War at the Top

Guard of Honor

by James Gould Cozzens
Modern Library, 614 pp., $24.95

Out of print since the Fifties, Guard of Honor won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1949, and, though nearly forgotten now, is, I have long thought, the best American novel about the Second World War—Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw, James Jones, Harry Brown, Joseph Heller, Herman Wouk, John Horne Burns, and John Hersey notwithstanding. It is certainly the best of Cozzens’s thirteen novels, which include the jejune Confusion (1924), published when he was a sophomore novelist-at-the-ready at Harvard; the skilled and increasingly mature trio of The Last Adam (1933), Men and Brethren (1936), and The Just and the Unjust (1942); his pompous and almost unreadable best seller, By Love Possessed (1957); and his last, the moribund Morning Noon and Night (1968).

The Last Adam and Men and Brethren established Cozzens’s concern with the intense and even severe moral testing—in one place, in tightly arranged action, and over a brief time (in accord with the classical unities)—of good, although flawed, men. Without causing undue damage to others or themselves, these men must chart the gray seas between duty and temptation, ease and labor, right and wrong—and trust to luck as well. However, George Bull, the Last Adam, doesn’t altogether fit Cozzens’s notion of the well-tempered, upright man. He is a tough, careless, sixty-seven-year-old doctor—a self-described “horse doctor”—who practices in a small Connecticut town. His faulty diagnosis may have hastened a young boy’s death from peritonitis, and, as the town’s health officer, he is indirectly responsible for a typhoid outbreak, brought on after he had failed to inspect some workmen’s latrines that were draining into the town’s reservoir. The townspeople consider impeaching Bull for the grief he has caused, but he is saved by his thick skin and by a persuasive and ambitious local politician who, though not caring particularly about Bull, believes that keeping him on and quashing the typhoid story in the press are the safest political moves for himself, and for the town as well.

The cynicism of the book is weakened by its ending, a quasi-biblical passage that comes closer to sentimentality than Cozzens, who prided himself on the unsentimentality of his vision, probably was aware of. It is the first of the oracular outbursts that occasionally mar his books. Here Bull’s mistress, Janet Cardmaker, watches him as he sleeps, his feet stretched out before her fire:

There was an immortality about him, she thought; her regard fixed and critical. Something unkillable. Something here when the first man walked erect; here now. The last man would twitch with it when the earth expired. A good greedy vitality, surely the very vitality of the world and the flesh, it survived all blunders and injuries, all attacks and misfortunes, never quite fed full. She shook her head a little, the smile half derisive in contemptuous affection. Her lips parted enough to say: “The old bastard!”

The tested soul in Men and Brethren is Ernest Cudlipp, the middle-aged vicar of St. Ambrose’s, an Episcopal church in the east Sixties in New York. During a hot summer weekend, Cudlipp who, like George Bull, meets the demands of God and man as he sees fit, pushes his way through a mass of problems. A young married woman, pregnant by a poet whom Cudlipp has befriended, is pressured by Cudlipp to have an abortion in order to protect herself. When a bitter homosexual Episcopal monk is caught propositioning an undercover cop and decides to leave his monastery, he is put up by Cudlipp, whom the monk both envies and hates for his own tangled reasons. But then he pulls on his hair shirt, refuses Cudlipp’s offer of a loan, and walks back to his monastery outside the city, prepared to face charges. At the end of the weekend, Cudlipp, celibate by choice, begins to suspect that an old friend, a married actress, may be in love with him and that, fond as he is of her, he had better curtail the relationship. He also learns that his bishop is doubly displeased with him: not only has he asked a rabbi to preach at St. Ambrose, but he has broken canonical law by inviting the disgraced monk to stay with him.

Men and Brethren is not thoroughly worked out. It is hard-nosed and elliptical, and floats more questions than it answers—about the narrowness of the Episcopal Church, about the diminishing strength of WASPs like Cudlipp and the monk, about Cozzens’s own tartness and impatience. But it is a creditable New York novel.

