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."