‘The General’s Daughter’ for 5th Generation Warriors

The General's Daughter
Nelson DeMille served at a lieutenant with the First Air Cavalry Division during the Vietnam War. In his novel “The General’s Daughter,” he explores the question of whether females would be accepted into the ranks and if they’d ever lead men.


“The General’s Daughter.” Let’s revisit for the sake of 5th Generation Warriors. The book, written by Nelson DeMille came out in 1992. As an infantry lieutenant (1966-1969) serving with the First Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam, DeMille didn’t run into many female military personnel other than nurses or admin specialists. As he points out in the foreword of the 1999 movie version of his novel, fewer females served in Vietnam than served in World War II. That’s telling. The women of The Greatest Generation did as society dictated and returned home to household and child-rearing responsibilities, noble and essential pursuits for those built for it, while others resorted to pills to get them through the utter boredom after the excitement of playing Rosie the Riveter for a purpose larger than themselves.

Female soldiers in WWII were invited, they played specific but pivotal roles at home and abroad, and, maybe, that was more than enough for them to find contentment, even joy, with whatever else their lives held. Their daughters, however, weren’t even invited to the wartime party, and therefore stayed away in droves, unless they were built for it, in which case they entered an Army no longer playing the “we need everyone on deck to win” game. Moms had stayed in their lanes. Daughters said, “Hey, I wanna play.” On the heels of the Tailhook scandal, DeMille runs out a scenario of a female soldier, an officer, to boot. Would she be accepted? Could she ever lead men—other than to the bedroom?

Using the movie as guardrails, let’s roll. A female officer is found striped, “tortured,” and “raped,” staked out spread-eagled with paracord and tent pegs at a firing range on some Southern base. (DeMille’s fictional Fort Hadley becomes the fictional Fort McCallum in the movie. What is wrong with Hollywood? What difference does it make? I swear.) Just think Army base, deep South. In the movie she’s found by a remotely-controlled robot—how interesting. Enter possibly one of the most underrated narrators and characters in fiction, Paul Brenner, Criminal Investigation Division warrant officer, wise-cracking South Boston Irish, and an irresistible personification of the quintessential old-school Army long-timer who craves love but who simultaneously can’t bear it, who is cranky much of the time, and  who is that rare breed who can actually see the benefit of women in most Army jobs and who knows right from wrong.

His sidekick, Sara (Cynthia in the book) Sunhill—get it, sunny side of a hill something-something: Sun Tzu—also a CID warrant officer, dated him while engaged to a Special Forces officer. Refraining from editorializing, the fiancé made armed threats toward Brenner and Brenner withdrew. Sunhill, of course, wanted Brenner to fight for her. Reunited to work this murder case, the banter is comedic gold and, in Hollywood speak, enough to keep the women involved in the plot. (Am I being sexist or cranky? You be the judge.) I’ll wrap it up right here, though. True to society’s constant drumbeat to break apart man and woman, in the movie, they go their separate ways. In the book, DeMille—the real-life sarcastic vet—left this as the last line of “The General’s Daughter”: “I caught up with her on the highway to Fort Benning and stayed with her all the way.” If you didn’t serve, you won’t get the word choice. If you did, Hooah!

Back to the murder thriller. The victim is actually the general’s daughter, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Campbell. (It’s Ann in the book.) Brenner and Sunhill soon discover that not only was the captain not raped, but the overlapping boot prints indicate half a dozen people had opportunity. The movie does a great job showing technology can take multiple boot prints, depths of indentation, and mapping to create colorful charts of who was where when. It’s still not enough to solve the crime.

