Having read—and 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.
The setting 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.
Mackle also 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.
Similarly, 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?) Arewe 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 homosexuals?
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 wo hundred pages with the Harding of the final forty.
Reviewed by Kent Brintnall