For a while now, For Whom the Bell Tolls has been my main war novel. I read it when I was sixteen, and it was the first story to expose to me the deluded simplification of war and violence that most people grow up learning–at least, it was the first one that I listened to and understood. I’ve tried rereading it a couple times, but I’m only ever able to get through the first quarter of the book, up until Pilar tells Jordan the story of how the Spanish republican rebels captured her home town and executed the local fascist party members. It was a brutal and emotionally draining message about how ideology becomes just an abstract concept for an individual caught in a war, and how all a person can really do is try to survive and keep on being a human, but ideology can even take their humanity from them. Every time I finish that part, the force of the truth of warfare is just too heavy. I need to take a break, and I never get back to it.
Now I’ve just finished reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and I feel like it deserves to be my new go-to war novel, except that I’m not sure if it’s fair to compare the two. It might not exactly be fair to compare The Things They Carried to any other war novel I can think of. It’s just as concerned with the truth of warfare as any book brave enough to take on something like that, but it’s the only one that grapples with the challenge itself: how to tell that kind of truth at all. More