The class above, seniors, draft-bait, practically soldiers, rushed ahead of us toward the war. They were caught up in accelerated courses and first-aid programs and a physical hardening regimen, which included jumping from this tree (1.27).
Look how warfare is tied to games right from the beginning. There is something war-like about Finny and Gene jumping from the tree; the seeds of violence are sown in the reader's mind.
Bombs in Central Europe were completely unreal to us here, not because we couldn't imagine it […] but because our place here was too fair for us to accept something like that. We spent that summer in complete selfishness, I'm happy to say. The people in the world who could be selfish in the summer of 1942 were a small band, and I'm glad we took advantage of it (2.44).
"Selfishness" is an interesting interpretation of youthful naiveté. As we'll see later in the novel, Gene grows past this state – but Finny never does.
Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him. It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person "the world today" or "life" or "reality" he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past. The world, through his unleashed emotions, imprinted itself upon him, and he carries the stamp of that passing moment forever (3.42).
Gene claims that his "moment" is the war, but it is also his own state of enmity concerning Finny – his own private war and the emotions that go with it.
The point was, the grace of it was, that it had nothing to do with sports. For I wanted no more of sports. They were barred from me, as though when Dr. Stanpole said, "Sports are finished" he had been speaking of me. I didn't trust myself in them, and I didn't trust anyone else. It was as though football players were really bent on crushing the life out of each other, as though boxers were in combat to the death, as though even a tennis ball might turn into a bullet (6.93).
What Gene has done by (allegedly) causing Finny's accident is to break the barrier between the war and the innocence of youth. That's why sports are over – there's no such thing anymore, in Gene's mind, as harmless play. Compare this passage to Finny's conception of sports (in which they are purely good and no one ever loses).
We seemed to be nothing but children playing against heroic men (7.79).
…Yet the battles Gene fights, against his own fear and resentment, are far from child's play.
The war would be deadly all right. But I was used to finding something deadly in things that attracted me; there was always something deadly lurking in anything I wanted, anything I loved. And if it wasn't there, as for example with Phineas, then I put it there myself (7.115).
This hits an odd note for Gene. Either he's genuinely masochistic (unlikely), or he's desperately trying to justify his earlier actions.
He needed me. I was the least trustworthy person he had ever met. I knew that; he knew or should know that too. I had even told him. I had told him. But there was no mistaking the shield of remoteness in his face and voice. He wanted me around. The war then passed away from me, and dreams of enlistment and escape and a clean start lost their meaning for me (8.45).
Gene may have stopped himself from enlisting, but by staying he's joined another kind of war, a war of his own making, having to do with Finny. (Against Finny, or with Finny? Tell us what you think.)
Phineas recaptured that magic gift for existing primarily in space, one foot conceding briefly to gravity its rights before spinning him off again into the air. It was his wildest demonstration of himself, of himself in the kind of world he loved; it was his choreography of peace (9.63).
Gene's description reflects the way in which he makes himself and Finny into a dichotomy of warlike enmity and peaceful amity.
That night I made for the first time the kind of journey which later became the monotonous routine of my life; traveling through unknown countryside from one unknown settlement to another. The next year thus became the passing dominant activity, or rather passivity, of my army career, not fighting, not marching, but this kind of nighttime ricochet; for as it turned out I never got to the war (10.1).
The idea of Gene constantly traveling but never fighting is an apt one – he's essentially looking for the enemy soldiers but is unable to find them. So he picks something, or someone, to be his enemy. Like Finny.
I finally identified this as the source of his disillusionment during the winter, this generalized, faintly self-pitying resentment against millions of people he did not know (13.35).
By rejecting World War II, Brinker has created his own private war – against his father and the men like him. Gene's point that we all choose our enemies is reiterated here.