The Great War Novelist America Forgot

Herman Wouk deserves more critical acclaim than he’s enjoyed.

Douglas L. Benc / AP

On May 27, the American novelist Herman Wouk will attain the prodigious age of 100. Over his long career, Wouk has achieved all the wealth and fame a writer could desire, or even imagine. His first great success, The Caine Mutiny (1951), occupied bestseller lists for two consecutive years, sold millions of copies, and inspired a film adaptation that became the second highest-grossing movie of 1954. Wouk’s grand pair of novels, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, likewise found a global audience, both in print, and then as two television miniseries in the 1980s.

Wouk won a Pulitzer for The Caine Mutiny. From then on, however, critical accolades eluded him. Reviews of the two “War” novels proved mostly dismissive—sometimes even savage. Critics assigned the proudly Jewish Wouk to the category that included Leon Uris and Chaim Potok rather than Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.

Negative critical judgment matters. After the first fizz of publicity, it is critics who in almost all cases determine what will continue to be read.  The novelist known as Stendhal described books as tickets in a lottery, of which the prize is to be read in a hundred years. If enduring readership is the ultimate prize for a writer, then Wouk is at present failing. Readers under 40 know Wouk, if they know him at all, as a name on the spine of a paperback shoved into a cottage bookshelf at the end of someone else’s summer vacation—or perhaps as the supplier of the raw material for Humphrey Bogart’s epic performance as Captain Queeg of the USS Caine. What they don’t know is that Herman Wouk has a fair claim to stand among the greatest American war novelists of them all.

The plot of The Caine Mutiny is easily summarized. A spoiled, self-indulgent young man named Willie Keith joins the Navy, mostly because it promises less walking than the Army. (If you want to see Keith as a symbol for America itself, Wouk won’t object.) Keith finds himself aboard an antique minesweeper, the Caine. The ship performs a succession of minor missions under oddball commanders. One of those commanders, Queeg, ultimately puts the whole ship at risk. The officers of the Caine mutiny against Queeg’s leadership, and are subsequently court-martialed. They are acquitted but never forgiven by the Navy higher command. The bravest and most capable of the officers forfeits his hopes of promotion. After an unexpected act of heroism, Willie Keith finds himself the last commander of the Caine. When he is finally demobilized, months after the war has ended for everybody else, he emerges chastened, matured, and ready for the responsibilities of the postwar world.

The two “War” novels aren’t as compactly formed as The Caine Mutiny. The “War” novels tell the stories of two families, that of a U.S. naval officer, “Pug” Henry, and that of a Jewish-American scholar, Aaron Jastrow. The Henry and Jastrow families become connected when one of Pug’s sons marries Jastrow’s niece. Wouk deploys the members of the two families—and their friends, lovers, and military units—around the planet in order to tell the story of the war from the late 1930s until the liberation of the Nazi death camps. Pug himself at various points meets President Roosevelt, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, and Josef Stalin, along with much of the U.S. naval and military high command. In title and structure, the two “War” novels invite comparison to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. That’s asking for trouble right there. But if the only books worth writing or reading were those that equal War and Peace, then none of us would need much bookshelf space. What Wouk did in the “War” novels is accomplishment enough.

Pull that paperback from off the cottage shelf, open the pages—and suddenly there you are: walking a Polish country road as a Stuka buzzes overhead … in the wardroom of a warship tasting thin Navy coffee … shivering in the unpressurized cabin of a bomber above Germany … or waiting amid a roomful of desperate visa applicants for the stamp that will mean the difference between life and death. Between these dramatic incidents, Caine and the “War” novels pulse with the everyday details of 1940s America: what it felt like to wait for a letter in the post, the passage of time on a transcontinental railway trip, the crinkle of the carbon paper between two copies of an army report, the uncertainty of knowing who would win the war, and when, and how.

“It is the war itself,” was reportedly Henry Kissinger’s high praise for the “War” novels. Even as we retain memories of the war’s events, the war’s atmosphere—the way people felt and talked and thought—fades from our understanding. In The Imitation Game, the recent movie about the British computer scientist Alan Turing, the moviemakers got every visual detail right: clothes, cars, streetscapes. Then they represented Turing as a single lonely scientist building a machine by hand out of discarded spare parts in a Victorian stable. The industrial vastness and technological sophistication of the British war effort somehow eluded the moviemakers’ memories or failed to engage their interest.

