Seventy years ago, on September 2, 1945, World War II came to an official end in a surrender ceremony between the Allied powers and Japan aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
“The entire world is quietly at peace. The holy mission has been completed,” declared General Douglas MacArthur, who presided over the signing of the surrender documents.
But for many who fought in World War II, there would be no peace when they returned home. Few writers understood this phenomenon as well as J.D. Salinger, himself a veteran, and as we mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, it’s a good time to take a close look at Salinger’s little-known short story about a World War II homecoming, “The Stranger,” which also marks its 70th anniversary this year.
The story appeared in the December 1, 1945, issue of Collier’s magazine. Salinger never included it in his 1953 collection, Nine Stories, and so “The Stranger” remains largely unread today, even by Salinger diehards. But the passage of time has not dimmed the story’s prescient depiction of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Salinger knew that difficulty firsthand. Earlier in 1945, he had checked himself into a military hospital in Nuremberg, Germany, believing, as he wrote in a letter to Ernest Hemingway, whom he became friends with during the war, it would be a good idea to talk to “somebody sane.”
Salinger’s “The Stranger” bears no resemblance to French writer Albert Camus’s novel of the same title. The basis for Salinger’s short story is the combat he experienced as a sergeant in the Fourth Infantry Division during the period between D-Day and Germany’s surrender.
“The Stranger” takes place in New York City shortly after the war and centers on a returning G.I., Babe Gladwaller, who feels he must deliver a poem his buddy has written to his buddy’s former girlfriend and tell her how his buddy died.
Babe, who earlier appeared in Salinger’s wartime stories “Last Day of the Last Furlough” and “A Boy in France,” bears a striking resemblance to Salinger. As Salinger’s biographer Kenneth Slawenski, who has analyzed “The Stranger” with great care, has pointed out, Babe shares Salinger’s Army serial number, 32325200, as well as his feelings about the trauma of combat.
Babe knows that on some level he is not merely delivering a keepsake and a memory. He is acting in response to his own confused needs. He confesses to his buddy’s former girlfriend, who is now married, “I can’t tell you he was happy or anything when he died. I’m sorry—I can’t think of anything good—Yet I want to tell you the whole business.”
Babe then proceeds to describe how his buddy was killed by a mortar shell that struck him and three other men. There was no time for his buddy to say anything before he died. The last thing the two of them spoke about before the mortar shell exploded was getting wood to start a fire.
When the former girlfriend hears the story, she starts to cry, but Babe is unsure how much she has really taken in. “What’s a mortar? Like a cannon?” she asks. Babe answers her question, but in a way that remains cold.
“Your mind, your soldier’s mind, wanted accuracy above all else,” Babe says to himself. “Don’t let any civilian leave you, when the story’s over, with any comfortable lies. Shoot down all the lies.”
After handing the girlfriend the poem his buddy wrote on a G.I. airmail envelope and being thanked by her, Babe himself begins to cry. There is no happy ending in “The Stranger” as there would be a year later in William Wyler’s Academy Award-winning film, The Best Years of Our Lives, in which three G.I.’s return to the small, Midwestern town of Boone City and find a niche for themselves.
As far as Salinger was concerned, even “good wars” cannot save those who fight them from suffering lasting damage. He is adamant on this point. The most hopeful moment in “The Stranger” comes at the end of the story in the pleasure Babe takes in his little sister, whom he has brought with him on his visit and who is too young to have been burdened by the war.
When she asks him if he is glad to be home, Babe replies, “Yes, baby.” But his little sister’s innocence cannot alter Babe’s memories of the war or the power of the remark his buddy made in “Last Day of the Last Furlough” before they shipped off together to Europe. “G.I.’s—especially G.I.’s who are friends—belong together these days. It’s no good being with civilians anymore,” his buddy had said. “They don’t know what we know and we’re no longer used to what they know.”
Babe has not finally brought solace to his buddy’s former girlfriend, nor, within the context of “The Stranger,” has he provided a good explanation for why he feels so little empathy for her. He is not being too harsh on himself when he says, “I probably shouldn’t have come…I had the best and worst motives.”
Small wonder, then, that Salinger didn’t find “The Stranger” worth including in his Nine Stories. On literary grounds there can be no faulting Salinger’s judgment. He knew how much richer his later writing was. But what makes “The Stranger” worth reading today is that its imperfections—its hero’s inability to acknowledge the full extent of his bitterness over the war—anticipate our growing awareness of PTSD’s capacity for inflicting damage that never goes away.