Click on the headline to link to a "The New York Times" obituary for American writer Norman Mailer article, dated November 10, 2007.
Armies Of The Night, Norman Mailer, Harper books, New York 2002
The original review of the late Norman Mailer’s "Armies of the Night" was posted just prior to the 2007 anti- Iraq War demonstration noted below. I have recently reread his book (May 2008) and have revised and expanded that review but have let that 2007 preface stand.
On March 17, 2007 various anti-Iraq War forces will converge on the Pentagon to oppose that war and to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the original protest of that symbol of American imperialism during the Vietnam War (and `levitation' of the building according to some sources then, such as the late Abbie Hoffman). Whether such a celebration is called for under the circumstances of the Iraq anti-war movement's continuing failure to stop this war is a separate question to be left to another day. Today it is nevertheless fitting that Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night, about those several days forty years ago, should be reviewed with this upcoming event in mind.
In this novel as history (or history as novel depending what part you are reading at a given time) Norman Mailer tries, successfully for the most part, to use this literary trope as a means for closely investigating the action that he is witnessing (and taking part in). As I have mentioned elsewhere in other reviews of Mailer’s books he will eventually most lastingly be known in the literary pantheon for his journalism and musings on his life and his times. But not merely as a journalist in the conventional sense, those are basically a dime a dozen and eminently forgettable, but as an exemplar of the then ‘new’ journalism. That concept got its greatest expansion in the later work of Doctor Hunter Thompson (‘gonzo’ journalism) but Mailer, and to a lesser extent, Tom Wolfe gave it legitimacy.
The premise behind this mode of analysis is that the reporter is not prohibited from being an actor in the action he or she is covering contrary to the norms beaten into media students that one is suppose to be ‘objective’- detached from the action one is reporting on. Now is not the time to expound of the virtues and vices of that ‘gonzo’ method but to see whether it works in Mailer’s exposition. I believe that it does.
To set the stage the Vietnam War, by 1967, had gone through various stages of escalation by the administration of Lyndon Johnson as it attempted to find a way to deal with the quagmire that it had created for itself in South Vietnam. The opposition to the war had also gone through several stages of political activity responding to those Administration acts of escalation. By the fall of 1967, working off a successful mass demonstration that spring, the diffuse leadership of the anti-war movement (Old Left, New Left, New York intelligentsia and so forth) and especially one Dave Dellinger a central leader of the time, had decided that it was necessary to up the ante. Thus, the Pentagon, a very visible and direct symbol of American imperial power, became the focus for a proposed mass rally and various undefined acts of civil disobedience in October of that year. As a long time opponent of the war and one almost always ready, despite some personally-driven contrary instincts expressed throughout the work here, to give something to the cause Norman Mailer steps into the picture. His personal saga informs the bulk of the book.
And what is that personal saga. Mailer originally signed up to bear witness to a symbolic mass draft card turn in at the Justice Department and to speak. During the course of those few days in October, however, he got dragged into, not unwillingly for the most part, an act of civil disobedience that got him arrested, confined in various holding pens and finally released after a number of twists and turns worthy of a novel. Along the way Mailer described his fellow prisoners, their responses to their confinement, his responses to his legal situation and further musings on the nature (or rather de-nature) of American society at the time, the worthiness of the anti-war opposition movement and his own periodic leadership delusions of grandeur as he tries to place the event in context of an on-going war against...well, plastic. Thus, Mailer successfully fulfilled the basic premise of ‘gonzo’ journalism- he was able to become mired in the center of the story but was also able through that process to bring out some home truths that one expects from a good journalist…or novelist.
The irony of fate of this book is that the part that Mailer spends the most time on, essentially the bulk of the book as an updated version of his perennial scheme of advertising for himself, is some forty years out the least interesting from a historic standpoint. I would say that the last twenty pages or so are what are important today for those of us who are trying to find our way out of the current quagmire in Iraq. Mailer, I believe, consciously and correctly tried to demonstrate that mere symbolic actions (including, in the final analysis, his own) would not bring the monster down. His own prescriptions however proved totally inadequate (and as echoed in today's anti-war strategies continues to do so).
Mailer is rather unkind to the Old Left (Communists, Trotskyists of various hues, professional pacifists-the ‘plan’ types) and their dependence on the centrality of the traditional working class, as well as the New Left kids (SDS, Draft Resistance, etc.- the ‘free play’ types) and their dependence of ‘students and professionals’ as the new working class. His position then seemed to be somewhere in the vicinity of an Americanized and 'sanitized' version of Che Guevara’s theories on guerrilla warfare. Except that what Mailer is really postulating is the theory behind Guevara’s work that it was necessary for a new cleansed ‘man’ (and given his other known sentiments of the time concerning women I believe Mailer meant man literally here) to emerge to fight the monster. Norman, wherever you are, I believe that sentiment, if less articulately expressed than by you, already had its day with Bakunin and later with the Social Revolutionaries in late 19th century Russia. But Kudos for Armies. Adieu, Left Conservative.