The doors to the “Hotel California” of psychological matrices begin to creak open. Brenner and Sunhill conduct a search of Captain Campbell’s off-base apartment. I have read folks younger than I writing about this movie and finding that the jokes exchanged during this scene don’t hold up. These youngsters lack a sense of humor. Maybe you had to live through the AIDS epidemic to fully appreciate some of the lines, but they slay me. In the basement, the investigators discover that the general’s daughter essentially lived the life of a sexual predator, and she recorded it all on video tape. The collateral damage: every male officer on the general’s staff. The ultimate objective: deep capture of her father’s mind. Phew! Talk about daddy issues; only it’s not what you think.

The movie is way more loaded than the average civilian will pick up on. When Brenner goes to give the still-alive Captain Campbell a thank you gift for helping him change a tire—only in the movies would a woman in her dress blues be helping a warrant officer change a tire—he walks by a sign: “5th Psychological Operation Instructional Detachment, 7th Psychological Operations Group.” I’m not even going to research which groups did what, when and where. The point is that when Brenner is leaving the building, he passes a brightly lit medical room with an open door. On a hospital bed is lying a shirtless soldier in BDU pants. He is sweating profusely. A doctor is administering a shot into his outstretched arm. Ya don’t say. For the record, in the book the victim and the lead investigator never meet, which adds to that somewhat cliched-but-true undercurrent of a cop so obsessed with the crime that the intensity burgeons into a ghostly infatuation with the victim.

Once we meet Captain Campbell’s mentor and instructor, Colonel (Charles in the book) Moore, we learn that something terrible happened to the officer while she was a cadet at West Point. Now, in the movie, Moore is gay, and he is absolutely the upright man, trying valiantly to protect the reputation of his now-dead friend. He’s above suspicion as far as the long list of suspects goes. In the book, Moore is not gay, just … different. As Post Provost Marshall Colonel William (Bill) Kent puts it: “Well, he’s a shrink, too, of course. Ph.D. type. An odd duck. Sort of on the fringes. That whole school is on the fringe. Sometimes I think they should put a fence around it, with guard towers.”

When Brenner and Sunhill arrive at West Point, they learn then-Cadet Campbell was gang-raped on a night field exercise by six members of a recon unit. Critics of the movie find the rape scene over the top and I’d have to agree with them. Lewd celebratory gestures with one’s rifle, being one of them. It also goes on too long. In the director Simon West’s defense, this is not just a crime against a woman, but all women who seek to serve, not to mention what is supposed to be a revered U.S. military academy. The horror is justified. One difference worth noting is that in the movie, two male soldiers find Campbell, cut her free and get her help.

In the book, the reality is far more stark. She must dress herself and find her way back to people. She arrives hysterical and is rushed to a hospital where, we’re told, she’s treated for venereal diseases and pregnancy. Her father is contacted in Germany and immediately flies back to be with her—only he takes a fateful detour that crucifies his daughter’s soul. He allows superior officers to convince him that the culprits cannot be identified and therefore cannot be prosecuted. What’s one unreported rape compared to the future of women in the Army, is the way they present it. General Campbell—albeit reluctantly—agrees and goes to his daughter’s bedside where he proceeds to add his own betrayal to that of her peers. He tells her she can never speak of it again, and in so doing, instead of letting love and honor heal, he creates a monster that destroys both of their lives, as well as a long line of not-so-innocent victims. But, hey, he gets another star for playing along, so…

First, they didn’t even try to find the perpetrators, which would have been easy if top brass started bearing down, and interviews started getting intense. Kicking the rapists out of the academy and prosecuting them to the full extent of the law would have shown women that the Army was serious about both their inclusion and their safety. End of a very short non-story, so that’s not how the book or movie goes.

Cadet Campbell remains at the academy and in exchange for her silence, the old boys network graduates her and sets her up in psychological operations? I mean, really. I know, let’s take someone who has experienced major trauma and give her the job of perpetrating on others the chaos, confusion, and brainwashing that she experienced. Only in the Army would that seem like a good idea. Interestingly, in the movie we’re led to believe that she barely made it through. In the book, though, we get reality, trauma made her learn better—a truism—so she did quite well academically. Another interesting note is that the movie could not even deal with the idea of a Mrs. Campbell, so her character was eliminated. There’s only so much psyop mayhem with which an audience member can be expected to deal. In the book, though, Mrs. Campbell must be the ideal support-officer-husband’s-career-no-matter-what type, because she apparently was OK with her daughter’s sanity being sold for a silver star—the kind that does not involve valor.

