In "Honorable Men," Louis Auchincloss returns, as he has over and again, to questions of wealth, power and moral responsibility. The novel's central figure is Chip Benedict, who grows up rich and privileged, is educated at the best schools and colleges, serves with distinction in World War II, takes over the family business and steers it into the postwar era, and at last finds himself in Washington as special assistant to the secretary of state, trying to drum up overseas support for Lyndon Johnson's war in Vietnam -- an assignment that ultimately calls into question all the values he has taken for granted.
"Honorable Men" is therefore, in important respects, a novel about politics, but in no way is it a political novel. What concerns Auchincloss is not whether the American role in Vietnam was right or wrong -- though there's little doubt he agrees with the characters in the novel who feel it was wrong -- but what shaped the men who determined the nature of that role and pressed their cause even against clamorous public opinion. He is considering in fiction, in other words, the same men whom David Halberstam analyzed journalistically in "The Best and the Brightest"; Chip Benedict is his personification of them, and a most convincing one he is.
His story is told through two voices: that of the omniscient narrator and that of his wife of three decades, Alida, whom he is now in the process of divorcing. Although the device is somewhat disconcerting -- one can't help wondering why, if there are to be alternating narrators, they should not be Alida and Chip himself -- it does not seriously affect the novel's course, which is leisurely but closely charted. The novel is structured much like a biography; it begins with Chip's childhood and closes as he is about to enter a new life.
Of few people could it be said more accurately that the boy shapes the man. The controlling influences in Chip's life are his adoring but manipulative parents, against whose "moral domination" he is in a constant state of polite yet almost desperate rebellion, and his years at Saint Luke's, a preparatory school that has as its mission to confirm the privileged in their own goodness and in the tenets of muscular Christianity -- a faith that, Auchincloss notes here as elsewhere, is more muscular than Christian.
The trouble with this theology, as one character tells Alida, is that its adherents "seem to have the rules without the faith." When she asks what's wrong with that, he replies, "There's nothing to moderate the rigidity of their logic." A classic example is Chip Benedict, who on the one hand believes that the world is an inherently wicked place and on the other believes that it is possible for the select few to bring goodness to it. His service in World War II, where he falls under the tutelage of an especially ardent warrior-patriot, persuades him that this responsibility belongs to America, and that he is one of those who have been chosen to see the nation does not shirk from this obligation.
Thus when Vietnam comes along he is blinded by the "rules" and does not have the mitigating "faith" that might permit him to see that there are different rules for different situations. Against the objections of his wife, son and daughter, he goes off to Washington and passionately defends Johnson's policy even when he privately doubts its wisdom and efficacy; to do otherwise would be to break the rules, and nothing in his upbringing would permit him to do that.
Chip is a cold, heartless man, and Auchincloss spares him nothing. He's sympathetic to him as a human being who has suffered his full share of private self-doubt and anguish, but he mercilessly depicts the arrogance with which he ruins the lives of others in order to hew unswervingly to his own warped sense of what is right. As a law student he threatens to report his closest friend on a highly questionable accusation of plagiarism, and in so doing ruins the man's life. "The university is full of stories of men turning in their closest friends," he smugly tells Alida. "I didn't have to come down here, but having come, I certainly intend to abide by their rules." Then he takes over the family business, transforming it from craftsmanship to mass production and finally allowing an irresponsible outside buyer to take control of it -- a decision that causes his father's death.
This may seem strong stuff, but it is rooted in truth. Auchincloss knows these arrogant, willful, self-righteous men well, and he knows that from boyhood they have been trained in the belief that they can do no wrong; he knows too that they are pitiless in their abuse and neglect of the lives of others, using women to satisfy their appetites and men to advance their interests. That men such as these eventually played essential roles in determining American foreign policy in the 1960s is common knowledge; Auchincloss in "Honorable Men" merely adds to that knowledge with the truths that fiction tells best.