For the next 42 days we're going to be counting down to the release of SEAL Team 666. Why 42? Because it's the answer to the universal question.
|R-L: Mikey Huyck, Brian Keene, Mike Oliver, GAK (2002)|
1. What’s your favorite military movie, book or television show?
For me choosing between a favorite movie, television show, and book is like choosing between a banana, a tennis shoe, and the theory of relativity. Each of these ain't like the other, so I need an approach option. Choose one of each? Nope, that violates the rules. Everyone knows I'm a sheep and don't violate the rules. Variation on a theme - how about I write a narrative where I weave one of each into a homogeneous answer? That sounds like mucho work. Nope. So fine, by default I'm going to invoke the "books are always better" rule and just not think about movies or television.
In the book category the nominees are FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS by Ernest Hemingway, WAR AND PEACE by Leo Tolstoy, THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE by Stephen Crane, THE CAINE MUTINY by Herman Wouk, FAIL-SAFE by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, and my eventual winner: ON THE BEACH by Nevil Shute.
2. Why is it your favorite? Here’s where you can ramble a bit.
If you're not familiar with the novel, please become so. It's Nevil's best (IMO, of course.) If you are, you might be crying foul right now. For those not in the know, ON THE BEACH is, on its face, more a post-apocalyptic novel than anything. I say "on its face" because ON THE BEACH avoids all the cold war-centric apocalyptic themes except for the USA and USSR largely being responsible for the end of the world. That part's consistent. For the record, two European countries start the war. Bulgaria and Italy, if I remember (I'm in a plane right now and can't look it up.) Egypt bombs the USA and we blame the USSR and the USSR retaliates and decides to toss in some other attacks as well. The world's now a zombie, still grinding away and not aware it's already dead. Of course that's one of the military angles. The other is that a good portion of the story is told from the perspective of the USS Scorpion (SSN-589) and some of its crew. They undertake a mission from Australia to Washington (the state, not the district) to look for survivors inferred by a regular Morse signal. A few disparate details have always made this navy sinking more interesting to me than others - 1) I was a US Navy submariner in the nuclear power program, (2) I used to work for a guy who went to sea on the USS Snook (the Scorpion's sister boat) for sea trials at the same time the Scorpion went on its last mission, and 3) the Scorpion sank on my 4th birthday. No, I don't remember it, I just find it...interesting. The Scorpion is one of only two US nuclear submarines (trivia: we sub sailors call submarines "boats" and surface ships "targets") lost at sea, with the other being the USS Thresher (SSN-593.)
I digress, but it's an informative digression. Something about this history helped me connect to ON THE BEACH in a way lacking in similar books from the era (such as Mordecai Roshwald's LEVEL 7.)
Was that all it took to make this beat out THE CAINE MUTINY (a fantastic story) or FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (one of the best books written - ever)? No. What made it best was Nevil Shute's writing. Clean and clear and pointed. He develops his work like a wicker basket, its plots and devices set inside and its characters woven to carry them. While not all that emotional, they are true to the common motivations of man: survival, love, duty, sympathy, pride, all the things that separate us a few degrees from the crocodiles and dust bunnies. The story has legs, alternately on land in two different continents (that I remember, don't hold me to that) and, of course, at sea. It's stark, really. And sad. Sad isn't one of my favorite threads in fiction. In fact, it's the principle reason I don't care for drama in television or movies. There's enough real life in life for me to regularly avoid the fair in my fiction. For reasons I really don't understand myself, it works in ON THE BEACH. Perhaps because of the writing, perhaps because of the story, or perhaps because of where I was at mentally when I read it. I really don't know. But I do know that I'll never forget it.
3. What themes are overused? And is it overused, or just truthful observation?
A consistent failure of the era's fiction regarding the cold war was the beating of the "what we're doing is insanity" drumbeat. Yes, that's true, what we did during the era was insanity. It was two of the school's largest bullies in a staring contest and everyone's ass would be beat when someone blinked. Thematics such as this work as a thesis, but they're not adequate for good story. In ON THE BEACH the cold war and nuclear Armageddon aren't the story, they're a pretext for the essential human story. Unlike much fiction of the era, Shute doesn't come across as heavy or preachy either. I found it had what a novel needs to work, specifically to reveal the human condition imbued. We all need our war stories pregnant with tension, sure, and we need our loves and losses. But the most important thing is that the human beings in the novel do the things that human beings do. This is what makes ON THE BEACH work, regardless whether you call it a post-Armageddon or military work.
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