So, Captain Cambell decides to conduct a psychological operation on her father. She sleeps with all of his male staff, and not just romantic trysts, but extreme sex, document in a journal and on film. At the time of her murder, her father is contemplating entering politics, so perhaps she sees this moment in time as her last chance to reach him and call a truce. Her father, too, has reached his end; he is giving her the ultimatum of resigning her commission or stopping her predatory blackmail operation and getting psychological help—the irony. So, Captain Campbell comes up with the perfect plan to shock her father into acknowledging the rape so that they can be father and daughter again instead of enemies. With the help of Colonel Moore, she recreates the scene of the rape in order to get her father to metaphorically untie her, rescue her, and bring her home. In the book she even thinks to have a dagger on hand so that her father can cut through the cording. Only, her father cannot do anything but call her crazy. He leaves her there, crying “Daddy” after him, over and over.

In addition to others visiting the crime scene, we have Colonel Kent. The coroner refers to him as Captain America and his name rock-skips over to Clark Kent, Superman’s alter ego. Either way you look at it, Bill Kent is the super soldier, squared away, controlled, upholder of law and order. Only he’s been in the victim’s basement many a time and is in love with her. It doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to know that she is incapable of returning or receiving love at this point, so his efforts are hamstrung on her. Unfortunately, in the book we learn he doesn’t even know her story. He thinks she’s entertaining other men out there staked out on the range, or simply that she’s gone crazy. He doesn’t know her tragic history. She is verbally disrespectful to him. He strangles her. Simple as that. In the book, the dagger she brought for her father to use to free her, he uses to disgrace her utterly in death.

In the movie, the General is painted as the true villain of the story, the one who in actuality caused his daughter’s death. She was simply a walking shell of her once trusting and true self. In the book, though, the treatment of the General is much softer. He, too, was undone by what happened to his daughter and all the pain she subsequently caused him for his soul-crushing misjudgment. He is exhausted, defeated, and it’s obvious that he has done much to try to understand his daughter’s actions. He learned, for one, that the men who raped his daughter mocked her for being a virgin and that because he, her father, apparently had so little regard for chastity, she too desecrated her virtue. He is a sympathetic character in the book. And he loved and missed his daughter very much, yet he couldn’t give her the one thing that would make it right: acknowledgment. The movie ends with the General escorting his daughter’s casket back home for burial and a note on a black screen informs us he resigned from politics—almost as if the story was real. In a way, isn’t it?

In the book, the readers attend Captain Campbells funeral, and it paints a striking picture that truly only military personnel will fully comprehend. The officer is buried in her mess whites, her blond hair circled about her head like a halo, her missing West Point ring—or rather a replacement—back on her finger, and the hilt of her sword held at her waist with the blade disappearing atop her legs into the closed portion of the satin-lined casket. The ring is significant. Kent took it from her. West Point rings are made from the metal of rings from prior West Point graduates. The long gray line ever descending through time through each graduating class for Duty, Honor and Country. The choice of mess whites, the most elite of formalwear, is virginal and befitting an officer. Only, none of it matters anymore. It’s all been tarnished. And she’s dead. The men of old Army made her into the monster she became and then bemoaned the fact that she was a monster. Never once did they think to honor her with their protection, by standing up for her, or by granting her justice. They could only mock and ridicule and use her; so she fought back with the only weapon she had.

It seems interesting that if Sunhill probably would have followed Brenner anywhere, it’s Brenner who follows Sunhill back to Fort Benning “and stayed with her all the way.” (Italics mine.)

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