Study Guide

For Esmé with Love and Squalor Warfare

By J.D. Salinger

Warfare

I remember standing at an end window of our Quonset hut for a very long time, looking out at the slanting, dreary rain, my trigger finger itching imperceptibly, if at all. I could hear behind my back the uncomradely scratching of many fountain pens on many sheets of V-mail paper. (4)

This brief passage instantly debunks any myths we may have of eager, gung-ho soldiers who can't wait to see battle – these soldiers are bored, not looking forward to fighting, and more interested in writing letters home than singing war songs and looking forward to action.

I told her that I'd never written a story for anybody, but that it seemed like exactly the right time to get down to it.

She nodded. "Make it extremely squalid and moving," she suggested. "Are you at all acquainted with squalor?"

I said not exactly but that I was getting better acquainted with it, in one form or another, all the time, and that I'd do my best to come up to her specifications. We shook hands. (100-102)

Of course the narrator is getting better acquainted with squalor – after all, he is in a war, and, in this story, war = squalor.

"Goodbye," Esmé said. "I hope you return from the war with all your faculties intact." (103)

This seems like a faintly grim thing to say – as though the best to hope for is returning with one's faculties merely intact. However, Esmé doesn't mean for it to be interpreted this way; coming from her, it's the equivalent of "Good luck!" However, we can't help but think of it the first way, which is fairly accurate.

[…] he was a young man who had not come through the war with all his faculties intact, and for more than an hour he had been triple-reading paragraphs, and now he was doing it to the sentences. He suddenly closed the book, without marking his place. (106)

These overt clues tell us that this new character, Sergeant X, is actually our old friend, the narrator, "cunningly disguised" by the third person narrator. And we learn that in the intervening time, war has done something terrible to him. He has, in fact, not entirely survived it.

By driving with his windshield down, combat-style, Corporal Z hoped to show that he was not one of them, that not by a long shot was he some new son of a b**** in the E.T.O. (107)

This comment, which describes Sergeant X's comrade, Corporal Z, describes the combined feeling of pride and aggression he feels after the war – aggression, interestingly, not directed at the enemy, but at the new members of his own side.

He put his arms on a table and rested his head on them. He ached from head to foot, all zones of pain seemingly interdependent. He was rather like a Christmas tree whose lights, wired in series, must all go out if even one bulb is defective. (110)

This incredible description sums up the total damage the war has brought upon Sergeant X – even if he's physically OK, the "one bulb" of his mind isn't functioning right, and breaks down everything else.

Over the left-hand pocket he was wearing the Combat Infantrymen's Badge (which, technically, he wasn't authorized to wear), the European Theatre ribbon, with five bronze battle stars in it (instead of a lone silver one, which was the equivalent of five bronze ones), and the pre-Pearl Harbor service ribbon. He signed heavily and said, "Christ Almighty." It meant nothing; it was Army. (113)

The "It meant nothing" refers ironically to two things: first, and more straightforwardly, the oath, "Christ Almighty." More significantly, the meaninglessness of Clay's show-offy display of his decorations – he thinks they mean something, but they're really just empty, worthless signs.

"No, you know the reason I took a pot shot at it, Loretta says? She says I was temporarily insane. No kidding. From the shelling and all."

X threaded his fingers, once, through his dirty hair, then shielded his eyes against the light again. "You weren't insane. You were simply doing your duty. You killed that pussycat in as manly a way as anybody could've under the circumstances."

Clay looked at him suspiciously. "What the hell are you talkin' about?"

"That cat was a spy. You had to take a pot shot at it. It was a very clever German midget dressed up in a cheap fur coat. So there was absolutely nothing brutal, or cruel, or dirty, or even – "

"God damn it!" Clay said, his lips thinned. "Can't you ever be sincere?"

X suddenly felt sick, and he swung around in his chair and grabbed the wastebasket – just in time.

The problem here is that Clay is right – X has seemingly lost his capacity of sincerity, and this realization makes him physically ill. The war has taken its toll on his inner self, and the cruel, sarcastic X we see here is dramatically different from the kind, kid-friendly narrator we know from the first part.

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