This story, which will be included in a collection to be published this year, is among the year’s best in The New Yorker. The narrator is a young Marine in WWII who has just missed “Iwo Jima’s bloodbath” and is now in Saipan preparing for the assault on the Japanese homeland. He is frightened, and being on Saipan, thinking, watching the steady stream of ambulances with the wounded from Okinawa, only makes him more frightened. The story is a beautiful description of the island and the mess that the war had made of it.
Now it is late July and they are being prepared for the assault, but can’t be told when it will occur. Word has spread that Japanese civilians will fight them fiercely when they arrive, that the “civilian population had gone berserk” instead of being demoralized by the defeat at Okinawa. Then they are called to a special briefing by a Navy Admiral, and they march down “Rat Beach” to attend. Although the narrator’s Marine commander says the Admiral is a fool, they all know that the time has come, and while they all display the same bravado, the narrator is more frightened than ever.
And he can’t stand it. So he sleeps with his gun (as well as the “Pocket Book of Verse” that is also his constant companion) and makes plans to “destroy” his fear. It’s a powerful moment when the reader realizes what he intends to do, especially because we know—but the narrator does not—that the assault isn’t going to happen. In a matter of days, an atomic bomb will be dropped on Hiroshima and then another on Nagasaki, and the war will be over. But the story ends before that happens, and so we only know what the narrator is thinking of doing.
July 20, 2009: “Rat Beach” by William Styron