Study Guide

Dead End in Norvelt Warfare

By Jack Gantos


And then I wondered why the British soldiers would allow themselves to die so easily just because their king told them to go march up a hill and fight. I was thinking that I would tell the king to go fight his own war. (4.3)

Poor, naïve Jack. This comes at the beginning of the book, and Jack hasn't yet stopped to consider that many people don't have a choice whether or not they go to war.

I now guessed he had drifted off thinking about the war and crawling through the sand and finding those dead men and stripping away their weapons and war gear. (6.77)

It's clear that Jack's dad has taken these items as the spoils of war—kind of like a more gruesome version of pirate's booty. What seems to be Jack's attitude about this? How do we feel about Jack's dad after hearing about his experiences in World War II? And why is Jack so interested in these souvenirs?

[O]ur guys had a [...] real hard time with the idea of having to shoot another person you could look in the eye. Our officers had to threaten to shoot some of our own troops if they didn't fire their rifles. (6.79)

Jack's dad paints a grim picture of the realities of warfare. Most soldiers have a difficult time when faced with the immediate reality of killing. Also, the eye thing? Jack covers up the dead deer's eye at the end of the novel so he doesn't see his reflection. Guess there's something a little too real about seeing yourself reflected in the enemy's eyes.

All the marines I read about fired their guns like crazy at everything that moved. They even burned the Japs alive with flamethrowers. They killed them every day they could and felt like heroes for wiping them out. (6.80)

So, obviously, Jack is starting to realize that not everything he reads in his history books is true. There are some things that historians leave out, like soldiers not really wanting to kill—and not really wanting to die.

Don't ever go to war. Even if you win, the battle is never over inside you. (6.83)

Here, Jack's dad pulls out one of his rare insights: war never really ends. Maybe this is why he's still acting like such a fool, because he's still battling the demons of his wartime experiences.

At first cavemen bashed each other's heads in with rocks and sticks. By the time of the Crusaders it was long swords and arrows, and at Gettysburg they were blasting each other to bits from cannons filled with lead balls, iron chains, railroad spikes, and doorknobs. And atomic bombs made future wars look even more hopeless. No humans will survive. All the animals will die. Fish will rot in acidic water. All vegetation will wilt in the polluted air. There will be nothing left but enormous insects the size of dinosaurs. (9.30)

Check out Jack's anxiety level with the spiky italics here. Remember that 1962 was the height of the Cold War and atomic anxiety. Many people were fully convinced nuclear war was inevitable between the Soviet Union and the United States, and that the world would be left an uninhabitable pile of radioactive rubble. How much more violent can war get?

We are proud in Norvelt that our men and women fought in the war to liberate oppressed people and allow their found voices to record the history of that terrible time. (21.53)

Miss Volker here hints that war might be justifiable if it is pursued in order to free those who are oppressed. But notice that she's just as proud that the soldiers allowed their voices to be recorded as she is that they fought. In her view, it seems like telling history is as important as winning wars.

But what the atomic bombing of Hiroshima should teach everyone is that you don't win a war by being more moral or ethical or nicer or more democratic than your enemy [...] No, you win a war by being tougher and meaner and more ruthless than your enemy. You beat, burn, and crush them into the ground. This is the historical rule of winning a war. (23.37)

This may be the "historical rule of winning a war," but this is definitely not how warfare is always described. It's a lot easier to convince people to fight if you talk about war, and your cause, in terms of honor, duty, and glory. Other writers have taken up this idea (check out Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est").

Hiroshima was not a big military target. Nor was it even a battle. It was an out-and-out sneak-attack slaughtering of innocent people. It was a massacre. We killed seventy thousand civilians in one atomic blink, and seventy thousand died a little later on. (23.37)

Not only does Miss Volker provide another comment on the harsh nature of warfare, but we also get an important bit of historical context. Never before the atomic weapons developed during World War II has the world seen the potential for such catastrophic destruction that could literally change the world forever. This potential is one reason for Jack's Dad's obsession with "Commie" attacks and building his bomb shelter.

Why can't we just put our energy into not having any atomic bombs? (23.48)

Jack cuts right to the central issue of the Cold War, but his answer is a bit naïve. He's still looking at things through the rosy-colored glasses of youth—probably because he doesn't know enough about history yet.