Irwin Shaw

The Young Lions

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The Young Lions Summary

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Irwin Shaw’s war novel The Young Lions (1948) is about the struggles of three men, Austrian Christian Diestl and Americans Michel Whitacre and Noah Ackerman, from very different backgrounds who fight in World War II. The young men spend most of the novel apart but are briefly brought together on a road in Germany. In 1958, the novel was adapted into a film starring Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Dean Martin.

Living in Germany during a period of economic depression, Christian has little hope for the future until he joins the army. Though Christian does not necessarily agree with the Nazi ideology, he is willing to sacrifice Jews for his personal gain. He enjoys easy victories early in the war when Germany conquers France and makes major gains in Africa. Christian likes the women, food, and parties associated with winning.

However, when the Germans are beaten at El Alamein, Christian’s fortunes change. He is forced to retreat first from North Africa, then Italy, and finally from Normandy Beach. In addition to conflicts with Allied troops, Christian also suffers from the terrible decisions of the German army command and pangs of conscience as he becomes more aware of Nazi atrocities. However, he simultaneously becomes crueler and less sympathetic as he is fully indoctrinated and corrupted by German leaders.

Michael Whitacre is an American living a charmed life on the East Coast. He is married to a loving wife and has a successful writing career. When the war begins, he enlists in the army out of a sense of patriotic duty. He dislikes the other soldiers in boot camp and leverages his personal connections to get assigned to a non-combat unit. One day, while drunk, he is hit by a truck and sent to a military hospital to await reassignment. There, he meets Noah Ackerman.

Noah is a Jewish-American from the West Coast. The son of a traveling salesman, he has been on the road for most of his life. He has always felt lonely and disconnected because of his frequent moves. One day, he meets Hope Plowman and falls in love with her. His feelings for Hope help him mature and become more confident. Though Hope’s parents oppose their union, Noah stands up for himself and wins them over so the couple can be engaged.

Before they can wed, Noah is drafted into the army. Physically weak, he struggles with the rigors of basic training. He also faces anti-Semitism from his fellow soldiers, until he finally volunteers to fight the ten biggest men in the company. Though he loses nine of the fights physically, he feels he has claimed a psychological victory in each. During the Normandy invasion, Noah conducts himself bravely, until he is wounded and sent to a hospital to recover.

Noah’s determination and confidence impresses Michael, who feels ashamed of his own directionless life. When Noah confides in him that he is planning to sneak back to the front line to rejoin his platoon, Michael decides to go with him to see true combat. They leave the hospital together and start to travel across Germany.

Christian, who has been separated from his own platoon, spots Noah and Michael walking down a forest path. Though he has been considering deserting the army, Christian decides to ambush the two Americans. In a brief, violent climax to the book, Christian shoots at the two Americans, killing Noah and wounding Michael; Michael escapes into the woods.

Michael wounds Christian with a grenade and then executes him by shooting him. Michael returns to Noah and carries his body back to the platoon where the other soldiers express grief at the loss.

The irony of the ending of The Young Lions is that only the privileged dilatant Michael survives. Christian, who wants only to survive and leave the war behind is killed, as is Noah who, undoubtedly the strongest of the three, serves as an inspiration to others. Though Michael was affected by Noah when he was alive, when Noah dies, Michael finds he still has no meaning in his life.

The novel explores many individual battles and events of World War II. Noah is deeply affected when he hears about the concentration camps, which serve as a major motivator for him to become stronger and fight harder. Christian experiences life on all the major German fronts, and sees the war from the beginning when the German army finds victory easy, to the end when the Germans are badly beaten at nearly every turn. Michael spends most of his time behind the scenes, but provides valuable insight into aspects of military intelligence and the politics behind the war.