Wars. How many has this world seen? Blood spilled, bombs dropped, towns and villages razed. The concept of war has always chewed my conscience, making me question the nature of humanity and survival. Am I naive to believe that a world with a population of more than seven billion people can co-exist peacefully? Does it even matter that there are rules to killing? And what of the men who go to war, do we celebrate their victory or condemn the heinous acts they commit?
I recently read two books on this theme, both by American authors but with stories on two different wars – A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway & The things they carried by Tim O’ Brien.
Hemingway’s novel is set during the first World War that was fought between the Allies (British empire, France, Russian Empire, Italy and the United States of America) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria) in the years 1914 to 1918. It is a work of fiction where the protagonist, Henry Frederic, is an American volunteer for the Italian ambulance corps. Although the story has the backdrop of the occurrences of war on the front, the primal focus is the love story between him and Catherine Barkley, a British nurse. What Henry intends to be a casual affair blossoms into a deep romance with a child being conceived . The novel essentially breaks own Henry’s journey into two parts- the one he experiences a soldier, where he starts off with a sense of understanding his purpose in the war and eventually loses all his passion for it after almost being executed by members of his own troops, and the journey as a lover- a man who grows with the tender, unconditional love showered by lovely Catherine. Without being explicit, Hemingway tactfully conveys Henry’s emotions to the reader. There are no lengthy descriptions of the feeling of anger towards his own troops or the loss experienced when Catherine dies after child-birth; Hemingway is a master at this, saying a lot with less words. And I absolutely love him for it. This is how he summarizes his feelings towards the war, “I was not against them. I was through. I wished them all the luck.”
Tim O’ Brien’s -The things they carried- is a semi-autobiographical collection of short stories involving American soldiers fighting the Vietnam War. It is more graphic in its portrayal of a soldier’s life that is wrecked with guilt and the pointless pursuit of glory. I found it quite admirable that O’ Brien was able to build such a powerfully poignant narrative without the use of an actual plot. He is able to move through past and present & multiple characters’ perspectives smoothly, roping us into a landscape of vicious jungles and cold killing . This book really shook me with its successful juxtaposition of man’s ability to endure with his ability to destroy. To quote the author, “The truths are contradictory. It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can’t help but gape at the awful majesty of combat.” This book really is littered with a lot of beautiful imagery, so much that I actually found myself sad when it came to an end. The fact that someone wanted to read more of a book on war is indicative of the writer’s gift in taking pain and turning it into stirringly, haunting stories.
Let me talk about the similarities between these books. Firstly, there is the element of disillusionment.
Hemingway : I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.
O’Brien: At night, when I couldn’t sleep, I’d sometimes carry on fierce arguments with those people. I’d be screaming at them, telling them how much I detested their blind, thoughtless, automatic acquiescence to it all, their simple-minded patriotism, their prideful ignorance, their love-it-or-leave-it platitudes, how they were sending me off to fight a war they didn’t understand and didn’t want to understand. I held them responsible. By God, yes, I did. All of them
Both books are however remarkably honest and did have profound impacts on me. They made me feel very small. As someone who is obsessed with marking black and white, right and wrong, night and day, I felt a sudden sense of stupidity. I really do not know anything about what it means to live through choices I have no control over. My existence is cushioned by the warmth of ignorance. It would be wrong of me to condemn war when there is the possibility that the freedom I possess today is the result of a soldier’s sacrifice made at some point.
There are essentially three categories of people- those who decide, those who fight & those who stay back and wait. Governments and businessmen decide; their motivations are combinations of ideological beliefs, prospects of economic gains and political agendas. Rarely do all these elements intersect and result in ideal actions. Those who fight are a mix between men who volunteer and men who are drafted. O’ Brien describes the emotional tornado that swept through him when he got his letter and how men go to war not because they are brave, but rather because they are too frightened to be cowards.
Although both books are different- one focusing on the absolute entrenchment of a soldier’s heart into the day and night grind of waiting to fight and the other setting the war as a mere backdrop for a love story; they narrate with such remarkable honesty, highlighting the mundane-ness of it, not seeking to convey any sort of moral conclusions. Perhaps I was a bit disappointed with Hemingway. I felt he merely flitted on the subject and kept the romance aspect as the hero of his story. But again this could be my unfair treatment as I am comparing it O’ Brien’s book which was extremely raw and disturbing.
So where do I fall? I am the third kind- those who stand back and wait and watch; throw opinions, get angry, talk about justice and equality and the greater good. My veins tremble with patriotism when I see men in uniform hoist the flag or perform elegantly synchronized marching repertoires. But at the end of the day, the closest I will come to knowing the true horrors of guns and tankers and blood and men screaming is through the words imprinted in books.