There are, in my judgment, three great novels that explore American military life in the twentieth century. They are, in order of publication, Guard of Honor (1948) by James Gould Cozzens, From Here To Eternity (1951) by James Jones, and The Sand Pebbles (1962) by Richard McKenna.
The first is a book about airmen, set at a stateside air base during World War II. The second is a soldier’s story, its setting Schofield Barracks in the territory of Hawaii on the eve of Pearl Harbor. In The Sand Pebbles, the focus is on sailors. It takes place in China during the 1920s when U.S. Navy gunboats patrolled the Yangtze River and its tributaries.
As far as I can tell, none of the three enjoys much of a following today. Despite winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Guard of Honor has all but vanished. To the extent that the other two retain any cultural salience, they do so as movies, superb in the case of From Here to Eternity, colorful but mediocre in the case of The Sand Pebbles.
Yet for any American seeking an intimate account of military service, all three novels remain worth reading. Times change, as do uniforms, weapons, and tactics, but certain fundamentals of military life endure. Leaders and led see matters differently, nurse different expectations, and respond to different motivations. The perspective back at higher headquarters (or up on the bridge) differs from the way things look to those dealing with the challenges of a typical duty day. The biggest difference of all is between inside and outside—between those in uniform and the civilians who necessarily inhabit another world. Each in his own way, Cozzens, Jones, and McKenna unpack those differences with sensitivity and insight.
Of the three, McKenna’s novel in particular deserves revival, not only because of its impressive literary qualities, but because the story it tells has renewed relevance to the present day. It’s a story about the role that foreign powers, including the United States, played in the emergence of modern China.
Prompted in part by the ostensible North Korean threat, but more broadly by the ongoing rise of China and uncertainty about China’s ultimate ambitions, the American military establishment will almost inevitably be directing more of its attention toward East Asia in the coming years. To be sure, the conflict formerly known as the Global War on Terrorism continues and appears unlikely to conclude anytime soon. Yet the character of that conflict is changing. Having come up short in its efforts to pacify the Islamic world, the United States is increasingly inclined to rely on proxies, generously supported by air power, to carry on the jihadist fight in preference to committing large numbers of U.S. troops. Almost imperceptibly, East Asia is encroaching upon and will eventually eclipse the Greater Middle East in the Pentagon’s hierarchy of strategic priorities.
It’s this reshuffling of Pentagon priorities that endows The Sand Pebbles with renewed significance. If past is prologue, McKenna’s fictionalized account of actual events that occurred 90 years ago involving U.S. forces in China should provide context for anyone intent on employing American military power to check China today.
Of course, the armed forces of the United States have a long history of involvement in East Asia. Ever since 1898, when it liberated, occupied, and subsequently annexed the Philippines, the United States has maintained an enduring military presence in that part of the world.
To the extent that Americans are even dimly aware of what that presence has entailed, they probably think in terms of three 20th-century Asian wars: the first in the 1940s against Japan; the second during the 1950s in Korea; the third from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s in Vietnam. In each, whether as ally or adversary, China figured prominently.
Yet even before the attack on Pearl Harbor initiated the first of those wars, U.S. air, land, and naval forces had been active in and around China. Dreams of gaining access to a lucrative “China Market” numbered among the factors that persuaded the United States to annex the Philippines in the first place. In 1900, U.S. troops participated in the China Relief Expedition, a multilateral intervention mounted to suppress the so-called Boxer Rebellion, which sought to expel foreigners and end outside interference in Chinese affairs. The mission succeeded and the U.S. military stayed on. Army and Marine Corps units established garrisons in “treaty ports” such as Shanghai and Tientsin.
Decades earlier, the U.S. Navy had begun making periodic forays into China’s inland waterways. In the early 20th century, employing small shallow-draft vessels captured from Spain in 1898, this presence became increasingly formalized. As American commercial and missionary interests in China grew, the Navy inaugurated what it called the Yangtze Patrol, with Congress appropriating funds to construct a flotilla of purpose-built gunboats for patrolling the river and its tributaries. Under the direction of COMYANGPAT back in Shanghai, small warships flying the Stars-and-Stripes sailed up and down the Yangtze’s immense length to “protect American lives and property.”
This is the story that McKenna, himself a YANGPAT veteran, recounts, focusing on a single fictional ship the U.S.S. San Pablo. Known as “Sand Pebbles,” the few dozen sailors comprising the San Pablo’s crew are all lifers. A rough bunch, their interests rarely extend beyond drinking and whoring. In 1920s China, an American sailor’s modest paycheck provides ample funds for both pursuits.
Even afloat, life for the Sand Pebbles is more than agreeable. Onboard the San Pablo, an unofficial second crew consisting of local Chinese—“contractors,” we would call them today—does the dirty work and the heavy lifting. The Americans stay topside, performing routines and rituals meant to convey an image of power and dominance.
San Pablo is a puny and lightly armed ship. Yet it exists to convey a big impression, thereby sustaining the privileged position that the United States and the other imperial powers enjoyed in China.
The revolutionary turmoil engulfing China in the 1920s necessarily challenged this proposition. Nationalist fervor gripped large parts of the population. Imperial privilege stoked popular resentment, which made San Pablo’s position increasingly untenable, even if the Sand Pebbles themselves were blind to what was coming. That their own eminently comfortable circumstances might be at risk was literally unimaginable.
McKenna’s narrative describes how the world of the Sand Pebbles fell apart. His nominal protagonist is Jake Holman, a machinist mate with a mystical relationship to machinery. Jake loathes the spit-and-polish routine topside and wants nothing more than to remain below decks in the engine compartment, performing duties that on San Pablo white American sailors have long since ceased to do. In the eyes of his shipmates, therefore, Jake represents a threat to the division of labor that underwrites their comforts.
The ship’s captain, one of only two commissioned officers assigned to San Pablo, likewise sees Jake as a threat to the status quo. To my mind, Lieutenant Collins is McKenna’s most intriguing creation and the novel’s true focal point. Although the Sand Pebbles are oblivious to how they may figure in some larger picture, for Collins the larger picture is a continuing preoccupation. He sees his little ship, the entire U.S. Navy, America’s providential purpose, and the fate of Western civilization as all of a piece. Serious, sober, and dutiful, he is also something of a fanatic.
Collins dimly perceives that powerful forces within China pose a direct threat not only to the existing U.S. position there, but to his own worldview. Yet he considers the prospect of accommodating those forces as not only intolerable, but inconceivable. So in the book’s culminating episode he leads Jake and several other Sand Pebbles on a symbolic but utterly futile gesture of resistance. Fancying that he is thereby salvaging his ship’s honor (and his own as well), he succeeds merely in killing his own men.
I interpret McKenna as suggesting that there is no honor in denying reality. Only waste and needless sacrifice result. Today a national security establishment as blind to reality as Lieutenant Collins presides over futile gestures far more costly than those inflicted upon the Sand Pebbles. It’s not fiction and it’s happening right before our eyes.
So skip the movie. But read McKenna’s book. And then reflect on its relevance to the present day.
Andrew J. Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large.