Battle Cry holds a special place in my heart. It was the first book I ever read from the Historic Fiction genre and has been instrumental in shaping my love and interest in it. I was then studying World War 2 in my History lessons, and the name Leon Uris kept popping up when my History teacher recommended books that would aid a deeper understanding of the subject.
She was right; Battle Cry intrigued me enough to pick up more of Uris’ books and read up into him as a person too. Born in Baltimore, USA, he skipped his graduation from high school at the age of 17 to join the Marine Corps at the time Pearl Harbour was bombed by the Japanese. He trained as a Radioman and served on Guadalcanal and Tarawa in the Pacific Theatre of Operations. After the war, he started working as a correspondent for newspapers (regardless of the fact that he failed English 3 times in high school) and in 1950 wrote Battle Cry as his first ever full length novel. The success of that novel led him into full time writing and made him a well-known literary figure. Small wonder then, that I at the age of 14 idolized him as THE definition of success!
An important aspect of this hero worship was that Battle cry wasn’t all fiction; Uris had based it off his own experiences with the Marines and his time in the Pacific. He wasn’t just creating characters, he had lived through it, and that was what made a difference. One of the main characters, Daniel “Danny” Forrester was clearly a stand in for him as the young man off to war – from Baltimore, high school sportsman, liked and respected, and a clean cut All American Boy. Even the on and off narrator that kept moving in an out of the story was a Master Tech Sergeant of the Radio Squad – his own squad leader. Through both of these, and through the many others, he brought to life his own stories as well as the ones he trained and fought along with.
The story relatively speaking is quite simple. It tells of the USA being pushed into war in a state of absolute non-readiness, the call to arms being answered by the general population, and the creation of a fighting force out of college freshmen, salesmen, executives, teachers and more by a small but dedicated core of professional soldiers. The heroes of Battle Cry don’t always have heroic origins or motivations. We are given Constantine “Ski” Zvonski, a poor but gifted boy of Polish descent who only joins the Marines as an answer to his poverty. We are given Mac and McQuade, Master Tech Sergeant and Gunnery Sergeant respectively, who are career Marines and are given the task of making Marines out of boys “barely old enough to shave” (in their words). We are given Marion Hodgkiss, a serious young man aspiring to be a writer after the war and an oddity by means of being a non-smoker and teetotaller in a group of drinking, smoking fighters. We are given Jake Levin, a Jewish draftee who has to battle on three fronts – being Jewish, being a draftee instead of a volunteer, and the actual enemy. We are given Pedro Rojas, a Mexican American who stomachs the indignity of not being allowed to enlist as a fighter (because segregation and racism) by instead becoming a medical corpsman so as to use the medical knowledge he gains to help his impoverished community. And we are also given Andrew “Andy” Hookans, a competent Marine and Radioman, but shouldering the demons of his childhood trauma that makes him hate women with a frightening intensity.
That these people could ever become a cohesive fighting unit is one part of the story. Battle Cry takes us on a journey along with these young (idealistic in some cases) men who meet each other on the train to San Diego where they will enter Boot Camp for 6 weeks and become Marines, or so they think. The transition is brutal, designed to make them all look, think and act as one. As one of the Drill Instructors jokes when everyone is being shaved bald, “Makes every man in boot camp the same. Makes no difference what you once was. You’re a craphead (the DI’s favourite way of addressing the recruits) when you come out of the barbershop.”
This is then followed by rigourous marches, forced hikes, lectures, inspections, drills, exercises, more marches, more lectures, all designed to inculcate one thing and one thing only – you are no longer an individual but a part of a whole, a part of something larger than yourself. In the midst of all this is the natural human tendency to form groups and cliques. We see a few of the main characters become close friends; a relationship that impacts every action of theirs from here on. We see the ones who can take the abuse and grow, and we see the ones who cannot. We see the slow emergence of pride of being part of the Marines and the looking forward to earning the title through their sweat and tears. We see the Drill Instructors push the recruits to the brink of their endurance and then beyond, not because they are sadists and enjoy it, but because they know that if the training is ten times more intense than what they might actually face on the battlefield, these boys would actually have a chance of making out of it alive. “What he had taught them, what he had half killed them for, was there when it was most needed,” says Mac when he reminisces about his Commanding Officer.
Though titled Battle Cry, the book isn’t one dimensional; it not only shows the battle of bullets but also the battle of the heart and mind. These protagonists of ours may have dropped out of civilian life, but civilian life still goes on without them and around them. They fall in love, they fall out of love, they are left by the people they love, they falter (but manage to right themselves) in their love for the ones they left behind; all this while life as a Marine still progresses. They talk among themselves of the need for war, of the futility of war, all the while preparing for it. And in the middle of the battle and their overseas deployments they also battle their own demons of hatred, bigotry, and ignorance. Uris’ characters grow as human beings throughout the book, and you grow along with them.
Of the two themes that keep running though the book as constant undercurrents, one is the bond that these boys develop and sustain from the dry, dusty parade grounds right into and after the blood soaked beaches they attack. Uris tenderly describes the bond between the characters, born from circumstances that put them together and makes them look out for each other in the thick of battle and sickness. As malaria decimated their ranks in the tropical climate, he writes, “In a tent, with a hundred and four fever and chills and pains ripping him up, a man finds out what the word buddy means – to bathe a sick kid and feed him and attend to him. Guys that loved each other in a way that no woman could understand. Guys who had been through hell together, and could give a tenderness to each other that even a woman couldn’t duplicate.” He again and again comes back to this shared bond of brotherhood that makes the characters care, die and want to live for each other.
The second theme is the reality and ugliness of war. Uris doesn’t sugar coat it when he gives it to you, he gives you war in all its gritty, grimy, gut wrenching, disease ridden unfairness. Not all of his characters are heroes, not all of them want to be. He makes you care for the characters, he makes you cheer them on, he makes you hope against hope that they live. And just like life, he dashes your hopes when you least expect it. You go through the entire journey with what you start thinking of as “your boys” and in the end are faced with the harsh truth that not all of them will be coming back. Even as the narrator, Mac remarks the same thing when he and the remainder of the squad are discharged and are returning to San Francisco, “I remembered how I’d pictured this moment, with my boys alongside me . . . wars just didn’t turn out that way.”
As a first read, the book overwhelmed me with its raw visual strength. I could see Red Beach One on Saipan as it was under bombardment, feel the ground tremble under my feet as the shells hit, smell the sweat and fear of the Marines as they waited for the signal to move ashore. I could sense the tropical heat as L.Q. and Marion struggled with 50 gallon water containers on slopes muddy with rain. I winced in pain as Ski took a bullet to the knee. Through the book, I lived and died with the characters, sharing their pain, joy and fear.
Pick it up and read it if you haven’t yet. Let me know what you think of it, and if you want to talk about the book, I’m always up for it!