The Naked and the Dead was written in 1948 by Norman Mailer when he was only twenty-five, after serving two years in World War II. The platoon of Marines who are featured in the story are stationed on the island of Anopopei in Japan. The book is filled with vivid descriptions of the jungle with its harsh conditions. It could take an hour to cover a few hundred feet in the densest portions. “The air was unbearably hot under the canopy of the jungle, and the darkness gave no relief from the heat of the day; if anything, walking the trail was like fumbling through an endless closet stuffed with velvet garments.” The men were required to push two six foot long antitank guns in these conditions while their feet sinking in the mud.
The commander of the troops on the island, Major General Edward Cummings, says in a discussion with Lieutenant Hearn that Americans are spoiled and need to be broken down. “Every time an enlisted man sees an officer get an extra privilege, it breaks him down a little more.” He makes sure that half of a consignment of fresh meat is distributed to 180 enlisted men while the other half goes to only 38 officers. Cummings insists that “the Army functions best when you're frightened of the man above you, and contemptuous of your subordinates." When Hearn tells him that he is doubtful that this approach is effective Cummings says, "That would be one of your liberal weaknesses, wouldn't it?"
The book recounts the backgrounds of the soldiers in the platoon. Most of them are poor with little education. Among them are Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, and men of Mexican, Italian, Polish, and Irish extraction. They are forced to live and work together and depend on each other. In an ironic twist, the wife of a soldier named Gallagher dies during childbirth while he is stationed at Anonopei. He continues to receive letters which had been mailed weeks before her death and dreads reading her last letter.
There are gruesome and cruel descriptions of death. Sergeant Croft orders Red to “finish off” two surviving Japanese soldiers after a grenade blast. Red walks away after his gun jams when he tries to shoot the second soldier. Croft offers the Japanese soldier a cigarette, a chocolate bar, and a drink from his canteen. The Jap even shows him a picture of his family before Croft shoots him in the head and says, “Goddam, that Jap sure died happy.”
A few of the soldiers get drunk from whiskey made in a mess sergeant’s still in the woods and then decide to look for souvenirs among dead Japanese soldiers. They see one soldier with a “great whole in his intestines, which bunched out in a thick white cluster like the congested petals of a sea flower”. Martinez notices a corpse with gold teeth. He tells himself that the teeth are no good to him and he smashes them loose with his rifle. He feels a mixture of guilt and glee.
After a soldier named Minetta is injured in the leg, he rips open his wound to extend his stay in the hospital. The doctor is suspicious. Minetta considers other tactics, such as jamming his bayonet into the wound or falling off a truck on the way back to headquarters, then the thought of faking “nervous shock” to get a Section Eight discharge occurs to him. He screams, “There’s a Jap outside the fuggin tent, there’s a Jap right over there.” He is kept sedated for a day, then becomes restless and thinks that he would do anything to get out of the hospital. After he is released from the hospital the doctor tells him “I'd have you court-martialled if it didn't take too long, and if it wasn't just what you wanted anyway."
Lieutenant Hearn is transferred to the platoon after a conflict with Cummings, and Sergeant Croft resents that he must now report to him. In his first skirmish, Hearn is completely soaked in sweat after fifteen or twenty seconds. He has never been in combat, and leaves the safety catch on when he tries to fire his gun. He realizes that he had expected Croft to take over. Croft and Hearn send Martinez out to reconnoiter a pass, and he has to kill a Japanese sentry guarding his fellow soldiers who are sleeping. Croft tells Martinez “Don’t say a damn word to the Lootenant. You went clear through the pass without seeing a damn thing, y’ understand?” The next day, Hearn is killed a half an hour after telling the men that the pass was empty and that they would turn around if they ran into any ambushes. Croft is relieved. “No longer was there that confusion, that momentary internal pause before he gave an order.”
After Hearn is gone, Croft leads some of the soldiers in the impossible feat of climbing Mount Anaka. The mountain was treacherous with narrow ledges. The soldiers had blisters and bruises from carrying their packs and rifles. They come to a four foot wide gap in the ledge which had no roots or anything to which they could cling. All of the men make it across the gap except Roth who crashes into the rocks far below. Croft still urges the men on after the shock of loosing Roth. The men endure their final unbearable distress when a nest of hornets is disturbed, and they run back down the mountain in a frenzy. Croft realizes that he and the men are too tired and weak to make the climb again. They march back to their bivouac managing to jump the gap where Roth was killed without another incident.
While the others were climbing Mount Anaka, four of the men were sent to carry an injured man, Wilson, to the main base on the beach. Ideally, the litter detail should have had six men, but the platoon could only spare four soldiers. Two of the men give up after a few agonizing hours of trudging through the rough terrain leaving only Goldstein and Ridges to carry Wilson, who was a big man, back to the beach. After Wilson dies, they continue to carry his body, only to loose it in the rapids when they cross a river.
After the Japanese are defeated and the campaign ends, the process of "mopping up" begins. This is relatively pleasant after the months of patrolling up trails with the danger of an ambush at any moment. The Japanese had killed many of their own wounded men who were in the hospitals, and the Americans finished off the others by smashing their heads with rifles or shooting them at point blank range. They would take prisoners unless it was too late in the day and they were hurrying to get back to their tents before dark. Major Dalleson is busy getting ready for the next campaign. He eagerly anticipates the first parade and inspection. The training program, with its courses in marksmanship, special weapons, and military discipline, is what he really likes about war. He even has a wonderful idea to “jazz up the map-reading class by having a full-size color photograph of Betty Grable in a bathing suit, with a co-ordinate grid system laid over it."
There is no glory in The Naked and the Dead. Norman Mailer details the gritty harsh reality of war. In his introduction for the 50th Anniversary Edition of the book he writes, “It had a good story that got better and better, it had immediacy, it came out at exactly the right time when, near to three years after the Second World War ended, everyone was ready for a big war novel that gave some idea of what it had all been like---it thrived on its scenes of combat---and it had a best-seller style.”