The Suicide Run: Five Tales of the Marine Corps, By William Styron

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The Independent Culture

My father – an Irish Catholic from a working-class corner of Brooklyn – joined the Marine Corps shortly after Pearl Harbour Day (7 December 1941). He signed up with five friends from his neighbourhood, Prospect Heights. They were shipped out to do basic training, then dispatched to a piece of Pacific property called Okinawa. Of the six Prospect Heights kids who joined the Corps (as my Dad always called it), only my father survived. In the ensuing decades, when I would often question him about his years in the armed services, he would remain profoundly tight-lipped about what exactly went down in Okinawa – except to say that being a Marine was the most formative experience of his life.

When, well into my twenties, I once asked him about the insane gung-ho ethos of the Corps, he told me the story of a staff sergeant he served under. The man was combat-hard and walked with a pronounced gimp. He was a tough leathery Marine lifer. And when my father got up the courage to ask his superior officer how he got his gimp, the staff sergeant informed him: "I was on the dress detail when McArthur accepted the Japanese surrender – and we were in formation for over three hours. And I had to take a piss. But to do so would have been to break formation. So I held on. I didn't take a piss – but I did stay in formation. And because of that, I busted my gut".

I remember thinking at the time: that is perhaps the stupidest story I have ever heard. But my father – indoctrinated for life by the Corps's creed, Semper Fidelis (always faithful) – told me this tale with pride in his voice, concluding it with the statement: "And that, son, is a Marine!"

William Styron was also a Marine who served in the Second World War. But being the acclaimed author of Lie Down in Darkness, The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice (to name a few of his important works of fiction), he didn't exactly possess a Manichean view of the Corps. On the contrary, as the narrator in his short story, "Marriot the Marine", notes: "the Marine Corps is not the Army or the Navy, but something intransigently itself. Maybe I should own up to an awful, private truth and this is that, despite the foregoing strictures, the Marine Corps has left me with a residual respect – certainly fascination – which, demeaning as it may be, I find it impossible to uproot after all these years".

Certainly, the five stories collected in this posthumous volume (Styron died in 2006) sidestep the "leatherneck" cliches that surround the Corps. Styron brings us into a world where men accept a profoundly doctrinal and rigid modus vivendi, but are still haunted by conscience and fear. Indeed, in this uber-man's world, Styron shows us the internal conflicts between individuality and communal obedience to an ideal, an immovable set of rules. In "Blankenship" – itself written in the early 1950s – a Guadacanal war hero now stationed in a dead-end post in a brig on Long Island, and a man of considerable insight (especially when compared to his myopic commanding officer), crosses into court marital territory when confronting a wayward Marine.

Similarly, in "My Father's House", the bookish narrator looks back, with survivor's guilt, on having sidestepped all those key martyr moments (Iwo Jima, Okinawa) that so characterised the Marine Corps campaign in the Pacific, and on how he confronted the most metaphysical form of fear while waiting to be sent into the certain-death experience that never arrived: the invasion of Japan: "I saw myself as a figure in a newsreel, a running target".

In "Marriot the Marine", a lieutenant colonel – fluent in the language of Molière and hardly ignorant when it comes to 19th-century French literature – still finds himself tethered to the Corps, like a man who has taken religious orders.

Spare, unadorned, direct, alive to the dilemma of never being able to articulate your deepest dreads amid such an unquestioning militaristic ethos, the stories that make up The Suicide Run may disappoint those who seek the visceral power of combat fiction. But Styron's intentions were not to write a collection of Great American War tales. Instead, what intrigues here is the way all soldiers, whether or not they ever see combat, still live with the notion: I am expendable cannon fodder. And that sort of existential knowledge makes even the toughest Marine pause for thought.

Douglas Kennedy's novel 'Leaving the World' is published by Hutchinson