Study Guide

The War of the Worlds Warfare

By H.G. Wells


To carry warfare sunward is, indeed, their only escape from the destruction that, generation after generation, creeps upon them. (1.1.5)

We might think of the Martians as blood-sucking monsters, but that's not entirely correct. (For one thing, they don't suck blood – they inject it. Totally different.) But while we spend most of the time in this novel being horrified by the Martians, the narrator begins the story by pointing out that war is a solution for them. That is, they aren't invading for fun, but because they think they'll die if they don't. For the Martians, war isn't about primarily about killing – it's about finding a place to live.

Many people had heard of the cylinder, of course, and talked about it in their leisure, but it certainly did not make the sensation that an ultimatum to Germany would have done. (1.8.1)

As we mentioned in "In A Nutshell," Wells is writing in a subgenre ("invasion literature") in which Germany is often the enemy. In the late 19th century, Germany and Britain competed for some of the same colonial possessions, so the idea that Germany would be a possible enemy was in the air. This notion of war on Earth will reappear at the end of the book, with all of Earth's countries realizing that they need to work together.

I must confess the sight of all this armament, all this preparation, greatly excited me. My imagination became belligerent, and defeated the invaders in a dozen striking ways; something of my schoolboy dreams of battle and heroism came back. (1.9.21)

This is not the only time this idea is expressed by the narrator. At another point he notes, "Something very like the war fever that occasionally runs through a civilized community had got into my blood" (1.10.3). These ideas certainly raise questions about the narrator. Is he really so bloodthirsty? These quotes also raise other questions about the relation between war and society. According to the narrator, war might be related to "schoolboy dreams" or a community may break out of "war fever." In other words, this makes war seem to be a little irrational. Is that what he's saying?

Never before in the history of warfare had destruction been so indiscriminate and so universal. (1.11.35)

On one hand, we could see this observation as a statement of the truth: the Martians have new weapons and they're unconstrained by the rules of war, so this may be the worst war ever. On the other hand, we could note that war has a long history of being pretty indiscriminate. To take one example, if you asked the people of Atlanta, after it was burned in the American Civil War, if war is indiscriminate, they would probably say yes. Maybe what the narrator is responding to here is partly the fact that England hasn't been touched by war in a long time. In other words, war seems worse when it's on your doorstep. Or we could invert that: as long as it's far away, you can pretend that war isn't so bad.

Every minute a fresh gun came into position until, before twilight, every copse, every row of suburban villas on the hilly slopes about Kingston and Richmond, masked an expectant black muzzle. (1.13.2)

The British military is doing a lot of work, turning the peaceful countryside into a series of fortifications. We do like that repetition of "every," which makes it sound very impressive. But as we'll soon see, it's not going to be worth much. All of those guns will be destroyed by Martian Heat-Rays and Black Smoke.

And the touch of that vapour, the inhaling of its pungent wisps, was death to all that breathes. (1.15.22)

Those guns the British are scattering around (almost like seeds) aren't going to be very useful because the Martians have brought even bigger, badder weapons. This is the nature of asymmetric warfare – one side is clearly playing a different game than the other side. Their weapons are so different that they're mismatched.

Never before in the history of the world had such a mass of human beings moved and suffered together. (1.17.1)

When we think of war, we might think primarily of soldiers. But in <em>The War of the Worlds</em>, the war is primarily one of refugees. While the British military tries to stop the Martians, most of the book is taken up by the stories of one or other refugees who are fleeing the Martians, not trying to fight them.

For a time I believed that mankind had been swept out of existence, and that I stood there alone, the last man left alive. (2.6.11)

The narrator isn't the last man left alive, but we can see why he might feel that way. The Martians simply aren't obeying the rules of war that human armies fight by. Whereas human armies tend not to kill everyone, the Martians are under no such limitation.

"This isn't a war," said the artilleryman. "It never was a war, any more than there's war between man and ants." (2.7.32)

This is actually the second time the artilleryman says something like this. (The first time is when he notes that the human armies are fighting with "bows and arrows against the lightning" [1.12.31].) But this is perhaps the clearest expression of the idea that the War of the Worlds is an asymmetric war. One side thinks they're fighting a war, while the other thinks they're doing pest control before moving in. (The fact that this is an animal comparison isn't accidental. For more on the repeated use of animals, see "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory.")

If the Martians can reach Venus, there is no reason to suppose that the thing is impossible for men, and when the slow cooling of the sun makes this earth uninhabitable, as at last it must do, it may be that the thread of life that has begun here will have streamed out and caught our sister planet within its toils. (2.10.9)

The narrator doesn't use the word "war" here, but that's what he's thinking of. Just as the Martians had no choice but "to carry warfare sunward" (1.1.5), so humans may have no choice but to go to war with Venus. (Well, according to the narrator, people will have a choice: go to war against Venus or die on Earth when it can no longer sustain life.) It's not entirely clear to us how we should feel about this ending. Does it mean that we have to understand why the Martians did what they did? Or does it mean that we're going to turn out to be as bad as they were?