The Just and the Unjust is the first of Cozzens’s novels to display his gifts as a realist who belonged with Henry Roth and John O’Hara and Jerome Weidman. It was already clear that he was not a graceful writer, but he developed a sharp eye for faces and figures and the way people move, a good ear for dialogue, particularly of the jocular, sardonic kind, an easy, exact sense of place, and, driving these attributes, a powerful moral sense, a hatred of cant, and the ability to digest enormous amounts of institutional information and shape it into drama.

The Just and the Unjust is built around a three-day murder trial held in June of 1939 in a small town somewhere outside New York City. Abner Coates, a lawyer in his thirties, is an assistant district attorney and the son and grandson of distinguished local judges. He helps to prosecute two men who have been accomplices in the kidnapping and killing of a drug dealer, but the trial does not turn out the way he and the district attorney, Martin Bunting, had planned: a muddled local jury brings in a verdict of second—rather than first—degree murder, which means that instead of the electric chair the pair will be on the loose again after relatively short prison sentences.

Coates is also facing the imminent death of his father, Judge Coates, who has been crippled by a stroke, and the possible disaffection of his girlfriend, a bright and attractive cousin several times removed whom he has known most of his life. He must also decide, when Bunting steps down, whether he is going to run for district attorney under the aegis of a politician he cannot stand, largely because the politician, who runs the Republican machine in Abner’s county, is a highly skilled, therefore seemingly shady, manipulator.

He works these various problems out, or, more often, they work themselves out. He decides to run for district attorney knowing that he may be compromised, and he proposes to his girl. What Cozzens has carried off is among the most difficult of novelistic feats—a convincing portrait of a dull, honorable, rather obtuse man. He even manages to make the slow, stubborn backing and filling that goes on inside Abner’s head seem almost adventurous.

The Just and the Unjust is also a good study of pre-mall small-town life, with its portraits of the local ice cream maker, a crazy old justice of the peace, the manipulative local politician, two very different presiding judges, the sleazy, pockmarked murderers, and the various survivors of Abner’s thinning small-town upper class. But the book closes with another ringing Cozzens valedictory, one that calls for strings and timpani up and under. The wise Judge Coates talks to Abner:

The world gets up in the morning and is fed and goes to work, in the evening it comes home and is fed again and perhaps has a little amusement and goes to sleep. To make that possible, so much has to be done by so many people that, on the face of it, it is impossible. Well, every day we do it; and every day, come hell, come high water, we’re going to have to go on doing it as well as we can.”

So it seems,” said Abner.

Yes, so it seems,” said Judge Coates, “and so it is, and so it will be! And that’s where you come in. That’s all we want of you.”

Abner said, “What do you want of me?”

We just want you to do the impossible,” Judge Coates said.

Guard of Honor, Cozzens’s eleventh novel, was his masterpiece. It takes place in September of 1943 on a giant Army Air Force base near Ocanara, a resort town in central Florida. Again, the action lasts just three days, and three souls are tested: the commanding officer of the base, Ira N. (Bus) Beal, a flyboy who has already seen combat in the Philippines, Africa, and Europe, and who, at forty, is the youngest two-star general in the Air Force; Colonel Norman Ross, a fifty-nine-year-old former judge in civilian life who, as the Air Inspector, all but runs the base and who, like Judge Coates, is another of Cozzens’s long-suffering, acerbic wise men; and Captain Nathaniel Hicks, a fortyish New York magazine editor in civilian life and a sort of all-seeing observer at the base.

