The literary attitude toward the military was fixed for all time by Rudyard Kipling’s famous line from “Tommy,” originally published in Barrack Room Ballads in 1892: “making mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep.” Gratitude was replaced by a sophisticated disdain long before a horse-faced candidate for the presidency, himself a veteran who had launched his career by slandering other veterans, warned that the alternative to doing well in school is getting stuck in a war zone. In Edward Dmytryk’s 1954 film The Caine Mutiny, the defense attorney Barney Greenwald (played memorably by José Ferrer) puts paid to this attitude of preening superiority:
Barrack Room Ballads and The Caine Mutiny are specimens of midcult, however. The highbrow attitude has not been affected by them. And a good part of the problem is that several of the greatest novels from the ’twenties, the remarkable decade that redefined American writing, are veteran’ books—disillusioned veterans’ books. The locus classicus is The Sun Also Rises (1926), in which “that dirty war” has left Jake Barnes without the equipment to be a full man. The Great Gatsby was also a novel about a veteran. Nick Carraway explains that he “participated in that delayed Teutonic migration known as the Great War. I enjoyed the counter-raid so thoroughly that I came back restless,” he adds.
Between those two attitudes—a lifelong maiming and an uneasiness with civilian life—most American veterans’ books can be arrayed.
The veterans of the Second World War wrote principally about their combat experiences. Only rarely do the novelists who came of age during the war cast a veteran in the role of protagonist—Bellow’s Eugene Henderson, Styron’s Cass Kinsolving. Perhaps the best-known novel about the veterans of the postwar period is Sloan Wilson’s Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) in which a paratrooper who killed seventeen enemy soldiers in the European theater returns home to land a job as a P.R. man for a Fortune 500 company.
The other novels about returning vets have all been forgotten. The best of them were probably The Tom-Walker (1947) by Mari Sandoz, better known for her books about the Plains Indians, and That Winter (1948) by Merle Miller, better known for Plain Speaking (1974), his oral biography of President Truman. Sandoz tells the story of three veterans from the same family—veterans of the Civil War, the Great War, and World War II. When her veterans fail to readjust to civilian life, the failure is not theirs. The purpose of The Tom-Walker is to criticize a society that has forgotten the virtues implicit in military service—a surprising point of view for a writer from the Left.
Miller’s purpose is similar: to show that the home front was worse than the veterans had left it. Three veterans share a New York apartment during the winter of 1945–’46. Together they experience just about every problem faced by their generation of soldiers in returning to civilian life. One is a son of wealth who drinks himself to suicide; another is a Jew who struggles to pass as a Gentile before the encounter with antisemitism propels him back to his father’s faith; the third is a writer manqué who, over the course of the winter, discovers his literary purpose.
Although Miller may seem to have placed himself firmly in the Hemingway-sourced tradition of disillusioned veterans’ fiction, he belongs to a different mood. As the critic Malcolm Cowley astutely noticed, the novels to come out of the Second World War did not achieve the same historical effect as fiction written in the aftermath of the Great War. “They mark no such break with the standards of the generation that preceded them.” The veterans who produced them “are disillusioned,” Cowley wrote, “but not so much by the war itself as by our failure in victory to achieve our war aims. They complain about the lack of democracy in the Army, about the conduct of our occupying forces and about the general contrast between our ideals and our performance.” The veterans of the Second World War who doubled as novelists were—with the notable exception of Gore Vidal—better men than the Great War novelists, but lesser writers.
There were a lot of them. But except for Oakley Hall’s Corpus of Joe Bailey (1953), which at least gave a start to the author of Warlock (1958), the other veterans’ novels at their best would provide material for an interesting literary history, if scholars were still interested in writing such things: James Warner Bellah, Ward 20 (1946), about wounded veterans in an army hospital; James Benson Noble, The Long November (1946), in which a private in the Canadian army, who longed for the smell of burning leaves while in combat, returns home to find it different than he remembered, but better perhaps than it was before the tyrants were defeated; Frank Fenton, What Way My Journey Lies (1946), about a veteran’s return to a Los Angeles that he can barely comprehend; Russell La Due, No More with Me (1947), winner of a Hopwood Award, about a Marine veteran whose girl jilts him, who goes on a bender, encounters social inequality and racial intolerance, but doesn’t abandon his ideals; Mitchell Wilson, The Kimballs (1947), in which a veteran returns to the town of his youth to battle a tyrant of a different kind; Monte Sohn, The Flesh and Mary Duncan (1948), in which a veteran must overcome his war-induced psychosis to live a normal civilian life; Fritz Peters, The World Next Door (1949), in which a veteran goes mad, believing that he is the second coming of Jesus Christ, and must be admitted to an insane asylum that makes the mental hospital in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest seem like a resort hotel; and Frederick Boyden, The Hospital (1951), about the rehabilitation of wounded veterans who require plastic surgery.
By the time of the Vietnam War, military service was no longer a universal experience. The literary disdain had become the general attitude, at least among the sensitive young men of my generation. My own disdain is directed at myself: that I was a coward who burned his draft card, not out of idealistic conviction, but out of stark terror at the very thought of combat. As Dan Senor and Saul Singer document in their new book Start-Up Nation, the state of Israel draws upon the confidence, discipline, and expertise that is developed in young Israelis by compulsory service in the Israel Defense Forces. More and more, when friends ask where their children should go to college, I recommend that they enlist in the Armed Services instead. But the U.S. has not yet learned to tap the talent developed by the military in the same way that Israel has.
And one thing standing in the way is the literary disdain. The novels about Vietnam veterans are nearly unanimous in expressing it. The psychologically damaged Vietnam vet of, say, Richard Ford’s Ultimate Good Luck or Robert Olen Butler’s Alleys of Eden (both published in 1981), has become a stock figure in American fiction. He even shows up as the unhinged stalker in The Human Stain (2000); Roth need do little more than describe Faunia’s ex-husband Les as a Vietnam veteran (“One day he’s door gunning in Vietnam, seeing choppers explode, in midair seeing his buddies explode, down so low he smells skin cooking, hears the cries, sees whole villages going up in flames, and the next day he’s back in the Berkshires”) to establish that the man is dangerous and mad. The soldier who becomes an adult in the army—who learns the responsibilities of adulthood, defined by the U.S. Army as loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage—has disappeared from American literature.
But not from American life. Today we Americans honor the men and women who have guarded us while we slept. We do not honor them often enough, especially if we spend our lives among American books.
 Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial: A Drama in Two Acts (New York: Samuel French, 1954), pp. 93–94. The screenplay for Dmytryk’s film was written by Hollywood veteran Stanley Roberts with unspecified “additional dialogue” by Michael Blankfort. Greenwald’s speech was heavily revised, and improved, for the film version.
 Malcolm Cowley, “Two Wars—and Two Generations,” New York Times Book Review (July 25, 1948): 1, 20.