enjoyed—Elliott Mackle’s Captain Harding’s Six-Day War, I’m left
wondering what I should be thinking and feeling about the main character,
Captain Joe Harding.
Usually, this would
be a simple matter. Most novels want
their readers to sympathize and identify with their protagonists. Or, they present the reader with a clear
anti-hero who is neither sympathetic nor admirable. Harding is a very sympathetic—even
admirable—character with whom it would be easy to identify. He is a smart, resourceful, talented,
energetic Air Force administrative officer who has overcome a difficult family
background and has a bright future. Over
the course of the novel, he attracts three lovers, has a good deal of sex,
makes a number of stalwart friends, outwits his enemies, demonstrates his
loyalty and even averts a geopolitical disaster in the Middle East. There are certainly worse models for
emulation in the world.
From time to
time, however, an author will establish a sense of distance from her or his
main character. The narrative will be
told in a fashion that causes the reader to keep a critical, wary eye on the
tale. (This can easily be done, for
example, by creating a character who is an unreliable narrator; Harding does
not fit this bill.) Fostering this kind
of awareness, while still telling an engaging tale, requires enormous skill,
but Mackle evinces the necessary talent to accomplish such a feat.
Mackle is an
incredibly successful storyteller. He
has crafted a suspenseful, credible plot, with fully rendered, enjoyable
characters, and clever, believable dialogue.
Six-Day War begins with the description of a vulture-pecked,
abandoned corpse and questions about his final hours—and sexual
proclivities. Mackle never relents from
this curiosity-inducing, threat-infested opening. From the outset, the reader is aware of the
risks—to career, reputation and life—that face Harding as a gay soldier. And Harding’s actions only increase this risk. Although he is closeted, he is hardly
celibate, and his erotic adventures do not escape detection. Mackle gives the reader a fast-paced story
with several twists and turns and a huge cast of characters, but he moves at a
reasonable pace and sketches each character with enough detail and care that
the story never feels confusing, out-of-control or overpopulated. Moreover, the responses to the various crises
that arise seem quite plausible. There
is a good deal of suspense and anxiety, but it is managed, for the most part,
without resort to deux ex machina means.
enriches the reader’s experience. The
novel is set historically in the late 1960s.
Thus, Harding is not only a closeted gay Air Force officer—he is a
closeted gay officer in a pre-Stonewall, pre-DADT-repeal (hell, pre-DADT) Air
Force. With flashbacks to Harding’s
relationship with his father, his first romantic relationship and his stumbling
romantic adventures while in the military, Mackle deftly sketches the
stultifying nature of gay life in the 1960s.
(And Mackle fills in Harding’s past in a way that can only be described
as cinematic. When something in the
present reminds Harding of something in the past, the prose shifts rapidly back
and forth in time in a manner reminiscent of parallel editing in film.) The novel is set geographically in
Libya. Harding’s interaction with Arabic
culture makes his tale like many other gay coming-of-age stories, although
Mackle does not exploit this angle of the context (thus avoiding some very
problematic colonialist tropes). Given
the historical and geographical setting, the Vietnam War and the Six-Day War
are part of the novel’s texture, in implicit and explicit ways. Although the novel’s setting could make it
feel old and dated, I experienced these dimensions as the source of its
immediate relevance: the struggle of gay
soldiers, the response to politically unpopular wars, the interaction with
Muslim culture, the volatility of the Middle East—all of this felt very “of the
moment” in a way that it might not in the hands of a lesser author.
handles the military context incredibly well.
This is likely due to the four years he served in Vietnam in the US Air
Force. He shows that crafting a life in
the face of military hierarchies and regulations is a struggle for almost any
soldier. The characters—gay and
straight—quickly realize that the rules do not always favor rationality and
that they can be manipulated by vindictive people with power. In addition, while fully exploring the erotic
tension and energy of a virtually all-male environment, Mackle never stoops to
porn clichés about soldiers always at the ready for a romp in the sack. He balances quite well the pleasure and
danger of mixing the homoerotic with the homosocial.
It is near the
novel’s conclusion, however, that things stop working quite so well. As noted above, Harding demonstrates great
resourcefulness and ingenuity throughout as he tries to help run an efficient
base, protect himself and his friends against the irrational cruelty of
superior officers, and prevent larger scale disasters. Ultimately, however, Harding acts very much
like his superiors in order to defeat them.
He calls in favors of friends and lovers (using a network of closet
homosexuals that would have affirmed Joe McCarthy’s darkest nightmares), ruins
careers and manages to get some foes sent to Vietnam (a place that has been
marked as dangerous and deadly throughout the novel). After taking these actions, Harding and one
of his lovers discuss the honor with which they serve in the military: it’s tough to see what they’ve done as in any
way honorable. And the final sentences
of the novel—about America’s glorious future—could only be read ironically,
given what we know about Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. If Mackle means us to take these evaluations
seriously, and it seems that he does, given how he’s structured Harding’s
adventures, then I’m more than a bit troubled.
Harding’s resolution of his romantic tribulations is difficult to sort
out. Without giving too much away, his
final choices make little sense. He
avoids one relationship for moral reasons—and calls himself a hypocrite for
doing so, but the novel ends with the possibility of that relationship
happening at some point in the future.
It’s unclear how Mackle wants us to put these pieces together. Are we supposed to read this as a happy
ending and celebrate it? If so, why not
just bring the relationship to fruition within the narrative? (If we aren’t supposed to bat an eye at S/M,
brothels, orgies or steam-room sex, why should consensual, moderately
inter-generational sex disturb us?) Are
we supposed to read this as a tragic ending and mourn Harding’s inability to
pursue what he really wants? If so, then
isn’t this novel one in a long series that can only give us slightly unhappy
There’s also a
question of who Harding is willing to help and to hurt. One of his allies in the novel is a straight,
black woman and one of his adversaries is a gay, black man. At the novel’s conclusion, both suffer dire
fates—Harding does nothing to save the former, even though he does save a
number of his white male (gay and straight) colleagues, and actively makes life
more difficult for the latter. Insofar
as the novel has tried to offer a commentary on the racism and patriarchy of
the military, it only duplicates these structures in its narrative resolution.
And so I’m left
with my opening question. Six-Day War
seems to want us to cheer for Harding, his tenacity, his talent and his
triumph, but I’m left feeling a little queasy with what he accomplishes and how
he manages to accomplish it. I enjoyed
reading Elliott Mackle’s Captain Harding’s Six-Day War quite a lot. The story was captivating; the characters
were engaging. Mackle has the capacity
to craft an incredibly rich, detailed, textured narrative with lots of moving
parts and never lose control of the complex machine he has built. But, as with so many novels, movies and
television series, the conclusion undermined much of what I enjoyed about the
rest of the work . . . leaving me wondering how I was supposed to square the
Harding of the first 200 pages with the Harding of the final 40.
Reviewed by Kent