The Thin Red Line, written in 1962 by James Jones, is semi-fictional tale of the men of C-for-Charlie Company and their first experience of combat on the island of Guadalcanal. Over the days, these men are exposed to the brutal nature of warfare. Some will find they can carry on in the face of death, some will do anything they can to leave the lush jungle hell they found themselves in, and still other will die before they know if they could have killed another human. This novel is not about good versus bad but about living and the lifeless.
C-for-Charlie Company was comprised of men who were well trained in the trade of soldiering. They had joined the army in the time of the Great Depression; they never thought they would find themselves on a ship bound for an island in the Pacific. But there they were, Charlie Company in the hold of a ship lined with bunks, all of them preparing to climb down the cargo net to the small barges waiting to bring them to the island of Guadalcanal. They were all nervous, but none showed it. They had no idea if they would ever leave this island or stay there in shallow muddy, graves.
C-for-Charlie’s journey would take them across the island of Guadalcanal, starting out as scared men and ending as self-acknowledged killers. They would fight over the island, first on hills of “The Dancing Elephant,” then over “The Giant Sea Slug,” then on the “Giant Boiled Shrimp,” and they finally massacre the Japanese army on the beaches of “Boola Boola Village.” During these weeks of battle, many men of C-for-Charlie would be wounded or killed, affecting their fellow soldiers profoundly and leaving an indelible mark on each survivor.
C-for-Charlie came ashore on the beach and proceeded to march inland to their bivouac, where they would spend a week getting accommodated to life on an island half controlled by Japanese. C-for-Charlie is sent to attack the head of “The Dancing Elephant” – Hill 210. This is C-for-Charlie’s first encounter with combat. Throughout the course of the day, C-for-Charlie battles up Hill 210 under heavy mortar and machinegun fire by the Japanese. They finally reach the halfway point by dusk and they settle in to wait for the coming dawn. The next day they were ordered to flank Hill 210 from the right, through the jungle, while another company continued to attack the summit of the hill. C-for-Charlie commander suggested this route through the jungle the day prior to the attack, but he was refused on the grounds that the jungle was heavily defended. As it turned out the jungle was empty, and all his men died for nothing. C-for-Charlie flanked around the hill and caught the Japanese bivouac from behind. C-for-Charlie with the other company took the hill by the end of the day.
C-for-Charlie was given a week of relaxation for their fighting on “the Dancing Elephant.” They came into the bivouac area laden with Japanese trophies ready to trade for whiskey with men in the air corps. C-for-Charlie spent their week of relaxation in a drunken stupor, as their beloved commander was relieved from duty. Marching out for their next battle over the “Giant Sea Slug,” the men of C-for-Charlie carried three canteens, two of whiskey and one of water.
The now combat-numbed C-for-Charlie moved up the “the Giant Sea Slug” expecting another battle like that of the “Dancing Elephant,” but they experienced, relatively no resistance save for one enemy pillbox. They marched on the “Giant Boiled Shrimp”. It was during this march that the new commander of C-for-Charlie was told to act as an independent unit and to press on until the other end of the island. The new company commander pushed C-for-Charlie through four days of marching in the jungle until they came to the village of “Boola Boola.” The days and nights melted together during this march, but one night stuck out to them; it was the night of the roadblock fiasco. The company commander sent fourteen men to a trail to set up a roadblock. When the dawn came C-for-Charlie found twelve men dead, and only two survivors.
This episode compels the men to come screaming into the village of “Boola Boola,” no longer the uncertain young men who came ashore on the other side of the island but now battle weary killers. Once they secured the village, trucks met them to take them back to their bivouac reverse side of the island.
The next forty-eight hours for C-for-Charlie was spent consuming all of the left over alcohol from their trades with the air corps, almost the entire company was drunk. C-for-Charlie would not go back to battle on Guadalcanal but would now start training for their next combat operation. C-for-Charlie’s commander was relieved of his duty for the road block fiasco, and men with old combat wounds were evacuated to Australia and, in some cases, home. Then finally the old timers and the replacements of C-for-Charlie climbed up the heavy cargo net of a transport bound for another island. They did, indeed, leave some of their number in shallow muddy graves, and each one of them had encountered the fear that all soldiers face.
The Journey that Cpl. Geoffrey Fife undergoes through the book mirrors the development of C-for-Charlie. Starting out an uncertain, shy, and scared boy, he comes out of the battle as a strong leader of men. He used the numbness of combat to overcome his fears.
Cpl. Fife was C-for-Charlie’s forward clerk when he first came to Guadalcanal. He joined the army two and a half years prior, back in peacetime. 1st Sgt. Welsh, his boss, constantly abused him.
