Study Guide

For Whom the Bell Tolls Warfare

By Ernest Hemingway


"How many attacks have you seen and you ask me why? What is to guarantee that my orders are not changed? What is to guarantee that the attack is not annulled? What is to guarantee that the attack is not postponed? What is to guarantee that it starts within six hours of when it should start? Has any attack ever been as it should?"

"It will start on time if it is your attack," Robert Jordan said.

They are never my attacks," Golz said. "I make them, but they are not mine." (1.64-66)

Golz may be the general "responsible" for leading the offensive, but ultimately he has very little control over it. He's just kind of a guy in the middle of things. He didn't plan it after all, nor is he responsible for the larger plan of which it's a part. But besides that, any number of little or large things could go wrong, and he has no power over most of them. At some level, he's just got to hope for the best. You can look at this as an example of how what happens is war is beyond the control of those who fight in it.

"From a balcony some one cried out, 'Que pasa, cobardes? What is the matter, cowards?' and still Don Benito walked along between the men and nothing happened. Then I saw a man there men down from where I was standing and his face was working and he was biting his lips and his hands were white on his flail. I saw him looking toward Don Benito, watching him come on. And still nothing happened. Then, just before Don Benito came abreast of this man, the man raised his flail high so that it struck the man beside him and smashed a blow at Don Benito that hit him on the side of the head and Don Benito looked at him and the man struck again and shouted, 'That for you, Cabron,' and the blow hit Don Benito in the face and he raised his hands to his face and they beat him until he fell and the man who had struck him first called to others to help him and he pulled on the collar of Don Benito's shirt and others took hold of his arms and with his face in the dust of the plaza, they dragged him over the walk to the edge of the cliff and threw him over and into the river. And the man who hit him first was kneeling by the edge of the cliff looking over after him and saying, 'The Cabron! The Cabron! Oh, the Cabron!' He was a tenant of Don Benito and they had never gotten along together. There had been a dispute about a piece of land by the river that Don Benito had taken from this man and let to another and this man had long hated him." (10.159)

Pilar's telling her story about the massacre of the fascists sympathizers in her home town, and Don Benito, the mayor, is the first victim. The people of the town don't show any urge to kill Benito here. Even though he's the big fascist cheese of the town, no one steps forward to kill him – except some guy who's still bent out of shape about a petty dispute they had a long time ago, which he's never forgotten. That's enough to make him want to kill Benito, which the situation gives him the opportunity to do. And once he makes the first move, other people follow.

"Until Don Ricardo came out with that fierceness and calling those insults, many in the line would have given much, I am sure, never to have been in the line. And if any one had shouted from the line, 'Come, let us pardon the rest of them. Now they have had their lesson,' I am sure most would have agreed.

"But Don Ricardo with all his bravery did a great disservice to the others. For he aroused the men in the line and where, before, they were performing a duty and with no great taste for it, now they were angry, and the difference was apparent." (10.178-181)

As we saw with Benito, the common people of Pilar's town were not initially eager to do violence to the fascists, who are, after all, their own fellow townsmen. But all it took to rile them up into bloodlust were the insults of a single one of the fascists. After that, they can perceive all the rest of the fascists as their enemies.

"Because the people of this town are as kind as they can be cruel and they have a natural sense of justice and a desire to do that which is right. But cruelty had entered into the lines and also drunkenness or the beginning of drunkenness and the lines were not as they were when Don Benito had come out. I do not know how it is in other countries, and no one cares more for the pleasure of drinking than I do, but in Spain drunkenness, when produced by other elements than wine, is a thing of great ugliness and the people do things that they would not have done." (10. 232)

Pilar thinks the people of her town are equal parts good and bad, as Robert Jordan thinks about the Spanish in general (though at this level of generality, you could say it's true of all human beings). They are not cruel by default – they have what she describes as a "natural sense of justice." But they are capable of being incited to barbarity, at which point killing and causing pain in others become pleasure. So is it that normal, that decent people can be incited to barbarity? They can be antagonized (Don Ricardo's insults had that effect). But they can also lose control of themselves in some way, and fail to appreciate the seriousness of what they're doing (being around other people doing the same thing surely helps too). That's where alcohol comes in. Pilar hates it.