Two incidents frame the novel. In the first, Bus Beal and Lieutenant Colonel Benny Carricker, a flashy pilot and Bus Beal’s right-hand buddy, are about to land their small plane after a routine flight to a neighboring base when a visiting black pilot precipitately puts his B-26 bomber down right in front of them and nearly causes a fatal crash. Carricker charges out of his plane and flattens the pilot, breaking his nose. The incident reverberates throughout the book: other visiting black pilots hear of the attack and, in a gesture of defiance, attempt to enter the segregated officers’ club, and are repulsed by MPs. An accredited black journalist, who has been sent from New York before the incident to write an article on the pilots, is mistakenly thrown off the base. The injured pilot’s father, a waiter in a prominent Washington restaurant, is brought down to the base to see his son, the visit engineered by Lieutenant Edsell, an excitable left-wing agitator and writer. Then a deus ex machina, in the person of General Jo-Jo Nichols, a shrewd and subtle aide to the commanding general of the Air Force, arrives from headquarters in Washington to pin a medal on the injured pilot for having recently saved several planes that encountered dangerous weather on a western training flight, and an uneasy racial peace falls on the base.

The second incident serves as the climax of the book. During a parade and training exercise designed as part of a celebration for Bus Beal’s fortieth birthday, seven heavily equipped paratroopers are mistakenly dropped over a deep lake on the base and drown. The lake’s patrol boat is out of commission, but it becomes clear that it probably wouldn’t have been able to reach them in time anyway.

In Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, we are in the trenches, looking up; in Guard of Honor we are at the top with the generals and colonels, looking down. Shaw and Mailer dealt with GIs, the sacrificial wheels on the war machine; Cozzens deals largely with the drivers of this huge machine. It is a complex and divisive construction made up, on one side, of the sacrosanct regular army and, on the other, of the restless, inexperienced, and often bewildered civilian army.

In one scene, Lieutenant Edsell, who is deeply sensitive to matters of race, reacts to a regular-army major whom he considers racially prejudiced:

…I was, of course, unacquaint-ed with Major Blake’s racial prejudice—“

Major Blake said: “You’re unacquainted with a lot of things, Lieutenant. If you thought I’d approve a clearance [for the black journalist] without Colonel Jobson’s knowledge, you’re even stupider than you look. Now, suppose you leave me out of this.”

Lieutenant Edsell said almost gleefully: “Where I’ll leave you is just where I found you, Fatso! In case you want to make anything out of it, take those brass leaves off and see me behind some barn somewhere. I’ll wax your whiskers for you—“

Here, here, Edsell—“ Colonel Coulthard said.

Major Blake who, though fat, looked in good shape, more than a match for Edsell, pushed his chair back, getting to his feet.

Silence!” Colonel Mowbray roared. “Both of you! Sit down, Evan! Are you crazy? As for you, Lieutenant—…”

A colonel in the regular army, “Pop” Mowbray, dimwitted and unreliable, is tolerated and even loved by his army peers, partly because he learned to fly with the Wright brothers and partly because he was a founding member of the original Air Corps. He is also a member, in Cozzens’s words, of “that mystic order, the West Point Benevolent and Protective Association.” It is Mowbray who is responsible for having the black journalist ejected from the base and for failing to have the patrol boat on the lake repaired or replaced.

Men like him need caretakers, and Pop’s is Chief Warrant Officer Botwinick, an excruciatingly conscientious regular Army man, known to all as “Botty,” who is privy, through a network of informants, to everything that happens on the base. When he discovers that a memorandum about the damaged boat was initialed by Pop the morning of the tragedy, marked “file” in his hand, and then filed away by his secretary, he attempts to conceal Pop’s carelessness by taking the blame himself. Putting his career on the line, he reports himself “under arrest” to General Beal and Colonel Ross, who are sitting in Beal’s office after the disaster at the lake. Both are aware that the memo about the condition of the boat was sent to Pop. But Botty covers up by telling them that Mowbray never saw it because he, Botty, accidentally burned it with some other papers. Beal and Ross listen, clearly not convinced, but let the matter rest. Botty survives his altruism, and Pop, a member in good standing of the WPBPA, gets by again.

