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By J. A. Bernstein


The Montréal Review, July 2021


The Thin Red Line by Tomer Hanuka (edition screen print for Mondo x The Terrance Malick director series.)




If we ask what it is that [Orwell] stands for, what he is the figure of, the answer is: the virtue of not being a genius, of fronting the world with nothing more than one’s simple, direct, undeceived intelligence…

- Lionel Trilling, introduction, Homage to Catalonia, 1952


In The Thin Red Line, his 1962 novel about WWII, James Jones, himself a wounded veteran of Guadalcanal, has his grizzled protagonist, Sergeant Welsh, mutter: “What’s it all about?... What remains? Property.” The line comes after Welsh has risked his life to inject morphine in a dying subordinate, a scene that’s well captured in Terrence Malick’s 1998 film remake, where Welsh, portrayed by Sean Penn, grumbles, “Whole fuckin’ thing’s about property.” Yet the film omits Welsh’s earlier revelations in the novel, particularly his internal musing that “property, in some form or other, was, in the end, what always made the watch tick.”

Tony Williams, the author of the definitive study, James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (2016), explained that “Jones never participated in any demonstrations or protests, he never followed any crowd of any description.” Although Jones was popular in his day, winning a National Book Award for From Here to Eternity (1951) and living for some years off his royalties in Paris—while nursing an addiction to drink—he never received much scholarly attention, a stigma that continues. “He’s not appreciated because he’s not a postmodernist, flamboyant writer,” Williams adds. “He’s writing about people’s everyday lives in a particular historical context, telling some very unpalatable home truths that many people don’t want to hear.” Unlike other acclaimed veteran-writers of WWII, namely Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jones rarely wrote about the war in grandiose style or sweeping terms. To the extent he decries the war’s aims in The Thin Red Line, he does so mainly through Welsh and almost solely through the lens of “property.” If The Thin Red Line is rarely read today, whereas Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948), and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (1969) remain perennial favorites, perhaps that’s at least partly the result of Jones’s comparatively subdued take on the origins and outlook of war.

Yet of all these novelists, and the many more writing on armed conflict, none of them resonates quite like James Jones. Why this is hard to say. He isn’t a brilliant stylist. His sentences often lag. And his characterization is frequently dull. Sergeant Welsh, for instance, goes in The Thin Red Line from realizing “property’s” force to exclaiming it aloud, while his foil, Captain Stein, goes from caring about his troops to overvaluing their safety, for which he is (predictably) relieved of command. The novel isn’t a work of artistic “genius,” as perhaps Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse Five might be. The best one might say for it, as Lionel Trilling famously did in his introduction to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, is that it’s “true.” That is, it speaks to the revelations and feelings and torment of those who are conscripted to serve. And no other novel since then, I would argue, has done so as effectively, or proved nearly as prescient, as his.


James Jones was not, by all accounts, a political author. “I don’t like politics,” he told the Paris Review bluntly in a 1958 interview. Then, in a line that sounds almost prophetic today: “Politics is like one of those annoying, and potentially dangerous (but generally just painful) chronic diseases that you just have to put up with in your life if you happen to have contracted it.”

One can only imagine his reaction to the news, 63 years later, that the United States, the wealthiest nation in history, decided to declare “war” on a pandemic by forcing its citizens to work, despite the deadly costs. According to a New York Times article of June 2020, for example, at least 735 workers were “reported for refusing to return to work” in Tennessee, where “the state labor commissioner announced that the fear of contracting the coronavirus was not a good enough excuse to not go back.” Similar reporting emerged in Oklahoma, Ohio, Alabama, Missouri, and South Carolina, among other states. The Times article quotes Rachel Bussett, an employment lawyer, who summarizes the workers’ choices: “‘Do I go back and risk my life, or say no and risk being kicked off unemployment and not be able to pay my bills?’”

My own state, Mississippi, has consistently endured one of the highest positivity rates in the U.S., with nearly all of its ICU’s at capacity during the peak months. The Governor, Tate Reeves, generally refused to shutter bars, restaurants, and casinos, all the while refusing to implement a statewide mandate for masks, which he himself refused to don on occasion. Thousands, mainly Blacks, have been left to languish in prisons, which even prior to the pandemic saw dozens of deaths in custody. Fewer than 1% of inmates were tested amidst the surge, and the state still refuses to disclose exactly how many have been infected. In July of 2020, Reeves even vetoed bipartisan legislation that would have made thousands of at-risk, nonviolent inmates eligible for parole.

