The Lonely War
The key issue keeping the U.S. armed forces from going beyond Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to give gay servicemen equal rights is a blind fear of love relationships forming, not between enlisted soldiers but between officers and soldiers, which would undermine the chain of command. The Lonely War tackles this topic head on. Set in WWII, it tells the story of an enlisted sailor who falls in love with his executive officer. When the crew of the USS Pilgrim become POWs in Changi, a notoriously brutal prison camp, this sailor is elevated though hardship and love to discover his inner resources and extraordinary courage, allowing him to sacrifice himself to save the life of his beloved.
Like most war novels, The Lonely War envelops all that is unique to war, the horror of battle, overcoming fear, the cruelty of soldiers, the loyalty and camaraderie of men caught in a desperate situation. Yet, it stands alone in two important ways. First, it is a passionate story written about a tender love developing between an officer and an enlisted man, revealing a rare and dignified portrait of a couple struggling to satisfy desire within the confines of the military code of conduct. Even more importantly however, it describes the heart-wrenching measures of how much one man will sacrifice to save the life and reputation of the man he loves.
“Life is simple if you don’t get tangled in the web of past and future.You can take pleasure in this moment, this simple, perfect moment.”
The Lonely War is a historical fiction with a setting during World War II. Written in the third person narrative, the story focuses primarily on central character Andrew Water’s point of view. Andrew is of mixed ethnicity, having an American father and a Chinese mother. During his childhood his mother dies, and he is raised and educated in a French run school under the tutelage of a Buddhist Master. At the age of eighteen, he is shipped to the United States where he is immediately drafted into the navy.
As an enlisted crewman, Andrew finds himself in a quandary when he meets and falls in love with his commanding officer, Lieutenant Nathan Mitchell. The young seaman is commissioned by Mitchell to become the ship’s chief cook, and he astounds the men aboard with his amazing culinary talents.
The relationship of the ill-matched couple is strengthened when they discover they share an intellectual connection, but it is not until Andrew risks his own life in order to save that of his commander that it becomes apparent the depth of Andrew’s love.
Ultimately all of the story’s primary characters are captured and imprisoned in a POW camp called Changi. It is here that Andrew again makes the ultimate sacrifice for the man that he loves, and in the process he develops feelings for another of his commanders. This time it is Commandant Totturi, the Japanese officer who oversees Changi.
The Lonely War is in many ways a reviewer’s dream-come-true. It is an extraordinarily well-written and meticulously edited piece of literature. The writing is so strong, in fact, that consuming this vocabulary is comparable to indulging in a delicious dessert. It is certainly to be savored, and due to this factor alone, it is a read which I strongly recommend.
In the author’s blurb, he promotes his book as being a statement about the military’s Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell policy, but in my opinion such a summary would seem to trivialize the impact of this gripping story. Yes, it is the story of love within a military setting, but I do not necessarily view this love as being limited to the homosexual relationships which are exposed therein. It is also about the love shared by the entire group of crewmates and prisoners who are so masterfully fleshed out in the book. It is about loyalty, forgiveness, and the potential that human beings possess to become more than the labels we place upon them.
Particularly impressive is the manner in which each of the main characters arc during the story. Initially Andrew is surrounded and oppressed by the bigotry of his crewmates who see him not as a fellow seaman, but instead merely as Asian. When they begin to figure out that he is homosexual, this bigotry intensifies. The manner in which Andrew wins each of them over and demonstrates the purity of his heart is emotionally gripping, to say the least, Each of the central and secondary characters is significantly impacted by the selfless acts of kindness that Andrew continues to demonstrate.
It is also noteworthy that although Andrew is presented in this positive yet sympathetic light throughout the story, he is not portrayed as being flawless. He often struggles with what he perceives to be failures of his own character, and he eventually even battles a powerful yet understandable addiction which nearly destroys him.
At the risk of including a spoiler, I must say that I was pleased with the not-quite-perfect ending of the story. It was not exactly what I would call a “happily-ever-after”, but it was satisfying and thought-provoking.
The beginning chapters of the story were laced with very lofty vocabulary, including several adjectives for which I actually had to pull out a dictionary in order to decipher their meaning. This continued until about page seventy of the book. It was amazing to me as I read it, because it almost seemed as if at this point something broke loose from the author and the real writing began. Only during these initial pages did it feel to me that the story sort of slogged along, but after this point it became a page-turner which I could not consume fast enough.
I would encourage readers to endure the beginning of the book, even if you are a bit overwhelmed initially, because it is an incredible story. Other than the slow start, my only real criticism was that I was so overcome with emotion during the last few chapters that I could barely see to read through my tears. I highly recommend this read, and I urge you to buy the book.
Review by Jeff