In The Interpreter, noted academic and National Book Award nominee Alice Kaplan digs into the archives of World War II to shed some ominous light on U.S. Army courts martial. Her research focuses primarily on the trials of African-American GIs in post-liberation France, with particular emphasis on the case of Pvt. James Hendricks, who was accused, convicted and executed for the murder of a French farmer. Kaplan marshals statistics that imply an inordinate percentage of black GIs were found guilty of misconduct, and for counterpoint, she explores the trial and subsequent acquittal of George Whittington, a white Army captain also brought up on murder charges.
Kaplan infuses her general narrative and trial accounts with the unique perspective of Louis Guilloux, an acclaimed French political novelist who served as an interpreter at four of the courts martial and later produced a roman ˆ clef about those experiences called OK, Joe. Kaplan's effort effectively revisits the shadowy workings of a predominantly white bureaucracy over a black minority, and there's legitimate reason to suspect that ingrained bigotry might have played a role in trial results. Nevertheless, the author never proves the convicted soldiers' innocence, leaving in her wake a trail of innuendo that seems designed more to stir up unpleasant memories than to uncover unassailable truth. Kaplan intently exploits the specter of Jim Crow in the WWII armed forces, further asserting that whatever their contributions, African Americans were excluded from the story of the Greatest Generation.' This latter claim is dubious since accounts of African-American heroism do exist in the war literature. Furthermore, the U.S. military has become the leading institution in the postwar era to have offered opportunities for career growth, professional achievement and further education to the average African American.
The Interpreter remains an interesting and well-written slice of history, but its ultimate overall context raises broader questions about its author's motivations.