Mario Vargas Llosa once wrote, “Thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, the desires and longings it inspires…civilization is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanize life with their fables,” artfully conveying the meaning behind many war novels, as their authors choose to either romanticize or truly depict the horrors of the world through literature. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is a testament of German soldier Paul Bäumer’s life, as he fights against the French in WWI. Similarly, in A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway chronicles the life of an American ambulance driver named Frederic Henry throughout WWI. Written during the postmodernist literary era, Mother Night is a novel written by Kurt Vonnegut, which illustrates fictional memoirs of Howard W. Campbell Jr., who was tried for war crimes in WWII. In contrast, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a collection of war stories about American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War, as communist North Vietnam fought against South Vietnam and its ally, the United States. Each of these war novels’ authors depict war in distinct ways; however, as literary eras progressed, war literature began to move away from the romantic idea of war and instead, began to depict war in its true, horrific nature. War literature began with a Romantic view, progressed to an ironic and blunt depiction of war, and further evolved into a combination of the two forms, in order to paint war in a realistic, harsh light, while continuing to evoke the sense of honor that many soldiers feel, in order to educate society about what war truly entails.
Throughout All Quiet on the Western Front, Remarque depicts the nature of WWI in a Romantic sense, for during the literary era in which this novel was written, society struggled to grasp the harsh realities of war; authors found that painting the battlefield in a more Romantic light would allow readers to better understand and come to terms with the idea of war and the sadness that came along with it. Remarque writes about Kemmerich’s slow death, “In his face there are already the strained lines that we know so well, we have seen them now hundreds of time… Death is working through from within. It already has command in the eyes… He it is still and yet it is not he any longer… Even his voice sounds like ashes” (Remarque 13). In this quote, Remarque romanticizes the idea of death by personifying death itself. Remarque’s use of the word “ashes” evokes a sense of calm and peace, even in a moment of a man’s brutal death. In addition to Romanticizing death, Remarque also portrays the battlefield in a charming light, writing, “An uncertain red glow spreads along the skyline from one to the other… Balls of light rise up high above it, silver and red spheres which explode and rain down in showers of red, white, and green stars” (Remarque 45). Throughout his novel, Remarque illustrates WWI as epitome of beauty, using words such as “glow,” “light,” “explode,” “showers,” and “stars” to relate the war to a firework scene, as opposed to the terrifying bombing it actually is, in order to paint a more vivid and glamorous image of the battlefield. Later in the novel, upon speaking about what life will consist of after the war, Bäumer says:
It is the common fate of our generation. Albert expresses it: ‘The war has ruined us for everything.’ He is right. We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war. (Remarque 67)
Despite the heartbreaking truth of war that Remarque conveys in this passage, Remarque continues to romanticize the idea of war through his characters as Bäumer recounts the moment the first bomb goes off, stating that it “burst in our hearts.” Although Remarque attempts to illustrate the true effects of war and battle on soldiers of this “generation,” he intertwines “love” and “life” with war, which perpetuates the idea that war can be romantic in nature. Remarque artfully conveys the sense of “longing” that Llosa speaks of, while perpetuating the idea that war is Romantic.
Similarly to Remarque’s novel, in another WWI novel, A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway continues the WWI literary trend of Romanticizing war, though Hemingway portrays the internal struggle of Frederic as he fights in the war and tells his story of finding love that ends in tragedy. Although Hemingway’s novel is incredibly Romantic because it encapsulates a tragic love story, this novel also depicts war in a glorious manner. Speaking of a conversation he has with his doctor after being admitted to the hospital for battle wounds, Frederic contemplates, “How many had I killed? I had not killed any but was anxious to please––and I said I had killed plenty” (Hemingway 82). In this disturbing quote, Hemingway conveys the sense of glory that soldiers feel toward killing another in combat. However, Hemingway fails to illustrate the truth that many soldiers face when having to kill another human during battle, as many soldiers feel an overwhelming sense of guilt and torture over taking the life of someone they hardly know. Hemingway realistically conveys the notion that many men took the life of another simply because they were “anxious to please,” which reduces the significance of their life-altering action of murder to something that soldiers feel they must boast and lie about. Later in the novel, Hemingway illustrates the effects of war on soldiers’ emotions, writing, “‘We are all gentler now because we are beaten.’… ‘[many of the soldiers] were beaten to start with.’… ‘Now I am depressed myself,’ I said. ‘That’s why I never think about these things’” (Hemingway 157). In this passage, Hemingway conveys the internal struggle that Frederic, along with a multitude of other soldiers, faces while fighting in WWI, as soldiers attempt to block out the true nature of war and the devastating effects that war has on its victims, both on the battlefield and back home. After he hears this disheartening truth, Frederic states, “That’s why I never think about these things.” Throughout this WWI novel, soldiers struggle internally with the impact that war has on them and they resort to blocking it out of their minds, in order to cope with the immediate threat that they face: potential death. Speaking of the words used to describe war during this time period, Frederic states, “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain… Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages” (Hemingway 161). In one of the novel’s most renowned passages, Frederic comes to the realization that “sacred,” “glorious,” “sacrifice,” and all other romantic words that are typically associated with war have distorted meanings on the battlefield, as it is difficult to find anything “glorious” about human lives being taken. During a confrontation with the carabiniere, a police officer says, “‘It is you and such as you that have let the barbarians onto the sacred soil of the fatherland.’…‘It is because of treachery such as yours that we have lost the fruits of victory’” (Hemingway 193). Through Frederic’s conversation with the battle police, he begins to observe and understand that these men know nothing about the true effects of the war, nor do they understand the meaning of words like “sacred;” they are simply repeating things that they have been told and instructed to say. In this conversation, Hemingway conveys the notion that the battle police have distanced themselves so far away from the war that war has essentially become a romantic idea to them, as well as to the rest of the world. After Frederic escapes from the war, he has a moment of self-reflection and thinks of other soldiers: “There were the good ones, and the brave ones, and the calm ones and the sensible ones, and they deserved it. But it was not my show any more…” (Hemingway 200). In this decisive moment for Frederic when he makes the decision to desert the war, Hemingway criticizes society’s perception of soldiers as being “good,” “brave,” “calm,” and “sensible” through his use of anaphora, by repeating “ones.” Although Hemingway critiques society’s view of war, his literature continues to romanticize the idea of war through his characters’ sense of glory and honor while fighting in the war.