Wouk never lets the reader forget that the Second World War was the biggest collective undertaking in the history of the human race. No movie could ever depict it, because no movie could ever have the budget. Imagine, however, a movie with an infinite budget—because the special effects are all in the reader’s mind—and you have something of the effect of Wouk’s Caine and his War novels. Wouk’s methods are cinematic. He describes battles as a moviemaker would try to film them, cutting back and forth from a wide-angle view of the contending armies or battle fleets to the individual experience of a particular character. His account of the attack on Pearl Harbor, for example, shifts back and forth between an omniscient narration of the Japanese bombing of the U.S. battleships at anchor and the vantage point of Pug’s daughter-in-law, who happens to observe the bombing of the ships from the shoulder of a road on a hill above the U.S. naval base.

Wouk uses the wide angle because he wants us to see the whole war and understand what it was all about. More critically admired novelists of the 20th century—from Erich Marie Remarque to Pat Barker—want us to feel the terror and filth and cruelty of war from the perspective of the individual caught in its violence. Wouk wants us to see war’s cruelty too. But he also wants us to appreciate why the generals or admirals made the decisions they did, why each side won or lost. His war is not a roar of irrational violence without form or purpose. His war is the war of a documentary on the History Channel: violent, yes, but violence with a shape, a goal, and a justification.

One of the most harshly depicted characters in The Caine Mutiny is an aspiring writer at work on a novel sharply critical of the Navy. The aspiring writer makes the mistake of missing the barbed compliment when a character who (obviously) speaks for Wouk congratulates the writer for satirizing the Navy’s “stupid, stodgy Prussians.” The Wouk stand-in then upbraids the writer: While the two of them were enjoying the benefits of peace, it was those “stupid, stodgy Prussians” of the regular Navy and Army who were “standing guard on this fat, dumb, and happy country of ours.” Even as the cultural climate shifted in the Vietnam era (Winds of War was published in 1971; War and Remembrance in 1978) Wouk stood his ground in believing that war can be necessary, and that death in battle is a risk that men can rationally accept.

Wouk doesn’t deny the horror of war, but he doesn’t look closely at it. There’s nothing here like the horrific description of the death of the bombardier Snowden in Heller’s Catch-22: the still-living intestines spilling out of a man’s gashed, bleeding body. Even the most painfully described death in the War novels (that of Pug’s aviator son Warren) is presented as somehow uplifting. Having heroically sunk a Japanese warship at the Battle of Midway, Warren’s plane is struck by Japanese anti-aircraft fire. Wouk describes the heat of burning gasoline roasting a human being alive; the flyer’s anguished awareness of imminent death and the loss of all future hopes. The plane tumbles into the ocean. The pain of the fire is soothed by the inrush of water, and the not altogether likable Warren’s final thoughts are brave and noble.

This is war literature as influenced by Rupert Brooke rather than Wilfred Owen. Again and again through the War novels, flawed characters—a coward, a cad—are redeemed by the manner of their deaths: one parachuting into France to aid the Resistance; another saving his submarine from enemy air attack by giving the order to submerge before he can re-enter. Yes, as Joseph Heller shows, people get their intestines blown out in war. They can also get their intestines blown out by an armed invader if they refuse to defend against a military aggressor—and it’s that latter horror about which Wouk has the most to say.

The Nazi Holocaust pervades the War novels and lurks in the corners of Caine too. Some of Wouk’s characters stumble into the Holocaust’s maw; others glimpse inside and are transformed forever. Adolf Eichmann makes a large and memorable appearance in War and Remembrance. Let it be noted that the supposedly middlebrow Wouk more shrewdly penetrated the Nazi murderer’s self-serving lies than the echt highbrow Hannah Arendt. Wouk’s Eichmann is no banal bureaucrat, but a fanatical plunderer and murderer—just as the historical documents that have become available since the writing of Wouk’s novels have confirmed.

It’s really a striking thing how unexpressed a place the Jewish Holocaust occupied in the writing of American Jewish novelists in the decades after the war: Heller, Bellow, Malamud, Doctorow. (Mordecai Richler too, to include a Canadian.) With Wouk, the Holocaust is always front of mind. In 2012, at 97, when he was asked by Vanity Fair which living person he most despised, he answered, “The Jewish writer who traduces his Jewishness.” (The runner-up, it would seem, is the U.S. military veteran who traduces the U.S. military.)

