Guard of Honor
by James Gould Cozzens
"On one of his ill-considered impulses, Colonel Mowbray must have summoned everyone he could think of who might possibly know anything about it. The undesirable result would be that all of them, in exchange for their trifles of information, learned much that was not necessary for them to know." (p 202)
James Gould Cozzens is an author who has been unjustly neglected both during the latter years of his life and in the three decades since his death. Of his often critically-acclaimed novels this one, published in 1948, stands alone, on its own merits. I believe that I first learned about this novel from reading Noel Perrin, the Dartmouth professor and book reviewer, who praised the author and this novel in particular as deserving more popular notice as worthy to stand beside Melville's novels in the American canon.
Cozzens' achievement in creating this war novel is evidenced by the setting, a Florida Air Base, but more importantly in doing this he has brought into sharp relief against the background of boredom and frustration and disappointment which most of the officers assigned there felt, the minor dramas of human lives, loves, hates, jealousies; the competitive spirit leveled at minor goals; and the interrelation of men, whose ranks are more or less the accident of the chance of war. General Beal, younger than most of his staff though already the commanding officer, is portrayed as vital figure who is torn by his friendship for a difficult junior officer, eternally in hot water, disturbed profoundly by the necessity of playing off local prejudices against the directives from Washington, attempting to be human and at the same time the martinet military procedure demanded.
The major issues that dominate and motivate the story include the problem of the Negro officers and the officers club; the disaster attendant on the trials of parachute jumping -- and the question of blame. Most of the story is told from the perspective of Nathaniel Hicks who, in private life, has a significant role in the media world of magazines. The tensions of civilian life are brought home through his own affair with a WAC Lieutenant. Character after character comes clear- small bits as well as large. In creating this world Cozzens reminds me of the breadth and depth found in the novels of George Eliot.
There is an implicit message of humaneness in the whole the kind of drama Command Decision provided -- against a setting that is infinitely less provocative of dramatic treatment. Cozzens has written a long book with many subplots; one that can be difficult at times. But the power of his prose and the resulting enjoyment of this great war novel builds as minor incident is piled on minor incident to create an unforgettable pattern. Rather than romanticizing his story, Cozzens' writing is taut and realistic, but at the same time exhibits an expansive warmth -- an unusual combination which makes for a favorable impression and an enjoyable read.
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