Somehow I was expecting more of this book after having watched the Terrence Malick film based on it.
I really enjoyed the setup, through the taking of the Big Dancing Elephant. The characters felt like genuine portrayals of the kind of men you would expect to find under fire, in WWII or maybe even today in Afghanistan. Their personalities spoke directly to the way they coped with fighting a war for the first time — whether it was a ‘fake it til you make it’ strategy, ruthless glory hunting, or the exploration of the almost sexual feeling that adrenaline gives a person.
That was exceptionally interesting, but I suppose I had hoped that at least a couple characters would use their experiences to propose competing notions of the human good, the meaning of life, or something like that. The closest thing the reader gets to that is cynicism about the illusion of freedom in American society (although I most say Fife’s rants about how the notion of cowardice forms a prison for these men was pretty interesting) and an unflinching argument that all human conflict is based on property.
I suppose my disappointment with the lack of life-affirming messages in this novel is meant to reflect the disappointment of the men who fought. They were the objects of trumped up propaganda espousing the glory and honor of war, and all they found on the battlefield was a totally senseless dice game where good and bad men alike were utterly destroyed by the calculated hand of fate. In the end, they fought hard only for the men beside them, and I only kept turning the page to see what would happen to the fully-realized and likable characters.
That’s quite a trick.