Leon Uris’ Battle Cry is the product of an era in which patriotism and service to one’s country were the highest ideals. World War II was, after all, the “good war,” a fight for survival against an ideology diametrically opposed to the principles of Democracy. Published in 1953, Battle Cry rode the same heady wave that made other war stories, such as James Jones’ From Here to Eternity, so popular. Uris’ war opus is equal parts Marine rouser and combat-chronicle-cum-soap opera. As such, it helped establish a literary paradigm that Hollywood would mine exhaustively for decades, supplying a stream of movie scripts that post-war audiences devoured with an eagerness matched only by the Western. Though melodramatic by today’s standards, Battle Cry is a seminal work that helped create a new tradition in the annals of the American novel.
Battle Cry follows the combat exploits and the “lives and loves” of the men of the Marine 6th Regiment, a venerable unit that first won renown during World War I at the battle of Belleau Wood. The regiment’s 2nd battalion is led by a tough but well-liked Colonel named Sam Huxley. Uris’ cast of characters is comprised of a classic American ethnic mix including a Navajo Indian, a Mexican-American from San Antonio, an Italian-American, a “Swede” and many others. There’s even a tough Sergeant named “Mac” (which tempts one to think “genre stereotype” until you realize that this book helped create the stereotype). The story follows the group from
boot camp through some of the fiercest fighting in the war’s Pacific theater. The group joins the Marines in 1942 and, after completing their training, they quickly become frustrated by a string of non-combat postings. As the Marines wait their turn, the story examines the war’s impact on their personal lives. Andy Hookens, adopting a “live for the moment” philosophy, has an affair with Pat, a widow from New Zealand. Young Danny Forrester cheats on his fiancée Kathy with the wife of an officer. Marion Hotchkiss, the unit’s reigning “intellectual,” becomes involved with a young woman named Rae who turns out to be a “bar girl.”
The battalion swings into action in 1944 as the brutal struggle in the Pacific heats up. The story alternates between personalizing moments of human interest and bloody battle scenes as the regiment finds itself in the thick of the action in some of the Pacific war’s bloodiest conflicts, including Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Saipan. As with any war story, there is pathos and a powerful feeling of loss. Colonel Huxley’s death in the early stages of the battle of Saipan is a sad irony in that it was Huxley who lobbied hard for his unit to take a lead role in the invasion. Uris effectively leverages the war’s terrible emotional cost. We are privy to a letter written by Huxley to his wife who feels, as she reads it, as though she’ll never see her husband again. “Our die is cast and for the while we must get our bits of happiness when they are doled out to us. I am not sorry for the life I have chosen, only for the misery I have caused you” (Uris, 651). She finds out all too soon that the die has indeed been cast for her husband.
Spouses are rarely acknowledged for the sacrifices they make in war, Mrs. Huxley having paid the ultimate price. Battle Cry tells about the effect of war on young men barely out of their
teens, Americans but newly graduated from high school. Danny Forrester is an interesting study of a young all-American boy caught up in the desire for glory. He represents a generation that, like so many others throughout history, bore the brunt of slaughter; young lives lost in the maw of war without questioning the circumstances that put them in harm’s way. Uris manages to tell his story (as a Marine who served in the Pacific it is, after all, his story) without moralizing or preaching. His is the tone of a storyteller, the firsthand account of someone who was actually there, who lost friends and killed enemy soldiers at close range.
Battle Cry is a soldier’s story in every sense. Uris makes no apologies for being pro-Marine and pro-American. Perhaps the most impressive achievement of this, his first novel, is that he manages to write about the war in the Pacific from the perspective of a combatant without unduly purple prose, though the style of Uris’ inaugural book is, by 21st century standards, outdated. It is, remarkably, still a timely story for an America that finds itself at war with a persistent enemy opposed by young Americans who still go to war with the same kind of elan and spirit that animated Hookens, Forrester and their compatriots.
Uris, Leon. Battle Cry. New York: Harper Collins, 1953.