sadist, the platoon are embittered cynics and constantly bicker and insult each other. Only Red, Wilson and Gallagher seem to get on well with each other. Red also wants to avoid getting close to his comrades, because he doesn't want to be hurt if they die.
  • Troubled Sympathetic Bigot: Gallagher is pretty anti-semitic. He also becomes a Jerkass Woobie when his wife dies.
  • Unfriendly Fire: Croft manipulates Hearn's death by deliberately sending him into an enemy ambush, neglecting to mention the machine gun covering the route. He threatens to do the same to Red when he mutinies.
  • Up Through the Ranks: Major Dalleson is a former enlisted man who was repeatedly promoted due to the attentiveness to detail that makes him annoying as a staff officer. He feels uncomfortable around other senior officers and hopes to be demoted to captain, where he can mingle more with enlisted men, once the war ends and the army downsizes.
  • War Crime Subverts Heroism:
    • As a look into Croft's character. He has a Kick the Dog moment when he gives a Japanese prisoner cigarettes and chocolate to taunt him into thinking he'll survive the war, then shoots him in cold blood.
    • The end of the novel has U.S. soldiers killing Japanese prisoners in...creative ways.
  • War Is Hell: Combat is random and terrifying. In between there's crushing boredom and manual labor, the armies' chickenshit ways and the only way to escape is through death or serious injury.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Toglio. Unerringly patriotic, thinks the platoon are all "good old boys" and argues with Red about the war. He is shot in the elbow and sent home. Red cynically remarks he'll probably end up on a bond tour.note 
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Cummings.
  • Written Sound Effect: Used to describe the sounds of battle. BEE-YOWWW, BEE-YOWWWW! BAA-ROWWMM, BAA-ROWWMM.
  • Zerg Rush: The Japanese attack at the river. Truth in Television.