Three Soldiers

by John Dos Passos. New York: George H. Doran Co. 1921. 12mo, 433 pp. $2.00.
THREE young Americans, serving in France with the United States Army, go their various ways down-hill; and publisher and author will have us see in their tragedy ‘the case of Young America, generous, open-minded, spiritually alive, courageous idealists, caught and crushed in the great stamping machine of war.’
Were the last word of this quotation changed from ‘war’ to ‘army life,’ or ‘military discipline in the A.E.F.,’ there would be a gain of accuracy; for Mr. Dos Passos gives us but a fugitive glimpse of war in its phase of death and violence, and seems to censure it less for its destructiveness than for the fact that it forces the individual to live under orders in barracks. The ‘war’ which he portrays is thus not the jovial, lunatic, murderous, picnic-in-hell adventure of the average front line on an average day, but the tedious, peevish, exiled, and bedeviled existence of a detachment living in stray-dog fashion ‘somewhere in France.’ It is well to keep this setting in mind when one goes on to consider the responsibility of the A.E.F. for the fates of Dan Fuselli, Chrisfield, and John Andrews.
Did the A.E.F. reduce the average individual to a debased and enslaved machine? or, worse yet, did the A.E.F. produce a like effect on the exceptional man? The answer lies, not in printing sentimental encomiums of life with the colors (there has been too much of this kind of reply), but in examining the three particular ‘cases’ with which Mr. Dos Passos sustains his point. Greatly to his credit, be it said, he attempts no ‘whitewashing’ of his characters, but paints them faults and all.
The first, Fuselli, evidently serves as a portrait of a casual conscript: commonplace, provincial, city-bred, he wanders in and out of the pages, for no apparent reason; and finally, after a hint or two of adventures and courts-martial, which the author leaves in the dark, vanishes as an actually contented permanent K.P. at some Parisian caserne.
The second, Chrisfield, a low-grade white from Indiana, talking Southern and Western cracker-negro dialect (he is handy with a knife), first tries to stab the sergeant who attempts to train him; and failing this, blows him up with a grenade, just as the poor fellow staggers, cruelly wounded, out of the inferno of a night attack. He crowns his career by deserting. Of a genuine spirit of fraternity, of that sense of comradeship which made wounded men again and again crawl miles ‘to be with their bunch,’ Chrisfield has not an iota. Again and again he is mean among his own. From first to last, his character undergoes no change.
It is with John Andrews, however, that the author rests his case. ‘O God, what a slave they ’ve made of me!’ is this man’s cri de cœur, which, being interpreted, means simply that John Andrews, like other occasional possessors of the artistic temperament, is fundamentally lazy, and that the army made him work even when possessed by his two favorite obsessions, sex and sulks. The schoolboy who hated confinement and discipline and ‘used to go from the station to school by the longest road, taking frantic account of every moment of liberty,’ became, naturally enough, I the lazy and unwilling soldier. Sent to school in Paris by the army, he abuses his freedom, and deserts; and the book closes with his recapture.
This ‘Young America, generous, open-minded, spiritually alive’? Never! Young America was there, fighting hard, fighting loyally, friend standing by friend. ‘Fight hard and finish it quickly,’ was it s order of the day.
It is a great pity that the propaganda and the pages of barrack pettinesses, which Mr. Dos Passos puts in to prove his case, should be allowed to make the book curiously top-heavy; for, judged apart from its thesis, Three Soldiers is a work of marked distinction. It is æsthetically honest and quite fearless. Indeed, the chapter dealing with the retreat in the Paris slums, to which the deserters make their way, is as firstrate a bit of naturalistic description as one could find in any modern author. And it is genuine and American. Mistaken or not, Mr. Dos Passos deserves friendly interest and encouragement.