Around the globe, as of July 1, 2021, an estimated four million people have died. In the U.S. alone, 605,000 have died, surpassing all 20th-century American war casualties. Given these grim figures, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that Donald Trump would label himself a “wartime President” and many, including him, directly invoked WWII as a point of comparison. “To this day, nobody has ever seen like it, what they were able to do during World War II,” Trump remarked at a briefing on March 8, 2020. “We must sacrifice together, because we are all in this together, and we will come through together. It’s the invisible enemy. That’s always the toughest enemy, the invisible enemy.”

Of course, one might ask how much sacrificing was required of a man who golfed almost daily during the pandemic and, upon becoming infected, received first-rate medical treatment of the sort he had long denied, and would continue to deny, others. But Trump was hardly alone in the war analogies, with Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic Governor of New York, remarking in April of 2020, for example, that “ventilators are to this war what bombs were to World War Two.” Of course, one might also ask why Cuomo, in the months leading up to the pandemic, proposed slashing $400 million for Medicaid and rejecting $6 billion in matching federal aid to promote a vision of austerity. Perhaps war does, as they say, make strange bedfellows.

“In every war,” Jones writes in From Here to Eternity, “there were two wars, the war of the officers and the war of the enlisted men. And all the beardless shavetails grew up to be either the Stern Disciplinarian, or else The One Beloved of All His Men Who Loved Them Like a Brother.” One can’t help but seeing the line exemplified in “Bugger Stein,” Jones’ softhearted and tragically doomed captain in The Thin Red Line. When tasked with leading a frontal assault, he tells his commander: “It’s suicide…I’ve lived with these men for two and a half years. I won’t order them all to their deaths.” Naturally, the top brass soon strip “Bugger Stein” of command, an incident that can only be compared to the US naval leadership’s insistence on admonishing Captain Brett Crozier, the commander of the USS Roosevelt, in April of 2020 after he sounded the alarm of the health risks aboard his carrier. “We are not at war,” Crozier wrote in a public letter. “Sailors do not need to die.” In Crozier’s case, one servicemember would later die, and over 1,100 would become infected.

“I thought it looked terrible,” Donald Trump said of the letter after reportedly pressing defense officials to relieve Crozier of command. Here one also thinks of the Division Commander in The Thin Red Line (likely based on Major General J. Lawton Collins), freshly arrived on the front and imploring the weary survivors, “We’re not gonna let these Japs whip us, are we boys?” to which one of them replies, “You go out there, General.”


In January of 2020, I visited a friend, Pat Ehrlicher, who largely raised me as a child, at a senior care home in Chicago. The facility, a two-story complex off Fullerton, was called the Victory Center, and she lived there off public support. At 75, she didn’t look a day above sixty and was eager to show me her boyfriend, Charles, a spritely figure in his eighties, with whom she sang in a choir. She also accepted a copy of my first novel, which I had just published, and told me how proud she was. I explained that she had always inspired me to write, which brought a few tears to her eyes.

A couple months later, I called Pat to wish her a happy birthday. With the first cases emerging and news of who was at risk, particularly those in senior care, I remember thinking that this call could be important. We talked for about forty minutes—about what, I don’t recall; I have never been a phone person. But before hanging up, I told her I loved her, which are words I had rarely said. “I love you, too,” she replied. I remember standing by the dirt in a potter, alongside my yard in Mississippi, and eyeing its dusty, red clumps. What they could have meant, I didn’t know, though on some level, I think I was reminded of the scene in Malick’s film where Sergeant McCron, portrayed by John Savage, gathers the torn earth and lets it fall through his hands. Initially seen leading his men in prayer, he has now lost all of them to battle. “We’re just dirt,” he reflects, while above him mortars whistle and pop.

On April 20, 2020, my sister called and relayed the news that Pat had died from COVID. Evidently, about 3,700 senior care residents and staff died in Illinois from the virus, and about 470,000 seniors died nationally, or about 80% of all American deaths. No burial or service was planned.

