Guard of Honor, by James Gould Cozzens

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Colonel Ross did not have the facts on whatever other troubles Colonel Woodman had or thought he had; but he knew all about this episode of the AT-7–perhaps more than Woody thought. It was really all you needed to know. A routine order had gone from Washington to Fort Worth and from Fort Worth to Sellers Field; give an AT-7 to General Beal. Understandably, Colonel Woodman didn’t like giving away planes; but anyone not obsessed with a persecution complex need only look at a map to figure it out. The finger was put on Sellers Field because it was the point nearest Ocanara to which AT-7’s were then being delivered. Moreover, Sellers Field, as Woody so loudly protested, was not scheduled to be, and was not, ready to use all its planes. Still, standard operating procedure would be to query the order. Fort Worth grasped, at least as well as Colonel Woodman did, that basic principle of military management: always have on hand more of everything than you can ever conceivably need. If Colonel Woodman in the normal way queried Fort Worth, Fort Worth could be counted on to query Washington.

What Woody did was compose and immediately fire off a TWX message to the Chief of Air Staff. Naturally, he had known and flown with this officer back in his comical bastard days. Woody now said that every AT-7 he had or could lay his hands on was absolutely indispensable to the Sellers Field program. Giving one to General Beal was quite out of the question. He made an oblique but unmistakable reference to those fancies of his about his superiors at Fort Worth. He made another, incoherent but no doubt intelligible enough, to the duplication of effort, waste, and working at cross-purposes bound to result when exempt organizations under the Chief of Air Staff, like AFORAD, supposed to do God Knows What, were given the inside track on everything.

At the Headquarters of the Army Air Forces the second summer of the war was a nervous time. They still put up those signs about doing the difficult at once and requiring only a little longer to do the impossible. Nearly every day they were forced to make momentous decisions. On their minds they had thousands of planes and hundreds of thousands of men and billions of dollars. Their gigantic machine, which, as they kept saying, had to run while it was being built, gave them frightening moments and bad thoughts to lie awake at night with.

Now, then, toward the end of the usual exhausting day, came a long and stupid message which, if it were going anywhere, should have gone to Fort Worth. It fretted them about one training plane. It lectured them on what was indispensable to Sellers Field (the AAF had so many fields that you could not find one man who knew all the names). It informed them that the Training Command was not run properly and that the project at Ocanara was a poort idea.

Enemies of Woody’s, a “hostile clique” trying to do-him-in, would have asked nothing better than a chance to make these attitudes and opinions of Colonel Woodman’s known at AAF Headquarters. Woody made them known himself, in black and white, over his signature. Colonel Ross could not help thinking that the evidence showed, if anything, that there were “certain parties” at Headquarters who were still ready, for old times’ sake, to cover for Woody, to try and keep him out of trouble. An angry man (so Colonel Woodman thought a little wire-pulling could determine Air Staff decisions, did he?) might have walked across the hall, laid the message before the CG/AAF and watched the roof blow off. Even a mildly annoyed man might have supplied Fort Worth with an information copy and left Woody to explain. Instead Woody got a personal reply at Sellers Field. He was peremptorily ordered to make available at once one of the first ten subject articles delivered to him. He was curtly reminded that direct communication between Headquarters Sellers Field and Headquarters Army Air Forces was under no repeat no circumstances authorized.

Of course, Colonel Woodman had done irreparable damage to any remaining chances he might have had for advancement, or an important command. Still, there was such a thing as the good of the service; and Woody, making it certain that he had no future, might be promoting that.


from A Reader’s Delight, by Noel Perrin:

Any generation is apt to know two classes of books: the current one favored by the Establishment and the classics selected by professors.

Guard of Honor is a classic (I think) but it is a hard one to put into an American literature course. Why? Because Cozzens was not a romantic. Most American writers, from Cooper, Poe, and Hawthorne onward, have been, and nearly all the novels in our canon are romances. This has advantages for teachers and students both. It’s handy for teachers, because there is usually more to say in class about something rich in symbols and hung with cloudy portent. It is wonderful for students, because practically everyone is–and should be–a romantic at eighteen or nineteen or twenty. Clear-eyed realism comes later….

Either way, it is hard to assign books to twenty-year-olds that there is little chance they can really appreciate until they are about thirty-five, and that is another reason Guard of Honor doesnot occupy its rightful place. Hardly anyone read it in college.

