FOR A WRITER the "school novel" is as much a rite de passage as the school experience in which it sinks its roots. Such works -- they usually come early and relatively easily -- invariably have an argument to make about the school's understanding of the purposes and methods of education. They typically bespeak their creator's disillusionment and his unhappy realization that those who have taught him are of the same brittle clay as he.
There is an interesting sub-genre of school novels, those about military academies, of which at least three have been published during the last five years, the first two to mixed notices and powerful commercial successes and not a little anguish at the institutions where they are set: Lucian Truscott's Dress Gray, which really lets West Point have it; and Pat Conroy's The Lords of Discipline, which performs the same tender offices for the Citadel, the military college of South Carolina. Their authors have scores to settle with their alma maters, and their novels are populated by forgetable ideographs involved in actions and schemes of dark violence, vicious sex and brutal hazing.
Now is the turn of the Naval Academy. That A Sense of Honor is more successful as fiction owes little to the author's skill in developing "character"; the cast is familiar enough. The novel is compelling because an essential question is honestly and simply posed and an honest, somewhat complicated answer is attempted. The question is this: How should a professional military man be prepared for his career of service? There is a corollary inquiry: What pressures can legitimately be applied to test, and to temper, the military novice? All military academies implicitly endorse the notion that the best way to prepare people for real stress is to devise a resonable approximation in school. True; but how is such stress to be created? Who shall administer it? Can the purpose of education and training, fundamentally antipathetic, be served in the same institution, at the same time? Education, after all, aims to prepare people to ask intelligent questions; training habituates to obedience.
The sufferers -- variously denominated plebes, smacks, doolies -- are at the mercy of upperclassmen. In A Sense of Honor, one plebe, infelicitously named John Dean, presents a familiar pathology. He is very "bright"; but he is also terrified, and he is not very "military." An excellent student with a strong bent for science, he is hopelessly rational in what is portrayed as a closed world of jarring and unreasoning authoritarianism. Yet he has something to prove -- loosely, his machismo -- and he dares not let down his family.
His principal antagonist is the first-classman (senior) Bill Forgarty, a brigade ranker, something of a military paragon who aspires to a commission in the Marines, not the Navy, and who -- typically, Webb seems to say -- is a physical fitness fanatic. He takes as a personal obligation the conversion of the cowering and bookish Dean to a satisfactory midshipman, the conversion having as its more-or-less routine staples certain disobliging disciplines: many push-ups; sleeping on a mattressless bunk; running three miles before reveille along a lumpy and icy seawall. Such things tire Dean. His academic work suffers. A civilian chemistry professor, who does not "understand," grows curious, believes Dean to have been hazed, enlists a lawyer and undertakes to find out who's responsible. The work of his investigation implicates a company officer, a much-decorated Marine captain called Lenahan, who connives in Fogarty's work to make a man of Dean. Lenahan has problems of his own: he is having an affair with his best friend's wife, and is actively hated by his superior, Commander Pratt, a battalion officer and senior disciplinarian uncontrollably jealous of Lenhan's combat record and much given to military punctilios.
That such hackneyed elements of military school fiction can be mixed into a useful chemistry -- and notwithstanding the gratuitous and constant sniping at the Academy's targets of opportunity, and the obligatory sexual couplings that seem to be staples of such books -- testifies to Webb's determination to show both the dangers and necessities peculiar to such an enterprise as education in a military academy. The plebe Dean does respond to the grim prescriptions devised for him; the civilian professor both misconstrues and detests that portion of academy life outside his classroom. A single question posed starkly at the very end of the book, is its summation.
It is the flaw of all but a tiny shelf of military novels that military professionals are treated as targets rather than as men to be understood. There are two strong reasons for this: first, those who write novels usually despise those whose business is to train to fight or to make war. The second is that military virtue, in peacetime, does not attract by quirks and idiosyncrasy, sharp edges of character, neurosis or unsteadiness. "In peace, there's nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility." Military men of the A. P. Wavell-George Marshall type, those who work stolidly and steadily, who administer fairly, are not the stuff of which "successful" fiction, at least in this century, can be made.
"Start with an individual," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, "and you have a type. Start with a type, and you have nothing." A Sense of Honor is full of sterotypes, but in its assertion that the academy's military masters and its civilian professors should see their work as complementary rather than as antagonistic, and in its insistence that the qualities that go to the making of a military man can partly be inculcated by a system of intense stress, it is undoubtedly right. Its portrayal of life at the Naval Academy in 1968 (the year in which the action takes place) is harsh. But during that year of political assassinations, the Tet offensive, the Democratic convention in Chicago, life on no American campus is apt to be recollected as tranquil. Whether the book is intended as a commentary on a system which yet survives, in 1981, or as an account of usages once common but now erased, its questions, and answers, remain useful to an assessment of military education and, in particular, its first-year "Plebe" traditions.