Thursday, May 25, 2006

Private Prewitt

But thinking of "From Here to Eternity" has me thinking of the old American Army of the 20th century, the Depression era, peacetime army that Jones captured as no one else ever had. It was an unspectacular thing, that Army, or seemed so until December 1941. Jones's Pvt. Prewitt was a lost Southern boy who found a home in that Army. He and his friend Angelo Maggio of New York "could live better Inside."

They came from little, had no money, had received indifferent public educations, and the 1930s Army they joined was neither racially integrated, gender-neutral nor adequately funded. The great divide, the caste system, was between officers and enlisted men. The latter were given training and discipline and were left with a passionate and passionately mixed attitude toward the institution that made them part of something as it chipped away at their individuality, that employed them and enslaved them, that made them men and often treated them like children.

When James Jones himself joined the Army, in 1937, a young man whose options seemed limited, he wrote back home, "This place is hell. They herd you around like cattle; they order you around like dogs; they work you like horses; and they feed you like hogs." In the 1953 film of the novel, directed by Fred Zinnemann, the first shot after the credits is of men marching in brisk formation. But all you can see are their boots on a dusty field, perfect but anonymous.

They were not, the men of the peacetime, Depression-era Army, especially respected by the public they served.

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