Its rightful place is as one of the greatest social novels ever written in American. It’s not just a slice of life, but a whole rounded pie. The action takes place at Ocanara Army Air Field in Florida over a three-day period in 1943. There are about twenty thousand men and women stationed at Ocanara and its satellite bases, and Cozzens seems to understand every single one of them. He has the kind of authority as author that supposedly went out with Balzac and George Eliot….

Guard of Honor is more than an account of the complex workings of a large air force base–and, by extension, of a country at war. It is two other things as well. For the reader, it is a living one’s way into the military mind. The two characters through whose eyes we most often look have both fairly recently been civilians, and with them we encounter the blundering idiocy of career officers, the well-known absurdity of army regulations. But from here (which is a point at which Catch-22 stops) we go on to understand and even to accept. Not that the military mind is right, but that there are right things about it–and more important, that there are comprehensible reasons why it is as it is.

The second thing is closely related to the first. Guard of Honor makes a continuing judgement of all its characters in terms of their maturity, or capacity for achieving it. That is, the characters are divided into children and adults–a division in which Cozzens can take advantage of the military slang of that period: a commanding officer being the Old Man, a pilot a fly-boy, and so on. Some of the children are gray haired, notably Colonel Mowbray, second in command at Ocanara. Some of the adults, such as Stanley Willis, are barely out of their teens. At first the two main observers think that all the career military people are children, and one of the book’s movements is toward their discovery that there are adults who went to West Point, or have been twenty years a noncom.

Editor’s Comments

Years ago, I read a profile of then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher in the Stanford University alumni magazine. In it, a fellow alumnus recalled something Christopher said to him when the two were serving on a corporate board of directors. The board was considering an ambitious but risky move for the company, and during a break, the alumnus asked Christopher his opinion of it. “The little boy in me really wants to do this,” Christopher replied.

At the time I first read that, it sounded pretty silly. Christopher had always struck me as a bit of a dandy. Only much later did I come to understand Christopher’s meaning: the move in question was tempting, exciting, immediately gratifying–and utterly impractical. This is the kind of sense that Perrin identifies as one of the signal merits of Guard of Honor. Colonel Woodman’s teletype message to Washington is the act of child. Cozzens’ shift from Woodman’s indignant passion to the wider perspective of the headquarters in the heat of war-making is the sense of an adult: the ability to look upon a situation from other angles and grasp the complexities that prevent most decisions in life from being simple.

I first read Guard of Honor soon after receiving my commission in the Air Force, and then read it again months before retiring with twenty-five years’ service. I can vouch for the truth in Perrin’s comment about books we can’t appreciate until we’re thirty-five or older. The first time I read Guard of Honor, I thought it was a good story, if a bit lead-footed. But then, I was young and full of ideas and confidence and sure that I would fix some things that were seriously wrong with this stodgy service I was joining.

I did, I think, though far fewer than I expected. Almost nothing, I soon discovered, and more slowly, came to understand, was as simple and straight-forward as it seemed on the surface. That was not, as I first expected, because this was a bureaucratic monstrosity that thrived on inertia, but because the very nature of a large organization is complex. The quick and clear decisions of a child almost never achieved their intended effects.

This was not because the system tended to inaction, but because genuinely successful action required two apparently contradictory qualities: the ability to make clear and quick decisions and the dedication to follow them up through all the tedious and conflicting secondary, tertiary, and unexpected effects. The decisions were often the easiest part, and I saw more than a few instances where officers made the childish mistake of confusing the act of making a decision with the task of carrying it out. No two people in any organization are precisely aligned in motivation, perspective, and ability. Getting hundreds or thousands to achieve some coherent result involves so many interactions and moments of conflict or cooperation that no simplistic account could ever come close to capturing its reality. Twenty-five years later, when I reread Guard of Honor, I found Cozzens’ insight into the nature of a large organization so subtle and complete that at some points, I wanted to break into applause.

There are plenty of novels about love and family passions and adventure, but there are very, very few worthwhile novels about the world in which many of us spent much of our adult lives: the world of work in organizations. Not labor or business or power, all of which have been treated, often in simplistic ways, in more than a few books, but the multi-dimensional world of work where we are one of hundreds or thousands, each with our own responsibilities, pressures, motivations, constraints, and prejudices.