Midway in the book, Bus Beal has a sinking spell. Angry and depressed about Benny Carricker’s behavior and the ensuing racial turmoil at the base, he falls into a sulk and tells Jo-Jo Nichols to hell with it, he wants out of his miserable administrative job. (In due course, headquarters in Washington plans to send Beal over to bomb the Japanese.) But after he goes up for a frightening remedial near-stratospheric flight, he takes hold again. He talks to Colonel Ross:

Judge, I have some little weaknesses, like having to do things my way; and Jo-Jo thinks I’m just a fly-boy, and I am. No, I’m not any master mind; but spell it out for me and I’ll pretty often get it. You tell me what you think I don’t know, and I’ll tell you what I think you don’t know; and we’ll get there. Only, I want you to pick up after Pop. It isn’t really much, it isn’t really often, but watch it, will you?”

The colonel himself, already disturbed by the racial tension as well as by Pop’s carelessness, is troubled by Beal’s disaffection. “I am an old man; and the longer I live, the less I know, and the worse I do; and what, indeed, is the use of it?” He says to his wife, Cora:

You can’t do anything with people; I’ve been trying all day. I think Colonel Mowbray is a good man, and he is the biggest fool I know. We are having a little trouble with some Negro officers. They feel they are unjustly treated. I think in many ways they are; but there are insurmountable difficulties in doing them justice. The only people who stood up for them were two offensive young fellows, I think principally interested in showing off, in making themselves felt. I really saw nobody all day who was not in one way or another odious. I speak with confidence; for the certain number who looked all right, looked that way, I understand by now, only because I really knew nothing about them. And, of course, in every situation, I was odious, too.

Captain Hicks, the former editor, bored with his job rewriting technical manuals, proposes an assignment that will take him to New York to find a writer who can do an article on the base. (He is married and has two children there.) He happens to see the tragedy at the lake with Lieutenant Amanda Turck, whom he had first met two days before, and they end up having a drink and dinner on his veranda at the old Oleander hotel, now an officers’ billet. (It is Saturday evening and the third and last day of the novel.) Turck is tense, attractive, and smart, and has been married and divorced. Neither seems particularly attracted to the other, but the whiskey works, the excitement of death is in the air, and they make love. Then the phone rings, and it is Colonel Ross, who tells Hicks that his New York project has just been approved and that he is to fly to Washington in half an hour in General Nichols’s plane. Turck, weepy and naked and embarrassed, can hear the colonel: “She sat up in the darkness. ‘I suppose I’ll have to have a light,’ she said. ‘I’ll have to find my clothes.”’ It is one of the rare times when Cozzens allows his emotions to show—and with moving effect.

Cozzens had enormous admiration for Dos Passos’s U.S.A., and he uses similar cinematic techniques with consummate effect. On Saturday morning, we move swiftly from breakfast in the WAC mess, to an interview given a smart-aleck local newspaperman by a public relations officer, to a colloquy between the same officer and his civilian secretary, who has unwittingly been leaking restricted information to her family, to breakfast with Bus Beal and the visiting Washington brass, to Beal’s wife, who is distraught (he has been ignoring her), to a group of black soldiers who are readying an area for the mock paratrooper invasion.

There are two kinds of time in the book—the steady cinematic speed of the action, and the slow motion of the past, which is brought gravely forward as Cozzens fills in the histories of his main characters. This slowness is also caused by Cozzens’s tendency to ponder every moral innuendo in his tale and in life itself—a philosopher’s casuistry that occasionally threatens to bring the narrative to a stop. Colonel Ross, standing on the reviewing stand during Bus Beal’s birthday celebration, muses:

You saw through lie after lie, you learned better than to believe in fable after fable, and good riddance, surely! Or was it? When you came, as you might if you worked hard, to finish your cleanup job; all trash and rubbish cleared from the underlying nature of things; not one lie and not one fable between you and its face; what would you do?…

Guard of Honor is a journalistic novel of the highest order: Cozzens’s three days at his huge Air Force base are very close to the way three days in 1943 might have passed at, say, Keesler Field, in Mississippi, or Langley Field, in Virginia. He sucks you into his kaleidoscope. Scene after scene, incident after incident, character after character revolve around the reader with such reasonableness and familiarity that we expect to be at breakfast in the WAC mess on Monday morning instead of listening with General Beal and Colonel Ross on the last page of the book to the sound of Jo-Jo Nichols’s plane disappearing into the dark northern sky.