In contrast to Remarque and Hemingway, in his WWII novel Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut moves away from the Romantic literary era and moves toward the postmodernist view of war, writing with irony and word play, in order to depict war in a much more realistic and cruel manner. Speaking of his father, Campbell writes, “All he ever said to me about [the book] was that it wasn’t for children, that I wasn’t to look at it…There were pictures of men hung on barbed wire, mutilated women, bodies stacked like cordwood––all the usual furniture of world wars” (Vonnegut 26). In contrast to previous war literature, Vonnegut illustrates a harsh, yet true, description of war in this quote. Through Campbell, Vonnegut breaks through the romantic barrier that has previously been used to describe war, by using disturbing words such as “hung,” “barbed wire,” “mutilated,” and “stacked” bodies, in order to evoke a sense of fear and disgust at the realities of WWII. Later in the novel, during a conversation between Noth and Campbell, Noth says, “‘You made her happy,’… ‘I hope so’’ I said. ‘That made me hate you more,’ [Noth] said. “‘Happiness has no place in war’” (Vonnegut 98). In this conversation, Vonnegut continues to illustrate the jarring reality of war by Campbell’s acquaintance stating that “Happiness has no place in war.” This statement is a harsh contrast to previous war literature, as Vonnegut does not sugarcoat and attempt to make war seem less unpleasant and destructive than it actually is; instead, Vonnegut is incredibly blunt. Speaking of his day spent with Resi, Campbell writes, “We saw a Veterans’ Day parade down Fifth Avenue, and I heard Resi’s laugh for the first time…‘I’ve never seen such a thing before,’ [Resi] said to me. ‘War must be a very sexy thing to Americans’” (Vonnegut 139). Resi’s statement about Americans thinking the war must be “very sexy” is another instance in which Vonnegut portrays the idea that war should not be romanticized; war seems “sexy” to those who are not on the battlefield because they do not witness the bombings, hangings, and torture of men, but rather, they continue to romanticize war by having “parades.” In this quote, Vonnegut comments on the harmful effects of romanticizing war and making war appear glorious, for by doing so, war culture and battles will perpetuate. Finally, Vonnegut skewers the reader with another truth about war and death, writing, “‘It’s a big enough job just burying the dead, without trying to draw a moral from each death,’ he said. ‘Half the dead don’t even have names. I might have said you were a good soldier.’” (Vonnegut 185). Throughout Vonnegut’s postmodern novel, he emphasizes the notion that there is nothing romantic about war; in fact, there is no meaning in war either. In this brutally honest conversation, Colonel Wirtanen speaks the truth: “Half the dead don’t even have names.” Although this statement is harsh, Wirtanen aims to make Campbell and the reader understand that there is no glory in war and many soldiers die without there being a meaning to their death. Vonnegut crushes the idea of a romantic war and replaces it with the cruel, merciless war it actually is.