Just as the invention of photography forced painters to rethink the purposes of their art form, so writers have had to rethink their medium since the advent of cinema. What’s the novel for when a story can be told so much more immediately by film? The various possible answers to this question supply the literary history of the 20th century. Some writers decided that the purpose of the novel was to explore the artistic potential of language itself. Some writers plunged beneath the surfaces of people and things to explore human psychology and the structure of consciousness. Wouk’s answer was to revert to the foundations of human story, to The Iliad and the troubling mysteries of combat. Wouk was a participant in the most terrible war in human history, and he wanted to record what had happened and why it had to be done. To achieve that end, Wouk fused fiction with history in ways sometimes hugely successful (his character sketch of Franklin Roosevelt—even better as rendered in FDR’s Groton accent in the audiobook superbly performed by Kevin Pariseau), and sometimes not (the interpolation of an imaginary history of the war by a fictitious German general).

The contrivances necessary to move Wouk’s characters from event to event sometimes creak. The characters themselves, however, never feel contrived—not the fictitious characters and (even more difficult) not the historic ones. Their stories and their personalities endure in the memory. Wouk may not be a stylistic innovator or a polisher of the perfect phrase. What he does achieve however is to create characters one finds oneself talking about years afterward as if they were people one knew, with problems as urgent as one’s own.

Half a century ago, Norman Podhoretz accused Wouk of lacking moral sophistication.  Here’s an extract from Podhoretz’s harsh 1955 review of Marjorie Morningstar, Wouk’s first major post-Caine novel:

That Wouk should pass for a serious writer is perhaps no more an occasion of surprise than the success of a dozen other inconsequential novelists. But an error of taste alone obviously cannot account for his reputation. The people who enjoy Wouk, I would guess, read him earnestly, with a reverence they never feel when confronted by, say, Thomas B. Costain or Sloan Wilson. His books are not “mere entertainment,” time-killers to carry on the subway; they “stimulate the mind,” they “provoke thought.” Marjorie, like The Caine Mutiny (which is, incidentally, a better novel), gives its audience a satisfied sense of having grappled with difficult questions, of having made an honest, painstaking effort to examine both sides of a problem before reaching a mature decision.

Podhoretz would later recant the severity of his assessment. Yet he wasn’t wrong in saying that moral ambiguity is not Wouk’s idiom. The Caine Mutiny builds to a big set-piece speech by the attorney who wins acquittal for the mutineers. In that speech, the attorney angrily condemns the mutineers for failing to appreciate that it’s men like Queeg who keep the Navy afloat in between great wars. The speech might have jolted us into rethinking our view of Queeg … if Wouk hadn’t so relished depicting Queeg as not merely a paranoid tyrant, but also an incompetent seaman, a coward in the face of the enemy, and a petty crook and cheat.

But if the case for and against Queeg isn’t as morally challenging as Wouk might imagine, Queeg as a character is absolutely unforgettable. His name is familiar even now to people who have no idea what book it comes from. How morally complex are the characters of the early Dickens, really? They are real, they are memorable, and that’s enough to prove their literary power.

In his famous essay on the fox and the hedgehog, Isaiah Berlin characterized Wouk’s model, Tolstoy, as a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog. (The fox, as you’ll remember, knows many things, while the hedgehog knows one big thing.) Wouk comes as close to being a hedgehog as probably any novelist can. Wouk’s novels aren’t books that yield a different point of view on a second reading. Every time you read them, they will say the same thing. Yet if didacticism is Wouk’s worst fault as a writer, it is not the fault that has done most damage to his reputation. Contemporary critics don’t mind didacticism in the right cause. (See Walker, Alice, career of.) Wouk’s, however, was very much the wrong cause.

In 2005, a left-wing journal published an angry article denouncing Wouk as “the first neoconservative.” If a “neoconservative” is someone who continued to adhere to the consensus politics of the 1950s deep into the 1970s, then Wouk is guilty as charged. Wouk is no partisan:  The War novels are emphatically admiring of Franklin Roosevelt. Yet in his own non-ideological way, Wouk is a conservative writer: conservative about religion, about gender roles, and above all about duty, service, country, and warfare.

Wouk’s novels abound in developed female characters. No question though, that Wouk’s sexual politics would appall almost any modern college department of English.

