Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Few Words About War

My latest fiction read has been Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, a novel set in Spain during the 1936-39 civil war in that country.  The story centers on Robert Jordan, an American volunteer fighting with the Republicans against Franco and his fascists.  For a war novel, there is not much action, much of the narrative focuses on thoughts, fears, motivations and expectations of the various characters.  It's very much a work about human nature.

A few of those explorations examine the consequences of war.  At one point after Jordan has briefed the guerrillas with whom he is working about the details of his mission, one of the characters makes this observation to the reader: 
I hope I am not for the killing, Anselmo was thinking.  I think that after the war there will have to be some great penance done for the killing.  If we no longer have religion after the war then I think there must be some form of civic penance organized that all ma be cleansed from the killing or else we will never have true and human basis for living.  The killing is necessary, I know, but still the doing of it is very bad for a man and I think that, after all this is over and we have won the war, there must be a penance of some kind for the cleansing of us all.
Later on, Jordan questions himself after reading a letter found on the body of a young soldier he has just killed:
How many is that you have killed?  he asked himself.  I don't know.  Do you think you have a right to kill any one?  No.  But I have to.  How many of those you have killed have been real fascists?  Very few.  But the are all the enemy to whose force we are the opposing force.  But you like the people of Navarra better than those of any other part of Spain.  Yes.  And you kill them.  Yes.  If you don't believe it go down to there to the camp.  Don't you know that it is wrong to kill?  Yes.  But you do it?  Yes.  And you still believe that your cause is right?  Yes.
These two passages struck an emotional chord in me.  I've had a variation of the Jordan's soliloquy playing in my head for four decades now regarding my own military service.  Except that I did not believe in the cause.  I've come to terms with that fact but it's always an uneasy truce.

I do know that Anselmo is correct.  There is always a price to pay for the killing.  If we are lucky, it cleanses us.  If not, it kills us.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is the first Hemingway I've read as an adult.  I'm sure I read some in high school or college but it didn't make much of an impression on me.  My impression of Hemingway has always been the stereotype "manly man, big game hunter image" of his later years.  For Whom the Bell Tolls was a good reminder that he actually wrote with some understanding and perspicacity.

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