Due to the turn of the literary era, Tim O’Brien finds a balance between the Romantic WWI novels and Vonnegut’s devastatingly cruel novel in his collection of memoirs The Things They Carried. This novel squanders the idea that war should be viewed as something glorious; however, O’Brien artfully utilizes language to depict the cruel realities of war in a less sadistic manner than some postmodernist novels. In the opening pages of the novel, O’Brien writes about the soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War: “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried” (O’Brien 7). In this quote about the Vietnam War, O’Brien speaks of both the emotional baggage and the physical baggage that soldiers are forced to carry along with them, which illustrates the notion that often in war, the more difficult thing to handle is the emotional toll that war has on the human psyche, rather than the physical toll war takes on the body. Similarly to Vonnegut, O’Brien moves away from the romantic, impractical view of war and shifts toward the destructive, vicious reality that soldiers face in wartime, in order to more accurately portray war through literature. Later, O’Brien describes the soldiers and the way they move across the battlefield, writing, “They moved like mules. By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They marched for the sake of the march” (O’Brien 15). In this quote, O’Brien uses the metaphor “They moved like mules” to illustrate the lack of meaning that each individual soldier has in the war, as well as the manner in which society regards their soldiers, for society distances themselves from the soldiers in order to distance themselves from the pain that these men feel on the battlefield. Further, O’Brien describes the soldiers’ march as being “endless” and “without purpose,” illustrating the meaninglessness of their sacrifice to their country. Continuing the imagery of marching, O’Brien writes:
If you weren’t humping, you were waiting. I remember the monotony…Even deep in the bush, where you could die any number of ways, the war was nakedly and aggressively boring. But it was a strange boredom. It was boredom with a twist that caused stomach disorders…you’d feel the boredom dripping inside you like a leaky faucet…Well, you’d think, this isn’t so bad. And right then you’d hear gunfire behind you and your nuts would fly up into your throat and you’d be squealing pig squeals. That kind of boredom. (O’Brien 32-33)
In this quote, O’Brien unveils the truth of war and what fighting on the warfront is truly like. Through this quote, O’Brien defeats the Romantic idea that war is full of action, blood, gore, and excitement––the view that much of society has about war. Rather, O’Brien states that war is full of “waiting,” “monotony,” and “boredom” as soldiers wait in fear of possibly being killed without warning. Further, in this passage, O’Brien artfully articulates the fast-paced change of emotions that soldiers feel while waiting for their imminent death by writing with imagery, “…and you’d feel boredom dripping inside you like a leaky faucet…,” which articulates the slow, nerve wracking feeling men feel on the battlefield. Immediately after a soldier feels a sense of calm on the warfront, his tranquility is shattered by the “gunfire” behind them, unleashing “squeals” and utter panic. Later in his novel, O’Brien begins to speak of “the true war story,” writing, “A true war story is never moral…if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue” (O’Brien 65). In this quote about a true war story, O’Brien states that one can never be “moral” because “There is no rectitude whatsoever.” Similarly to O’Brien’s earlier statement in the novel about war being meaningless, he continues to state that there is no morality in war and no one participating in war can ever be righteous. O’Brien critiques the notion that war is full of glory and honor, and refutes the Romantic view of war by giving war no meaning whatsoever. Continuing his contemplation of true war stories, O’Brien states, “In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe ‘Oh.’” (O’Brien 74). Writing about a different type of moral, O’Brien illustrates the cold, hard truth: there are no morals in war stories, so analyzing war stories to find the greater meaning behind them is useless. O’Brien states that after reading a true war story, all one can ever truly say is “Oh.” This statement further quashes the Romantic idea of war in which there is always a greater meaning behind war literature. As war literature progresses over time, authors begin to realize that there is nothing more to be said about the brutal, cruel, savage nature of war, and no meaning can be drawn out of the myriad of deaths of soldiers who died for their country. In one of the most tragic scenes in the novel, O’Brien depicts the harshest reality of war––death––writing, “Kiowa was gone. He was under the mud and water, folded in with the war…It wasn’t right. Kiowa had been a fine soldier and a fine human being…and there was no way Lieutenant Cross would allow such a good man to be lost under the slime of a shit field” (O’Brien 155-156). Kiowa’s death is essentially an expansive metaphor for war, as he was the most moral, wholehearted, and kind character in Mother Night, and in the end, he lies in a swamp of “shit.” Romantic authors would give a character like Kiowa a glorious, heroic, and memorable death; however, in order to depict the true realities of war, O’Brien has Kiowa die in the most inglorious manner to signify that war is not beautiful, but rather, war is hideous, heartbreaking, and destroys all sense of morality. As O’Brien previously states, “…war is just another name for death…” (O’Brien 77). Unlike his predecessors, O’Brien conveys war in its truest form while maintaining the notion that war literature does not have to full of gruesome details in order to educate society about the devastating realities of war.
Over time, war literature has developed, making society more conscious of and less cruel toward soldiers and wars themselves. Over the course of war literature, authors such as Tim O’Brien have begun to recognize both the beauty and the ugliness of war. Although war is undoubtedly tragic, American society continues to view war and soldiers in the most positive light possible, in order to cope with the harsh reality of war and to honor men and women for their valiant efforts in wars. By portraying war accurately in both the emotional tolls it takes on the human psyche, as well as the physical toll it takes on the human body, war literature has evolved for the better, educating society while continuing to honor those who fight for their country. Moreover, over time, society and war literature writers have come to the realization that there is something beautiful in war, and the fact that men and women sacrifice their lives every day in order to evoke a sense of patriotism for their country.
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