Wouk respects women’s intelligence, strength, and independence. In the War novels, Warren’s widow will reject remarriage and plan instead an independent professional life. He describes a father-daughter team of English journalists in which the daughter does all the work, while the father claims all the credit. The War novels’ most consistently heroic character is a woman: Natalie Jastrow, who hurls herself into one danger spot after another, and ultimately rescues her child, Pug’s grandson, from the Nazi murder apparatus.

If Wouk accepts that women can be brave, strong, and independent, he also expects that good women will be chaste. For snobbish, prejudiced reasons, Willie Keith cruelly jilts his working-class, Catholic girlfriend. After a near-death experience, he repents and resolves to woo her back. At war’s end, he finds her working as a singer in a jazz band. An agonizing question overhangs their reunion: Has she slept with the bandleader? After tormenting Willie a little, she reveals that she has not. The clear implication is that it would serve Willie right if she had—but that it’s a proof of her greater virtue that she hasn’t.

Wouk takes a dim view of sexual infidelity in men too, it should be said. As best I recall, the only male character in Caine and the two War novels to cheat on a wife or fiancé and not receive some drastic come-uppance is General Eisenhower. Still, it’s possible for the doomed Warren to be a philanderer and also a brilliant mind and a gallant aviator. A faithless woman in Wouk’s novels is almost always also contemptible in every other dimension of life. Thus Pug’s Rhoda not only cuckolds him, but also cheerfully traffics in stolen Jewish property during a stay in wartime Germany. She complains tiresomely about even the mildest wartime hardship and ultimately proves a callously neglectful grandmother. Wouk’s good women, whatever else they may accomplish, are always first and foremost loving wives and devoted mothers.

By the publication of The Winds of War in 1971, Wouk’s sexual politics already seemed old-fashioned. The politics that most jeopardized Wouk’s critical standing, however, were his high politics: his views of America’s place in the world, of the military’s place in America, and of the commanders’ place in the military—views on every count intolerable and offensive to the professional gatekeepers of literary reputation.

Wouk is an unabashed admirer of great men: not only Roosevelt, but also the commanders of the U.S. Army and (always in first place) the U.S. Navy. (The novels consistently convey that while the U.S. Army is a perfectly good army, as armies go, the U.S. Navy is the sublimest invention of the mind of man: The novelist character in Caine describes the Navy as a “a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots.” The character doesn’t mean the phrase as a compliment, but Wouk does.) Not for Wouk the brutal, swinish officers of From Here to Eternity or the bottom-up perspective of The Naked and the Dead. The heroes who win the war, in Wouk’s telling, are the military and civilian leaders who gave the orders that won battles and then brought their fighting men home mostly in safety.

Wouk disdained to write about World War II as a symbolic prelude to Vietnam, or as a postscript to the dispossession of native peoples, although both get mentions in the vast corpus of War novels. He accordingly rejects attempts to complicate our understanding with sophisticated narrative gambits like those in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Underneath the amazing mass of geographic, historic, and military technical detail, his version of the war is the version they used to teach in high school: a great cause fought for great aims by great men with great success.

As for the country that fought the war … Wouk’s view is also uncomplicated. He believes in it, wholeheartedly. The wrongs of wartime America don’t go unnoticed exactly. (Wouk does observe that the black personnel on the Caine all work as menials.) But he doesn’t fret over those wrongs either. For Wouk, the United States is a haven of safety and plenty in a planet on fire—and the only possible source of rescue for all those in danger.

Early in The Winds of War, Natalie Jastrow has her U.S. passport seized from her by a Polish police captain. The shock of the loss of the protection of the American eagle’s talons—and the relief at regaining it—is a harbinger of much that is to come. Ultimately, Natalie and her uncle Aaron find themselves stateless refugees, scratching at the golden door of the United States. The War novels are the opposite of social criticism, works built on an adamantine foundation of patriotism without doubt or apology.

One can detract from Wouk by saying there’s more to the story than he tells. Yet the story he tells is story enough. Give Wouk’s books to someone who knows little of the Second World War, and when they finish, they will feel almost as if they had lived through it. The novels are a monument as polished and fitting as all the marble slabs and columns erected since 1945—and vastly more eloquent and informative. The writer who created them deserves better remembrance and more honor in the literature of the country he loves so well.