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War Without Meaning: Aimlessness, Hemingway and World War I

In my last post on Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, I argued that today's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are numerically insignificant compared to World War I. In The War to End All Wars more soldiers died, more civilians died, more people were hurt, diseased or crippled, all in a less populated world.

But this isn't even the worst part about World War I. The worst part is that it was meaningless. Entangling military alliances forced countries to go to war over the assassination of a minor royal figure. No slaves were freed; no genocide averted. An historical background so inane, you almost can't process it. If it's heartbreaking when someone has to give their life for another, what about when they give their life for no reason? This is what makes World War I a tragedy.

Hemingway understood this. He understood the purposelessness of this war, and the aimlessness of his "lost" generation. He expresses it through Lt. Henry, a man whose life mirrors the war he is fighting.

At the start of the A Farewell to Arms, Lt. Henry's life is adrift. Instead of visiting the home of a priest while on leave, he drinks and parties in Milan. When asked why he didn't go like he promised, he has no reason, no explanation. His actions have no purpose. Lt. Henry even fights in the war for no reason. When asked by his lover why he volunteered for the Italian military, he shrugs, “I don’t know...There isn’t always an explanation for everything.” This could have been the same justification for every General and politician of that era.

By the time Lt. Henry finds his purpose, it is too late. He goes AWOL after seeing his friends and soldiers die in a horrific retreat, and flees to Switzerland with his pregnant girlfriend. Of course, A Farwell to Arms is a tragedy, and Lt. Henry ends the novel as adrift as he began it. One could read Lt. Henry's life as an analogy to Europe. He goes to war for no purpose, tries to fight his way out of it, and his story ends only after he has lost everything. His future is as bleak as Europe's.

Hemingway wasn't anti-war--he fought in at least three--but I don't think he supported World War I. Hemingway's personal code demanded meaning, and World War I--death, carnage and all--had none.

His most damning critique is not only wars started without meaning, but continuing without them. On page 184, one of Lt. Henry’s drivers says, “We won’t talk about losing. There is enough talk about losing. What has been done this summer cannot have been done in vain.”

Lt. Henry, the narrator, responds, “I did not say anything. I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice, and the expression in vain. This is the worst justification of war. We hear it too often spoken today, and indeed all wars, that fighting must continue for the sake’s of the dead."

six comments

In this post, Eric C subtly raises the issue of Iraq and Afghanistan without mentioning them by name…though he wanted to. I guess I would argue that in war, the leaders always make a justification, even though later it turns out to be false or actually meaningless. Whether Iraq or Afghanistan fall into these categories, I don’t know, but there are important questions that need to be asked.

Michael while I agree that politicians justify war, they also justify every other policical act. Any political act needs a justification. I don’t think war is any different in this regard. As for A Farewell To Arms, I always enjoyed Hemingway. Great portrayal of a bleak existence in WWI era Italy.

Yeah I will concede the broadness in my tone. Everything has to be justified.

However, for war the justification tends to be something about “way of life.” This is a tricky justification and usually a straw man argument. It can lead to all sorts of problems, and can lead to losing your way of life anyways.

I don´t really think anyone can make the case anymore that the invasion of Iraq was justified, most will say it was actually a catastrophic decision based on bad intelligence, or that there were ulterior motives.

The reasons given for staying in Iraq and Afghanistan right now have nothing to do with any kind of threat to the United States anymore, they usually revolve around a kind of “we broke it, we bought it, we´re there and we have to remake it in our image” kind of deal, or that if we leave prematurely it will become a terrorist safe haven, when there are already dozens of terrorist safe havens throughout the world.

I think the doctrine of invasion and conventional military force as a means to fight terrorism from non-state actors has been shot down by the last decade, as it alone has not significantly decreased the threat of terrorism to the United States, but has fueled a lot of hatred in militant movements throughout the middle east.

Whether us staying in Iraq and Afghanistan is going to be good for the people of Iraq or Afghanistan depends entirely on the behavior and attitude of the Iraqi and Afghani people, some of whom aren´t happy with us being there to begin with and suspect the US of ulterior motives. Regardless of whether it is a good or bad for Iraq or Afghanistan, its certainly not decreasing the national deficit, and it will be paid for with more of the lives of our own people as well.

I think the point is that people want to die for something, not something meaningless. Iraq lost its meaning when no weapons were found, and yet we are still losing soldiers. It’s depressing.

Listen to this guys:
It pretty much underlines the message of your post!

But you know what? In some very awkward way you perhaps also say that the great war has united the many nations as well – since we now all join together in mourning of our forefathers… Some irony – in a completely insane world!

As for historic facts – one of the insane motivations that made nut-case Hitler start WWII, were the not entirely sensible sanctions against Germany and the treason he had experienced in the trenches during WWI.
Mind you it brought also along many a reason as to why he lost WWII… Like f.ex. it seems that the Austrian looser wasn’t quite so welcome in Germany as a young man, so he joined the Bavarian regiment instead… staying clear of the so very different mentality of the Northerners. Remember Stalingrad? He didn’t need to loose the Eastern front, but guess who sabotaged that for his own (Prussian) general?! On one hand he was quite conscious that the Prussian aristocracy would have a hard time supporting his agenda after the war.
However that’s also the way it goes with people who commit crimes against humanity; because man is basically good, he will always bring himself down in the end!(Just a pity millions had to go before him…!)