“[Welsh] had no use for Corporal Fife… [Fife] while also being a punk kid and an ass, was a coward. Welsh did not mean coward in the sense that he would shit his pants and run away. Fife wouldn’t do that; he would stay. He would be trembling like a dog shitting peach seeds and scared within an inch of his life, but he would stay… that was an even worse kind of coward. When he said coward, what he meant to say was that Fife had not yet learned- if he ever would- that his life, and himself, his He, didn’t mean a godamned thing to the world in general, and never would… Fife was smart enough to know it, or at least learn it, that was the worst kind of coward there was.” (P. 25)
No one including Fife ever thought he would make good infantrymen. The problem was that he still believed in humanity. This would change. Fife had no friends in C-for-Charlie. There was Pvt. Bell who he had tried to befriend, and Pvt. Witt, who had gotten transferred. Then there was Bead. Bead was a draftee who, because of his age (18), was put in Head Quarter’s with Fife.
“He had come crawling in [to the tent] at the movement when Fife, already disrobed to his underwear, had been thinking ardently about the girls. Fife was embarrassed, but Bead made no comment… What could a guy do? Nothing that’s what…unless guys helped each other out now and then…’Well, what do you say…shall we help each other out… I just don’t want you to think I’m no queer, or nothing like that.” (P. 125-126)
Of course no one could know of this, but soon there would only be one of them to talk. Mortars rounds were exploding all around and Pvt. Bead was hit by a flying piece of shrapnel. Bead asked to see Fife. Fife held his hand and cradled him as he died. Fife himself was hit not long after. Fife was hit in the back of the head by a mortar fragment, loosing his glasses in the process. He was sent back to the Aid Station. Fife had never laid eyes on the enemy.
This marks Fife’s shift as a character both physically and mentally. When he was brought back the hospital, he tried as much as he could to get evacuated to Australia, but he discovered his head wound was not major, but just a flesh wound not even denting the skull. He returns to C-for-Charlie Company within seven days. They had been pulled off the line and were now enjoying some R&R. Someone else had taken his job as company clerk and he was put in second command of a squad. Fife was devastated and most of all fearful. When he goes into combat for the first time he does not know if he will be able to kill another human being. He quickly finds out.
“ [He found himself] remembering that young foolish, innocent, gullible Corporal Fife, that total stranger, who once stood forth in the dawn on Hill 209 and had stretched out his arms willing to be killed for mankind, and love of mankind. Well, fuck mankind, that bunch of ‘honorable’ animals. Piss and shit on them. That’s was what they deserved…Fife had no troubleshooting. When he first saw those scrawny, tattered, scarecrow yellow men firing their rifles…When he saw one Japanese in a hole whirl with a grenade in his hand and stare at him wide-eyed, he shot him through the chest and watched him fall, the phrase repeating itself over and over in his mind happily that “I can kill, too! I can! Just like everybody! I can kill, too!” (P. 451-452)
This knowledge that he can kill liberated Fife, allowing him to lead his squad, which he soon inherits after his squad leader is killed. When they are taken off the line and back for more R&R, Fife is made Sgt., leader of his squad. At this point in the battle for Guadalcanal things were just wrapping up. C-for-Charlie started to do more training and the new Sgt. Fife was evacuated for wounds he had suffered on his ankle. He loved C-for-Charlie Company and his squad, but in the end he left, like many other, but C-for-Charlie was still there, still intact.
There’s only a thin red line between the sane and the mad
-Old Middlewestern Saying
The overlying theme of The Thin Red Line is the brutal nature of war and how it affects each man differently. War is a series of violent and stressful events. Each human reacts differently to this: some will freeze, others will flee, and still others will fight. All of these reactions take them to the thin red line. In The Thin Red Line, one sees the men of C-for-Charlie develop the numbness that overtakes men in combat. This numbness, this unawareness of right and wrong, is the thin red line. No sane person would kill another, no sane person would stand up to weather a storm of bullets to press on, but these men do. The numbness of combat allows the men to cross the line of insanity or just peer into the insane, still allowing them to come back to sanity after the killing has finished.
Each man responds to this imaginary line differently. Sgt. Fife (in his first encounter) responds by freezing in the face of combat and are unable to cope with the reality of war. Some will flee, as did Pvt. Doll, who, while under heavy machinegun fire, fled blindly through the raking fire. And others will fight, like Pvt. Cash, who kills for the intense pleasure he derives from it. He knows that what he is doing is wrong, but he knows he also will never get punished. It’s his guilty pleasure, as morbid as it may be. These examples illustrate how men can live on both sides of the thin red line.
“It was interesting to watch the gradual diminution of the universal numbness which afflicted everyone. In most of them the numbness required about two days to go away. By the third day nearly all of them had become almost the same personalities they had been before…[John Bell] could not help wondering if any of them could ever really become the same again. He didn’t think so. Not without lying, anyway…they could all go down to the American Legion like their fathers and talk about it within the limits of a prescribed rationale which allowed them selfrespect. They could pretend to each other they were men. And avoid admitting they had once seen something animal within themselves that terrified them.” (P. 350)
Exposure to the thin red line reveals the true character of each man.
The journey of C-for-Charlie Company is one from hell and back. The numbness of combat forces the men to face the line of insanity. They leave Guadalcanal as different men; they have seen the brutal nature of war and have been changed forever.
Jones, James. The Thin Red Line. New York: Delta, 1962.