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William Styron

"Rat Beach"

July 20, 2009

The publication of a story, in The New Yorker, by an eminent writer who has been dead for nearly three years raises a compound question: was the story not published during writer's lifetime because it is not very good, and everyone connected with the publication is riding on the fumes of his or her fame; or is the story so good but so personal that we can see in an instant why the writer suppressed it. William Styron's "Rat Beach" is the latter kind of story.

Set in Saipan in the run-up to the invasion of Japan at the end of World War II, "Rat Beach" is told by an unnamed second lieutenant who has not seen serious action yet but who is bound to see it very soon, on a Japanese beach, when the Americans invade Japan. He tries to come to grips with his wrenching fear of being shot down on the shore, but the environment is uncongenial. His tent is pitched near the road along which ambulances carry men wounded at Okinawa to the hospital. His two tent-mates set a standard of manliness that he cannot hope to attain. And when, at an officers' meeting, an admiral describes the thundering victory that's foreseen in Japan, the narrator can only think of the bungled landing at Tarawa. On top of everything else, the narrator is inclined to read moody poems by Housman and Swinburne in his Pocket Book of Verse — an inclination that he is careful to conceal from the men in his platoon.

I had ample time to reflect on both what I'd barely missed on Okinawa and Iwo Jima and what I was likely to encounter when I helped storm the fortress beaches of the mainland. Here my desperate internal conflict began to brew.

And that is what happens in the story: the internal conflict brews, intolerably. At the end, the lieutenant realizes that the only way to be sure to avoid disgracing himself in Japan is to do away with himself in Saipan. The story stops before he can act on this resolution, and the reader naturally hopes that the atomic bombs are dropped soon enough to spare the would-be suicide. This hope gradually fades into its opposite, as the reader imagines a lifetime of untested cowardice, of the screaming dissonance between the abyssal recognition of cowardice and the cheerful pats on the shoulder delivered by happy family and friends back home.

The atomic bombs are not mentioned in "Rat Beach," and the author never hints that there will, in the event, be no invasion of Japan. His narrator, although looking back, is not looking back from the vantage of V-J day; very possibly, the story is his suicide note. (Suicide notes are necessarily unable to report the deed that they announce and attempt to explain.) Styron himself never made it as far as Saipan; he never even left San Francisco. The timing-is-everything note is struck at the very beginning.

Thus, had I been older by only a year or so I would have been immersed in Iwo Jima's bloodbath, a mere six months and I would have been one of Sledge's Okinawa martyrs, obliterated in the deadliest land engagement of the Pacific war. I escaped this horror by a hair.

Is escape the right word? For one thing, lieutenants are not draftees.

When I was seventeen, bravado, mingled with what must have been a death wish, made me enlist in the officer-training program of the Marine Corps.

Let us take this sentence as an autobiographical statement. And let us reflect that, even by the time that he was poised to ship out from San Francisco, Styron had learned that it would require a lot of courage to gratify the death wish. Then let us imagine how difficult it would be for anyone to forget or to outgrow the mortified terror of that realization.

The warfare in "Rat Beach" is all indirect, and much of it is imaginary — prospective — but it is presented in a perfectly-paced sequence. When the screams from the ambulances are too horrible to listen to, the narrator gazes at the floor, on which snails crawl to and fro ceaselessly, sometimes bumping into each other. These creatures do not inspire the thoughts of a naturalist.

The fucking snails were always getting squashed beneath our field boots, making a tiny mess that reminded me of the fragility of my own corporeal being. It didn't take long for the instruments of modern warfare to turn a human body into just such a repulsive emulsion. Would I be reduced to an escargot's viscous glob? One of the riflemen in my platoon, a big muscular farm boy from South Dakota, had seen, strewn on the Tarawa beachhead, a string of guts twelve feet long belonging to the marine who, only seconds before the mortar blast, had been his best buddy. Nearly all the combat vets had endured such grisly traumas.

"Such thoughts were torment" — and the narrator has nothing else to fall back on. Camaraderie with his tent mates — "blandly efficient athletic mesomorphs who could do with maddening grace what I could do only with dogged effort" —affords no respite; the three men kid all the time about the "future trial," but true candor would be unforgivably out of line. As a result, the narrator has no way of assessing his dread. He is literally closeted with fear, which finds expression in nightmares.

The dream had a jerky clarity, like a newsreel clip. In some Osaka suburb, I was leading my platoon through clouds of smoke as we roamed about in house-to-house fighting. All of a sudden, there rushed at me a murderous little woman in a kimono, with one of those ivory doodads in her hair; screaming banzais and on the point of harpooning me squarely through the gut with a bamboo stick, she metamorphosed into a nattering wee manicurist busily attending to my nails.

(We may safely include the manicurist note among the story's numerous markers of homosexual shame.)

Then a meeting is announced, a powwow for all the officers. From a stream of recollections and reflections, the story snaps into the account of one evening. First there is the meeting, and the apprehension with which the officers head for it. Then there is a downpour, and the men running along a beach. Finally, there is the narrator's inability to fall asleep, and his deathly resolution. All three sections are powerful, but the convocation becomes such a locus of irony that the rest of the story has a panting, exhaling quality; although the meeting is pointless and boring, the talk of impending battle is so exuberantly charged with lust for battle — a lust that the narrator does not share — that our readily awareness of what is actually to come, our knowing that the Japanese unconditional surrender will stopper all big battle plans for decades to come.

He spoke for nearly an hour. He said that while the present war had seen invasions that were complex and audacious endeavors — North Africa, Normandy, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa — those battles would be dwarfed by the magnitude of the coming event, doubtless the mightiest naval offensive in history. He told of the armada of vessels that would be involved — the battleships, the cruisers, the destroyers, the submarines — and the titanic fleet of aircraft carriers with their hundreds of planes. He dwelled on the thousands of tons of supplies that the cargo of ships would deliver to the Japanese shores form depots across the breadth of the Pacific, from California to Hawaii, the Philippines, Espíritu Santo, and the Solomons. But, chiefly, the Admiral extolled the might of naval gunfire, whose concentration on the landing area, he said, gesturing heavenward with his meerschaum, would be the heaviest ever to support American troops. Together with precision attacks from carrier-based planes, the pre-invasion bombardment would pour fire day after day onto the beaches with such intensity — he paused, weighing the phrase, then said, "with such stupendous intensity" — that the very ground upon which the Japanese defenses stood would be obliterated. Furthermore, he added, should the marines be properly apprehensive about underwater obstacles, these would be effectively eliminated well before D Day by teams of Navy frogmen who would clear the beaches.

This rhetorical triumph is worthy of a sickening collaboration by Plutarch, Robert McNamara, and David O Selznick. The marines near the narrator don't buy a word of it.

So, "Rat Beach" turns out to be a war story without the war — and one of the bloodiest.

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