Perhaps Cozzens used himself up in Guard of Honor. His last two novels, By Love Possessed and Morning Noon and Night, are exercises in self-parody, and they brought his career to a sad end. While six of his thirteen novels were Book-of-the-Month-Club selections, only By Love Possessed was a best seller. Guard of Honor got mixed reviews and was overshadowed and outsold the year it was published by The Young Lions and The Naked and the Dead. In fact, By Love Possessed received the sort of effusive notices that Guard of Honor should have had.*

Cozzens’s passage as a writer was marked by the slow deterioration of his style; by 1957, the year By Love Possessed was published, his prose had become almost unreadable. Somewhere along the line, he had fallen under the sway of eighteenth-century writers such as Steele and Swift and Johnson and Hazlitt. Even in Guard of Honor, he can be self-conscious and wooden. He often seems to lean against his sentences to get them going; he nails his clauses together with numerous commas and semicolons; there are horrible inversions—“From the pocket of a flying jacket which he had hung on the drift meter eyepiece beside him he took some sticks of gum.” And he weighs us down with fifty-dollar words like “viridical” and “irrecusable” and “habile.” In his last two novels, he developed, either as a joke (on his readers? on himself?) or as a benighted attempt to write Literature, a prose that John Updike, reviewing Morning Noon and Night, described as “unique in its mannered ugliness, a monstrous mix of Sir Thomas Browne, legalese, and Best-Remembered Quotations.” The following sentence from By Love Possessed is characteristic:

Ah, how wise, how sure, how right, was that genius of the language whose instinct detected in the manifold manifestings of the amative appetite (however different-seeming; however apparently opposed) the one same urgent unreason, the one same eager let’s-pretend, and so, wisely consented, so, for convenience covenanted, to name all with one same name!

Cozzens himself was a strange man. Born of old New England stock in 1903, he died in 1978, alcoholic and largely forgotten. In 1927, he had married Bernice Baumgarten, a highly successful literary agent, and several years later they moved from New York City to far western New Jersey. Bernice commuted and Cozzens wrote. (She largely supported him until By Love Possessed became a big seller.) According to Cozzens’s biographer, Matthew J. Bruccoli, he became a recluse, a misanthrope, a bigot, a vilifier of his peers, an intellectual snob, and an increasingly rabid right-winger.

But Bruccoli’s book is more of a logbook than a biography; we only see the outlines of this driven man, who wrote and wrote and wrote, producing one novel that still seems, despite its occasional ponderousness, a brilliant reconstruction of wartime, of the reactions of the regular-army professionals and the civilian amateurs to it and to each other, of the pervasive problem of race, and of the great post-Depression surge that carried this country successfully through the war. The book is also a frequently poignant study of the old verities—truth and morality and law—and of the ways we bend them and weaken them and cast them aside. It is not a bitter book and it is not a celebration. Although the setting is Florida, there are descriptions of air combat that are easily as effective as the microscopic horrors of The Naked and the Dead. And, of course, it becomes clear that this giant air base, training men for battle, is also capable of its own heedless killing. Guard of Honor has aged only minimally: all the women wear girdles and there isn’t, with the exception of one “f——,” a single four-letter word in sight.

  1. *

    The book and its reviews caused the cultural critic Dwight Macdonald to deliver an attack in Commentary that remains a model of excoriation. Never shy, Macdonald sent Cozzens his piece, and Cozzens, showing remarkable politesse, thanked him, but ended his letter by saying, “I haven’t in years had the pleasure of reading so refreshingly venomous an outburst. For that, at least, let me award you an earned A—and I’ll bet all those little-mag. people are just loving you to death.” A weakness in Macdonald’s diatribe is that he mentions The Last Adam, The Just and the Unjust, and Guard of Honor only in passing: he examined the ailing head and ignored the healthy body.