The Officers' Wives

by Thomas Fleming, Doubleday, $19.95. The canvas of this immense novel stretches over the past thirty years of the U.S. Army, from the reductions in force following World War II through the Korean War buildup and Vietnam and after. The narrative leads us through interservice rivalries and changing fashions in military posture: armored capability in the Truman Administration; big-bang military diplomacy under Eisenhower; the Kennedys’ counterinsurgency policy; the tragic and destructive actions in Asia under Johnson and Nixon. The Officers’ Wives has a lot to offer readers who look to fiction for the gift of painless information.
What energizes this novel, though, is the war between the sexes. A half-dozen members of the West Point class of 1950 are traced through their military careers as Korean combat leaders, staff officers, NATO watchdogs, military advisers in Vietnam, Pentagon mavens. Two eventually join the most exclusive of all clubs—the club of general officers.
This 300,000-word story tells itself through the eyes and emotions of women, each of whom falls in love at twenty with a cadet and at twenty-one marries him as a second lieutenant. The officers’ wives spend their lives watching their men die, or advance in rank, or grow disillusioned or hard or corrupt. When each woman—as each must—is required to choose between her conscience and her husband, it is the husband who loses. The wives seem to follow the example of an entire nation by gradually withdrawing their confidence in the integrity of American might.
Sometimes cumbersome, but often passionate or reflective, Fleming’s fictional account of the alterations in our attitude toward military service recapitulates the entire course of recent American history. This story is a closed circle, moving from the bitterness of From Here to Eternity to the bitterness of Going After Cacciato.
—Peter Davison