The futility of fighting on the losing side

For Whom the Bell Tolls - Ernest Hemingway


This is one of those books that I have been meaning to read for quite a while, even if it is only because of the Metellica song of the same name (which, by the way, was based on the book, and you watch the official video clip here – you will notice that, if you have read the book that is, it includes scenes from the movie, not that this song is the official song for the movie: I think the movie was made years before the song was released). Anyway, I have a little trouble wondering where to put this book, though I suspect I should file it away on my modernist shelf as opposed to my tragedy shelf, despite the story itself being a tragedy.



The reason that I say that it is a tragedy is because we all know how the book is going to end, despite the fact that we may not have read it (or know anything about it, as was the case with me, except for the fact that it is set during the Spanish Civil War). The protagonist, Robert Jordan (really bad name, because it took me a while to convince myself that this was not the guy who wrote the Wheel of Time series) is fighting on the side of the guerrillas and as it happens, for those who know the outcome of the war, he is fighting on the losing side. For me, at least, the knowledge of the ultimate fate of the Republicans (as they are called, despite being armed by the Communists) means that any victory that they do manage to achieve in this book is going to be a pyrrhic victory.



In fact, as we get to the finale in the book we realise that the victory in itself is pyrrhic. While they do manage to blow up the bridge, the question of whether this action in and of itself was successful, or did anything to change the direction of the war, is left hanging, and despite the book coming to a rather abrupt end (though I would suggest that it is not all that abrupt because Hemmingway really does not need to spell out Jordan's fate - we all know what it is going to be in the long run) we are left, in the end, with a sense of failure.


I guess this is why I am more inclined to place this book into the modernist category because the style and the theme are much more modern than they are tragic, and many modernist writings themselves are quite tragic in nature, though they are more bleak in composition. There is the similar feeling that I get from when I read Of Mice and Men, because despite all of their dreams it all comes to naught. I get a similar feeling in this book that while the characters may believe in what they are fighting for, and also have dreams and plans for what they are going to do when the war is over, for many of them the war simply does not come to an end, but rather the end comes to them.



For instance, we have the romantic relationship between Jordan and Maria, and Maria is by no means described as a beautiful woman. We are constantly reminded that her hair has been cut off and roughly cropped (not in the post-modern feminist let's have a man cut type of cropped). She is also psychologically scarred, in that she watched her parents being executed, and was then raped by a group of fascist soldiers. Also, we have Jordan contemplating his life after the war, his plans to return to America and teach in a university and to take Maria with him, and maybe even get married. However, there is always this sense throughout the book that this simply is not going to happen.



The aeroplane plays a significant role in this book. It is almost as if Hemmingway is depersonalising war. In former centuries wars were fought up close, but with the invention of the rifle a distance was created between yourself and your enemy. However, further development brought about the machine gun (and there is a scene where one of the guerrillas describes a machine gun as being a gun that perpetually fires bullets), the tank, and of course the aeroplane. These inventions impersonalise war. The tank puts you in a steel shell with a large cannon which allow you to lob explosives over long distances; the plane not only gives you a greater advantage of being about to view your enemy's position, but it allows you to drop explosives upon them, while keeping a distance – you can hurt your enemy but your enemy cannot hurt you. The futility of the guerrillas attempting to shoot down the bombers with a machine gun in the scene on the top of the hill clearly demonstrates this.



Futility is also another theme that is prominent in this book. The whole story is set over three days in the lead up to the dynamiting of a bridge. However there is a running debate upon whether it is necessary or not, and whether it will actually help the war. As for the war itself, we are not given an indication in the book that the guerrillas are losing, but rather we have that overarching sense that they are fighting a losing battle, that despite what they do, what they have, and the decisions that they make, that the end has already been written – it is just that they simply do not know it yet. For instance, while the fascists are able to bomb the guerrilla positions, when the republicans also bring up their planes, they end up bombing little more than an empty ridge.



Another thing that came up in this book was one line that Jordan said and that was 'I am not communist, I am anti-facist'. This is a very important point because what it is saying is that the world is not necessarily bi-polar. Just because you oppose one point of view does not necessarily put you in the opposite corner. Okay, Jesus did say that 'whoever is not for me is against me,' but this is not a religious text, though it does talk about religion (another subject that I will have to write about). The idea is not necessarily religious because we are talking about view points here. The same argument was used in the lead up to the Iraq War where people who opposed the war were immediately placed into the camp of the Sadam supporters and terrorists. This is not the case, though our arguments tended to fall upon deaf ears. The idea was not that we supported Sadam, but rather that sending troops into a foreign country where no doubt many innocent people would be killed (and I include the American troops in this category, especially if they believed that they were going in there the help the civilians, as opposed to progressing the plans of the corporatocracy) was not the solution to the problem. This was the case here, because it was not that the fighters were supporting the communists, but rather because they believed in the ideal of the Republic, and that the forces of Franco were not interested in progressing the Republic, but rather their own ideals.


Now I should finish off with this idea of religion. The question of religion is raised throughout the book, especially with Pablo suggesting that he is an Atheist, and despite being an Atheist, he still believes that murder is wrong. There is also the question of the abjuration of sins (did I just make up a word?). It is suggested that the Atheists in the book are burdened down with the sins that they have committed during this war, and by rejecting religion, they have no way of getting rid of these sins. In a way, Hemmingway is suggesting that simply by getting rid of religion does not remove guilt, it just removes a means of being able to deal with guilt. We even see that when all hope is lost, such as when the guerrillas are sitting on the hilltop being bombed by the planes, that they have no choice but to return to their belief in God and their sanctification through crying out their hail Marys.