The march at the center of this book is 36 miles long, a truly horrendous length. It is probably even more horrendous in the imagining than in the walking, though, and it is the imagination of the march that the book focuses on. The walking itself takes up only the last third of the book, which is only about thirty or so pages of this very short book.
The book is set in Georgia in a marine training camp, where Colonel Templeton has ordered that his soldiers, who are primarily reservists, must make a 36 mile march, which will start in the night and go for some thirteen-plus hours, in order to toughen them up, since, he says they have been acting like reservists, when in fact they need to remember that they are, first and foremost, Marines. The Long March is narrated by Lieutenant Culver, a former Marine, who got married and had a child back before being called back into the service for the Korean War. He struggles with his return, but not nearly as much as his friend Captain Mannix, whose struggle we watch throughout the book. Culver has difficulty complaining about anything, even in directing any ill will towards Templeton, or hating the idea of the march, since he can make sense out of both of them. Templeton, with his perfect Marine simplicity, is perhaps too simple to hate. Mannix, however, has no end of complaining. He hates that he's been called back, complains about the silly forced recreational times he has to suffer through as an officer, and complains especially about Templeton and this long, long march.
For Culver, and one imagines for Styron as well, what makes this struggle so awful is the inability to connect it to any meaning, or the difficulty in figuring out how to meaningfully protest.
For Mannix, the march becomes a kind of test of inner and outer strength, and he resolves to walk the whole thing in order to make a statement to Templeton. What the statement is nobody knows, least of all Mannix, and as Culver points out to Mannix later, his struggle will have absolutely no effect on Templeton. "...but if suffering made one a hero, then Mannix must be one," Culver states, in what I take as a useful summary of the books underlying theme. The march is heroic element only in Culver's sense of it, as it does cause a great amount of suffering. Mannix develops a grossly swollen ankle, so bad that at one point Templeton orders him to stop walking and get in a truck to be taken back. Mannix refuses, at this point now feeling that he must finishing the march that he has started, and that the Colonel himself ordered in the first place. He swears at his Colonel and is threatened with a court martial but finishes the march anyway, at the end achieving only pain and some kind of pride.
I was already a fan of Stryon from having reading The Confessions of Nat Turner years ago. This book is even better. Maybe it is only because it is more compact and more direct. Or maybe the voice is more Styron's own, since he is not trying to imagine a voice for a character he doesn't entirely relate to. Where others have written on the lack of profound feeling that has come with modernity, Styron has shown how the frightful depths of the human psyche have not disappeared--anger and rage and pride and hatred still drive people. Sometimes, as for Captain Mannix, it is in unpredictable directions.