Jay Gatsby is a fictional character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” “The Great Gatsby” is part of curriculums in high schools across America as one of the best novels in American literature. It offers a look into the Roaring Twenties and what it looked like to chase the American Dream during that time period. An often overlooked fact is that Fitzgerald, and the fictional Gatsby, are both World War I veterans, but that is where the similarities between their careers end.
Gatsby is a reimagined reflection of Fitzgerald’s military career – or what could have been. When one reads between the lines through the lens of military history, Fitzgerald reveals how Gatsby got his commission. Whether that is intentional or otherwise, Jay Gatsby is an officer you would have wanted during the war to end all wars.
Gatsby was often meritoriously promoted
Why would Fitzgerald have cared about how Gatsby made captain — and more to the point — why would he have been secretive about this information? Here it helps to know that Fitzgerald was frustrated in his own military ambitions and his Army record was an embarrassment to him. Though he made it into officer training by taking an entrance exam open to college students, he never got sent to Europe, and captain was precisely the rank he desired and had fantasies about but never achieved.Keith Gandal, The real secret behind Gatsby
In the book, Nick Carraway explains that Gatsby was a Captain before he was sent to the war. Chronologically, He meets Daisy at Camp Taylor as a 1st lieutenant, he is promoted to Captain at the end of training and is meritoriously promoted again to Major. Officer or enlisted, if your leadership is meritoriously promoted to every rank they have ever had, that’s one hard charger. It’s impossible to brown nose all the way up.
He’s honest about his military career
Out of all the stories he tells to impress Nick, I believe the only time he was ever truthful with him is when he was recounting his military exploits. It was his finest hour. He wasn’t born with an inheritance, but he was born with courage. It was something that came from him, his own birthright that was truly him — something money can’t buy.
The Army also needed thousands of officers. Regular Army and National Guard officers were quickly promoted. The creation of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) converted college students with military aptitude into leaders.The National WWI Museum and Memorial
Gatsby as an officer would likely have been motivated to succeed in battle and hungered for the laurels of victory. Gatsby’s war medals are authentic and he lead his troops to victory. He would likely have been able to identify with the enlisted while commanding instant obedience to orders. He fit in with the “good ol’ boys” because he successfully was able to pass himself off as a gentlemen of means.
Another little-known fact about World War I is that the military was experimenting with meritocracy. Today, a meritocracy is expected out of all branches of the Armed Services. Gatsby is given an opportunity to climb the social ladder using his military service as a springboard. During WWI, one did not necessarily need to come from a family of means or be a college graduate to become an officer. If you could pass an aptitude test you were good to go regardless of your socioeconomic background.
The Army really did promote officers quickly during WWI
Maj. Gen. Peyton March’s overarching goal was to get as many men as possible to Europe and into the AEF to win the war. To achieve this, he wanted to establish effectiveness and efficiency in the General Staff and the War Department. He quickly went about clearing bureaucratic log-jams, streamlining operations, and ousting ineffective officers.THE U.S. ARMY IN WORLD WAR I, 1917–1918, history.army.mil
The Army deliberately set out to award competence and reduce the BS pretentiousness of decorum. So, the theory of Gatsby earning his promotions through merit rather than favoritism holds water. Before World War I, the American officer corps was more like the British class-based officer corps. The idea of an oligarch-only officer corps in today’s military is impossible to imagine. It wouldn’t work now and it didn’t work then. The U.S. Army adapted while our European counterparts clutched on to the past. That change proved dividends in the war for the United States.
Gatsby was a fearless leader
Officers in combat-related Military Occupational Specialties are trained to lead from the front. Sometimes, that is literal. Up until the war’s end, Gatsby was an honorable man and not the fraud he fabricated later in life. In Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” he shows Gatsby leading a bayonet charge across “no man’s land.” WWI had advances in technology never before seen in combat. When the tools of war evolve towards perfecting the art of death, you want an officer willing to step first on the field of battle and who earned the right to do so legitimately.
Feature image: Warner Bros.