My first reaction, of course, wasn’t grief but one of determining who could be to blame. Was it my own parents, for having employed a caregiver, as many others we knew had, without providing her substantive wages, or at least wages substantial enough that she could receive better care in later years? I remember that they paid her social security and benefits, which, I imagine, is all but unheard of today. Was I myself to blame for having spent our last dime on a second car, the cost of which could have easily covered Pat’s rent, or, worse, for having failed to come get her? I had no idea that she was sick, though my suspicions were aroused when she hadn’t returned an email in March.

Perhaps the root cause was much deeper and emblematic of the system in which we live. As Noam Chomsky pointed out in a 2020 interview, nursing homes today are mostly “reduced to minimal functioning” to boost the profits of the private-equity corporations that own them. Indeed, multiple reviews of the Victory Center from current and former staffers indicate that the facility was run on a shoestring, with one former nurse writing on Indeed.com in 2017: “This location was always low on staff, it was a stressful environment to work in and I definitely did not get paid well enough for the work I was doing.” Several others complained of racist treatment. As with most nursing homes—and places of employment in the U.S.—the staffers likely have no ability to stay home if they are sick for fearing of losing their wages, not to mention their health coverage, if they have it.

Or maybe the problem was Trump, a view evidently shared by many voters. Indeed, it has become clear that other nations, including Canada, fared much better in the crisis. Laos, which has a population twice the size of Chicago’s has recorded three deaths from COVID. One study, in fact, concluded that between 70% and 99% of all deaths in the U.S. could have been avoided had appropriate measures been enacted, including earlier lockdowns, as other countries imposed.

Or maybe the basic problem was me. Throughout the pandemic, my wife and I, like many young parents, faced a difficult choice, albeit one mainly limited to our social class. In spite of the risks, we continued—and continue—to send our youngest children to daycare, which is one of the few remaining ones in our state. I have no doubt that in supporting this operation, we are patronizing a venue that forces its employees to work despite the risks. The average hourly wage for a daycare worker in Mississippi: $8.45, which is less than a living wage for a single adult and a poverty wage for those with dependents, as most of the caregivers have. Indeed, almost none can afford care for their own children, which remains the case as I type, leading me to wonder whether I, like Donald Trump, am really in a position to criticize anyone.

Certainly, my wife and I have no other available support, nor family nearby. We both work full-time as academics and have had to homeschool our oldest child. And, of course, most evidence suggests that working in a daycare poses no elevated risks, particularly for those who are vaccinated. But I can’t escape the thought that I still value my convenience, for which I have risked others’ lives, and possibly my family’s, as well.

“It was strange how closely we returnees clung together,” James Jones writes in Whistle (1978), his unfinished, posthumous novel, which forms the third in his war trilogy.

We were like a family of orphaned children, split by an epidemic and sent to different care centers. That feeling of an epidemic disease persisted. The people treated us nicely, and cared for us tenderly, and then hurried to wash their hands after touching us.

Less explored these days is the stigma of having had COVID or, worse, in many cases, the stigma of having to work. Few people speak about the choices they’ve had to make—risk my life, or pay the bills?—and far fewer ask how we’ve gotten to this point, or how it is we’ve been conscripted to serve.

It’s possible James Jones doesn’t offer a direct answer. “Property” wouldn’t seem to describe Pat, though perhaps it does encapsulate the basic issue she faced: one of needing equitable care. Still, it’s hard not to find something prescient in Jones’ pages, something biting and apt, especially in lines like

Bell was content to throw himself prone, press his cheek to the earth, shut his eyes, and lie there. God, oh, God! Why am I here? Why am I here? After a moment’s thought, he decided he better change it to: why are we here. That way, no agency of retribution could exact payment from him for being selfish.

I begin to think of dirt now, these clumps in the pot, and realize I should pick up my kids.


A Chicago-native, J. A. Bernstein is the author of Rachel’s Tomb (New Issues, 2019), which won the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Award Series Novel Prize and Hackney Novel Prize; Desert Castles (Southern Indiana Review, 2019), which won the Wilhelmus Prize; and Northern Cowboy (Green Rabbit, 2021), which won the Wilt Prize. His stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in about a hundred journals and anthologies, including CutBankKenyon Review OnlineShenandoahChicago QuarterlyBoston ReviewTin House OnlineWashington SquareMcSweeney's, and Notre Dame Review. He's also published academic articles on Joseph Conrad and won the Harkness Award from the Joseph Conrad Society of America. A former soldier in the Israeli Army and the fiction editor of Tikkun, he teaches in the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi and lives with his wife and three children in Hattiesburg.


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