In America they have this thing. They’ll have a film or a TV show about a policeman or soldier. He or she will be good at their job but suspicious of authority. Showing up bureaucrats and making them look stupid or corrupt is a favourite pastime. They will break the rules and do their own thing to get better results. Think various sheriffs operating off the grid in the Wild West, John McLane of Die Hard, Jack Cates of 48 Hours, Rambo, Starsky and Hutch, Dirty Harry, Maverick of Top Gun, Stella Gibson of The Fall, Martin Riggs of Lethal Weapon, Axel Foley of Beverly Hills Cop, Frank Drebbin of Naked Gun. There are so many of them.
From Here To Eternity is reminiscent of those stories, like the features of an adult are reminiscent of the child they used to be. This is a book about the United States Army stationed in Hawaii in 1941. It follows the lives of a diverse range of characters in the months before and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. There are characters reminiscent of John McLane, highly competent but bucking authority. And quite often, authority figures are portrayed as self-serving or incompetent. But the difference with From Here To Eternity is that nobody is the star of this show, whether it’s a careerist major, a major’s frustrated wife, or a talented but awkward-squad private who does what he thinks is right, even if it’s not politically wise. They are all part of the Army, which is the real star.
It’s a remarkable achievement of observation and empathy, to see inside the lives of so many individuals making up this bigger character of the Army. We see the struggles of stubborn individualists who refuse to accept the stupid rules of the game. We see the struggles of those implementing the rules, and those in the middle trying, with greater or lesser success, to take rules laid down by those above in the hierarchy, and implement them in a way that accommodates the individualists – who ironically in a series of powerful scenes in military prison, often turn out to be socialists.
This wide ranging portrayal of a military society, also moves into spiritual areas. In the military prison chapters, for example, some soldiers use meditation to get through periods in solitary confinement. They seem to leave their individual identities behind for a while, which is very fitting for a book where individual identities blend in with the idea of the Army as a whole.
From Here To Eternity is a fascinating and insightful book, which it seems would have required an army of writers to create. There’s not just its massive size, but also the scope of the characters and their viewpoints. It’s in keeping with the spirit of the book that an army of writers could be accommodated in just one James Jones. A great achievement.