Of One Nation?

Natasha N. Bronn, English 171, Brown University, Autumn 2003

The United States Military protects us. It is composed of our siblings and our neighbors. But the U.S. Military is also something from which many of feel very disconnected. Whether it is because of the threatening barbed wire that surrounds their bases, or the menacing black artillery strapped to their waists, it is difficult for many of us to feel associated with the defenders of our freedom. Tom Wolfe surely must have known this, and in his book The Right Stuff, he brings us uncomfortably close to the world and culture of the formerly enigmatic U.S. Military. Wolfe writes specifically about the test pilots in the Navy and the exhilarating yet fleeting lives that they live. He introduces us to a number of men who devote their lives and their every thought to flying and to their wives who constantly live with death at their doorsteps. Wolfe encapsulates us in the intricate and fascinating subculture of the American test-pilot, yet, also shows us how separate these brave few are from the rest of us.

Wolfe forces us to wonder what is in fact the intrigue of this dangerous and patriotic career:

But that slim young man over there in uniform, with the enormous watch on his wrist and the withdrawn look on his face, that young officer who is so shy that he can't even open his mouth unless the subject is flying -- that young pilot-well, my friends, his ego is even bigger! -- so big, it's breathtaking! Even in the 1950's it was difficult for civilians to comprehend such a thing, but all military officers and many enlisted men tended to feel superior to civilians. It was really quite ironic, given the fact that for a food thirty years the rising business classes in the cities had been steering their sons away from military, as if from a bad smell, and the officer corps had never been held in lower esteem. Well, career officers retuned the contempt in trumps. They look upon themselves as men who lived by higher standards of behavior that civilians, as men who were the bearers and protectors of the most important values of American life, who maintained a sense of discipline while civilians abandoned themselves to hedonism, who maintained a sense of honor while civilians lived by opportunism and greed.

In this passage, Wolfe paints the American civilians and the US Military as opposing forces, and we are left to wonder if either the civilians or the officers feel any connection to one another, or are they truly parts of different societies.

1. The military is supposed to defend the civilians, and the officers are supposed to be willing to give their lives for the American people. From Wolfe's writings, is this the impression that we get? According to Wolfe, what role does military society play in world of regular citizens, and what role does the world of regular citizens play in military society?

2. What are the differences between the writing styles of D.H Lawrence and Tom Wolfe? It seems that Lawrence attempts to take us into the places that he visits yet still leave himself and us as outsiders, does Wolfe do the same?

3. Wolfe clearly has an extensive knowledge of the Navy and piloting. Does his extensive knowledge, and thus indepth detail of the actual aircrafts and missions add to the understanding of the book or take away from it? Would his writing be more effective if he had less knowledge of flying?

4. Towards the end of the second chapter, Wolfe describes that "the combat frequency was to be kept clear of all but strategically essential messages, and all unenlightening comments were regarding as funk, of the wrong stuff". He further goes on the recount that once a navy pilot shouted through the frequency that he was about to be killed by an enemy fighter, and the irritated response he received ordered him to "Shut up and die like an aviator". Is it easy for non-military readers to believe that a cry of fear about ones impeding death is not an "essential message"? How does this depict the fighter pilots?


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Last modified 3 November 2003