It might seem odd, at first, that something that has occupied such a large place in so many lives in the last century has been so rarely been the subject for a novelist. But writers are often in a bad position to take on such a subject. Novel-writing is usually a solitary task. A full-time job with some measure of management responsibility allows little time for it. Louis Auchincloss, Wallace Stevens, and Charles Ives are among the rare cases of the active man of business with time and energy left over to create.

Cozzens had the advantage of being brought into the Army Air Force’s headquarters by its commander, General Henry A. “Hap” Arnold, in the midst of World War Two. Although he spent his time of various publicity projects that never went anywhere, he had the chance to travel around the service and to see it in all its scale and complexity.

While his contributions to the Army Air Force’s mission were negligible, Cozzens had the rare opportunity to survey this organization of over a million men and women with a novelist’s eye. As Matthew Bruccoli writes in the introduction to A Time of War, a collection of Cozzens’ diaries and memos from his time in the Air Force, he was “a highly intelligent, keenly observant, civilian-in-uniform granted temporary access to the highest command levels.”

This experience enabled Cozzens to step beyond the one-dimensional view typically taken by novelists depicting military life. In a letter written after the war, Cozzens remarked,

… I know that any writer, caught by the mil. ser. is expected, as soon as he gets shut of it to fearlessly expose the corruption and inefficiency, and not to shrink from getting square with any high placed lugs who had him at temporary disadvantage. It is awkward to have to say that, after seeing about all there was to see in the AAF, I am for, rather than against, the mil. ser.

This could be sheer ignorance; but of course I don’t think so. During many months in Washington one of my jobs, sordid but interesting, was to prepare a daily burn-this-report diesting information supplied me confidentially by all the AC/AS offices on what was going wrong. I think it was unlikely that any one person in the Air Force was more fully and regularly advised of the scandals, misadventures, and dirty deals which here and there enlivened the record. On reflection, none of it seems to me important compared to the remarkable work of a remarkable number of able and devoted men.

In Guard of Honor, he took this raw material and shaped it into a masterpiece. Perrin’s essay refers to it as “the Best American Novel about World War Two” (as has biographer Edmund Morris). I think it’s even better than that. I would argue that Guard of Honor is the best novel written so far about life and work in an organization. And for that, it deserves much greater recognition.


· Time magazine, 25 October 1948

Most so-called serious novelists have an ax to grind, a true bill to find, a point of view that they want to uphold regardless of how many opposing points of view they may have to howl down or ignore in the process. James Gould Cozzens is like his fellows in this respect–with one admirable difference. The point he insists on making is that the world if far too wrapped up in different points of view for any one of them to be entirely true, that “the Nature of Things abhors a drawn line and loves a hodgepodge.”

… In Guard of Honor he not only shows again his fine descriptive talents but boldly tangles with two of the toughest subjects of his day–the nature of war, and racial intolerance. Guard of Honor is a big, fat book–much bigger than Sinclair Lewis’ Kingsblood Royal or Laura Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement–bigger, and far better.

· New Yorker, 9 October 1948 (review by Brendan Gill)

Despite its size, then, Guard of Honor is compact and stringently disciplined, with Cozzens hitting his stride in the first sentence of the first chapter (“Through the late afternoon they flew southeast, going home to Ocanara at about two hundred miles an hour”), and ending, without a word too many, as neatly and pregnantly as a sonnet. A war novel courageously concerned not with the field of battle but with a segment of the Zone of Interior–a sprawling, newly activated Army Air Force installation in central Florida–it provides, in that formidably unsympathetic setting, the conventional “everything” that a big novel is expected to provide, from reflections on the metaphysical bases of right conduct to the question, teasingly unresolved until near the end of the book, of whether the virtuous Captain Nathaniel Hicks and the no less virtuous WAC Lieutenant Amanda Turck are finally to go to bed together…. The dramatis personae who move across the hot, bleak setting of Florida cheapness and Florida sand range from privates to general officers, and each of them not only is distinguished as an individual but strikes the reader as being impossible to do without, for there is nowhere that blurring of focus and pitch in the midst of so many faces, that a less practiced writer might have been unable to avoid.

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Guard of Honor, James Gould Cozzens
New York: Harcourt Brace, 1948

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