"'Did you like it, Pilar?' he [Pablo] asked finally with his mouth full of roast young goat. We were eating at the inn from where the busses leave and the room was crowded and people were singing and there was difficulty serving.

"'No,' I said. 'Except for Don Faustino, I did not like it.'"

" 'I liked it,' he said."

" 'All of it?' I asked him."

" 'All of it,' he said and cut himself a big piece of bread with his knife and commenced to mop up gravy with it. 'All of it, except the priest.'" (10.319-323)

Pilar found the massacre of the fascists sickening. Pablo relished every moment of it. Many characters express taking a pleasure in killing one point or another, but Pablo is the most extreme. The people killed weren't even combatants, and they were executed while defenseless, in a particularly brutal way. Should we make a monster of Pablo?

I wish that I were in my own house again and that this war were over. But you have no house now, he thought. We must win this war before you can ever return to your house. (15.11)

It might be hard to fathom why someone like Anselmo would fight. He doesn't like killing and seemed happy enough with life as it was before the war. One reason is that the war has taken away his home and made his former life impossible. Looked at one way, there's really no choice: he'll have to fight, and his side will have to win, if he ever wants to enjoy that life again. The loss of home, and the sense that there's nothing to do but fight, even if one has little desire to, is something felt by several of the characters.

"You know why we did not kill them, though?" Robert Jordan said quietly.

"Yes," Agustín said. "Yes. But the necessity was on me as it is on a mare in heat. You cannot know what it is if you have not felt it."

"You sweated enough," Robert Jordan said. "I thought it was fear."

"Fear, yes," Agustín said. "Fear and the other. And in this life there is no stronger thing than the other." (23.84-87)

Here's Agustín, a much more likeable fellow than Pablo, giving voice to that same powerful urge to kill. He thinks it's the strongest human impulse, and he faced a real struggle to restrain himself when offered the opportunity to kill fascists. That bloodlust can provide an energy and courage to fight which war might otherwise sap. It can also be disastrous, as it would have been if Agustín had not controlled it here.

It is doubtful the outcome of Andrés's mission would have been any different if he and Gomez had been allowed to proceed without Andre Marty's hindrance. There was no one at the front with sufficient authority to cancel the attack. The machinery had been in motion much too long for it to be stopped suddenly now. There is a great inertia about all military operations of any size. But once this inertia has been overcome and movement is under way they are almost as hard to arrest as to initiate. (42.111)

This passage echoes Golz's initial sentiment about the lack of control he had over his attack. A modern military operation is an enormous undertaking, slowed down by bureaucracy, and almost impossible to tweak once initiated.

In him, too, was the despair from the sorrow that soldiers turn to hatred in order that they may continue to be soldiers. Now it was over he was lonely, detached and unrelated and he hated everyone he saw. (43.148)

This passage echoes Golz's initial sentiment about the lack of control he had over his attack. A modern military operation is an enormous undertaking, slowed down by bureaucracy, and almost impossible to tweak once initiated.

In him, too, was the despair from the sorrow that soldiers turn to hatred in order that they may continue to be soldiers. Now it was over he was lonely, detached and unrelated and he hated everyone he saw. (43.148)

Here Hemingway is describing what Robert Jordan feels after he's just lost Anselmo. Its short but apt description of one of the ways a fighter can keep going in the otherwise unremittingly bleak situation of war: he can turn all of his losses into sources of rage. Note that Anselmo's death doesn't just turn Robert Jordan against the enemy – it turns him against everything around him. Why is that? Is it maybe because "the world" itself seems like a wicked place for allowing such a thing to happen?

Que puta es la Guerra," Agustín said. "War is b****ery." (43.364-365)

More literally. "What a whore is war." What more can we add to that? This is the last thought about "war" in the book – which is worth considering if you think the book somehow "romanticizes" war.

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