Driven by the memory of a fallen teammate, TSU's 1941 starting lineup went down as legend in Montana football history, charging through the season undefeated. Two years later, the "Supreme Team" is caught up in World War II. Ten of them are scattered around the globe in the war's various lonely and dangerous theaters. The eleventh man, Ben Reinking, has been plucked from pilot training by a military propaganda machine hungry for heroes. He is to chronicle the adventures of his teammates, man by man, for publication in small-town newspapers across the country like the one his father edits. Ready for action, he chafes at the assignment, not knowing that it will bring him love from an unexpected quarter and test the law of averages, which holds that all but one of his teammates should come through the conflict unscathed.
Ben, a young man with a talent for journalism, is chosen to cover his teammates and where they are serving during the war. They have been built up as the "Supreme Team" by a charismatic radio announcer and a special department of the war information department is using their stories as propaganda for morale during the war and its darkest hours. Ben, a man in his early twenties is responsible for writing about death, heroism, perceived cowardice and all the drama these things encompass, without making the government or the "Supreme Team" look bad. It is a daunting task and a bitter one, as he suspects he and his teammates are being set up for publicity sake.
An absorbing tale, wonderfully written, but I need to read something cheerful now.
Mild spoilers may follow.....
The further our hero progresses in the story, the more cynical he becomes about the mission he has been called on to do--follow the story of his teammates from college football as they do their separate things in the War. The more he thinks about it, the more he feels abused by 'the system.' He is trying to put a cheery face on those who died in the war. At the same time, he is involved in an adulterous affair with the wife of a soldier fighting in the Pacific.
I haven't read Doig before, but I suspect he is smart enough to use the storyline of the affair to highlight Ben's hypocrisy. Ben feels like he is being used and almost feels guilty about being spared the dangerous jobs that many of his teammates have in the war. He seems to proudly claim that he doesn't wish any ill of his lover's husband as he fights in the Pacific war. What he never realizes, or certainly never admits, is that he is using Cass and is being just as cynical about her marriage as he perceives his 'handlers' in the army leadership and propaganda machine to be.
It is this disconnect and indictment of Ben that really made me respect this book after I reflected on it for a day or so. Ben was getting what he wanted from Cass--companionship and sex--without any real cost of relationship or sacrifice on his part. He resented that he was just a cog in the great propaganda wheel of the US Army--that he was being used, not honestly like a soldier being asked to take known risks--at least they know their part, and while dangerous, is at least honest--but spinning the truth to make the army and the war effort look good.
I think that at the end, the story was much more about this contrast than it was about the vagaries and odds of danger in the war.
Not one to theorize nor to waste time on gratuitous action, Doig writes about the real world and its unexpected adventures. Many of his earlier works have dealt with pioneer lives and hardships, as the western territories were settled by dedicated, risk-taking seekers of new lives. They have dealt with brutal forces of nature. "The Eleventh Man" deals with many of those forces, as they took place in the 1940's, pressurized and traumatized by World War II, adding the thoughtless violence of war as it affects individuals and their highly believable lives. He puts names and faces on heroic characters, who suffer unheroic deaths in a cause that has been often been distorted and idealized. And he recognizes the many unkind and petty things that people do.
With his hero, former Montana football player Ben Reinking, his heroine, wise and lively aviator Cass Standish, Doig lovingly expresses his fascination with people and with human situations. Throughout, he expresses his love love of nature and its enormity. How wonderful to find a writer who sees and hears the fundamental things that enrich our lives, and who expresses them so well.
It's not easy to create an anti-war novel about WWII, a war which in the US has mythical aspects of good vs. evil and the noble citizen soldier. But Doig manages to do it in perhaps the only possible way, He creates likable characters, and then repeatedly kills them in circumstances in which their death has no meaning. It has some echoes from Catch 22, but without the bizarre circumstances of Heller's book.