I'LL BE HONEST. At the end of The Officers' Wives , by Thomas Fleming, I cried. Not the small stray tear running down the edge of your nose. No, an-honest-to-God gusher, the kind of tears you normally reserve for that wonderful moment in Casablanca when the band in Rick's Bar strikes up the "Marseillaise."
All popular novels -- and make no mistake, The Officers' Wives is not literature -- play on basic emotions. Fleming's genius is choosing as his canvas the visceral realities of life among the officer corps in the U.S. Army as it reels from stalemate in Korea to abject defeat in Vietnam.
The subject is still too controversial, the emotions are still too raw and confused, to risk a reprise of the standard World War II combat novel. The one with the ethnically balanced platoon of O'Malley, Ginsburg, Lazzari and Vanderbilt. Instead, Fleming wisely takes a more detached tone, building his story around three women as they grope to discharge their duties as officers' wives.
It all begins in time-honored style with three hopelessly miscast marriages as the Class of '50 graduates from West Point, or Woo Poo as it's known in Army jargon. Joanna, the brooding Catholic intellectual, marries Pete Burke, the stolid, dependable, unimaginative rock of the West Point defensive line. Amy, the ambitious socialite from Vassar, devotes her life to transforming George Rosser from an amiable cipher to a general. Honor, the beautiful, but vapid, southern belle mistakenly believes that brilliant, cynical Adam Thayer can become her Ashley Wilkes.
Aware that much of America has lost its instinctive sympathy for the Army officer corps, Fleming builds on many of our preconceptions about military life.
For feminists, there is Joanna, struggling to write poetry on a desolate Army base in Kansas, while, at the same time, being expected to participate fully in the inanities of the base Women's Club, host little dinner parties for Pete's fellow officers and survive a difficult pregnancy.
For critics of the military promotion system, there is the way that Amy Rosser carefully orchestrates her husband's career. George learns how to cultivate his superior officers, choose his assignments so they follow the Army's "power curve" and make sure that he stays as far away from combat as possible.
For moralists, there is the self-destruction of Adam Thayer, a man too reckless and independent for the Army. Adam, who is romantically linked with each of the three women, goes from Green Beret to the Army's equivalent of Daniel Ellsberg. His death, from alcoholism and the sadism of a general he antagonizes, is the glue that holds the novel together.
The Officers' Wives is not, however, a diatribe against the Army. Fleming carefully develops a tone of realistic ambivalence, one that balances honor and bravery against brutality and careerism.
One small scene captures the torment of the career military man confronted with a country that has turned against the Vietnam War. Between combat tours, Pete Burke spends a year running an ROTC program at a state college in upstate New York so that Joanna can work on her PhD in English. We suffer with Pete as he politely endures a faculty party where antiwar harpies ask him, "How many Vietnamese have you killed, personally?"
Strangely enough, given the richness of the material, The Officers' Wives is sometimes slow going. Fleming follows the mechanical pattern of devoting alternate chapters to each of the three women, even though the cold-blooded Amy and the passive Honor are far too one-dimensional to sustain your interest.
Moreover, the writing, generally pedestrian, suffers Flemings occasional aspirations to art. You wince at overwritten passages like, "Invariably, Pete's negative feelings crept into their bedroom, the place where almost all disguises fail and so many compromises collapse."
Much of the padding in this 645-page novel comes from Fleming's rather obvious attempts to create a documentary feel. There is the obligatory "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" scene. Amy flies to Saigon for a clandestine weekend with Adam just in time for the 1968 Tet offensive. In the early 1950s, Joanna reads the short stories in Cosmopolitan and finds them better than expected, especially one "by a writer named Kurt Vonnegut."
But these are quibbles. In the end, what produced my tears was Col. Pete Burke's sense of duty and personal honor. Fleeing from a failed marriage, he fights on in Vietnam, long after the war becomes hopeless, long after the smart officers like George Rosser have requested reassignment to Germany. Reading The Officers' Wives is an emotionally wrenching experience. Not because it is a great novel, but because it allows a spark of patriotism to emerge from the carnage in Vietnam.