I have fought for what I believed in for a year now. If we win here we will win everywhere. The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it. And you had a lot of luck, he told himself, to have had such a good life. You’ve had just as good a life as grandfather’s though not as long. You’ve had as good a life as any one because of these last days. You do not want to complain when you have been so lucky. I wish there was some way to pass on what I’ve learned, though. Christ, I was learning fast there at the end. I’d like to talk to Karkov. That is in Madrid. Just over the hills there, and down across the plain. Down out of the gray rocks and the pines, the heather and the gorse, across the yellow high plateau you see it rising white and beautiful. That part is just as true as Pilar’s old women drinking the blood down at the slaughterhouse. There’s no one thing that’s true. It’s all true. The way the planes are beautiful whether they are ours or theirs.”
These are the thoughts of protagonist Robert Jordan from the novel, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway as he believes that he is about to die.
Robert Jordan is an American “dynamiter” in the Spanish Civil war just prior to WWII, supporting guerrilla forces in the Spanish mountains. He is there to recruit local fighters to help him blow up a bridge, which would serve to spark off a significant offensive by the Russian Army.
The book deals with a good many facets of war, combat and politics that are unique and genuine on level that very easily made it an instant classic — Robert Jordan has these sorts of reflections throughout, especially about the things he has learned while fighting in the mountains of Spain.
The line that really stands out to me from the excerpt above is this: “You’ve had as good a life as any one because of these last days.” Because of those last days — those last days in combat, fighting for his life, worried about who to trust and who to kill, falling in love with the knowledge that it will end in misery and heartbreak — these are the things that gave Robert Jordan a “good a life as any.” Out of his relatively easy life before in the United States, these terrible things in Spain are the moments that made the whole thing good.
This is a lesson taught in combat. One might live much of his life in a sort of haze — he didn’t know the leaves on a tree could ever seem so green, or that the sound of water on the rocks could ever sound so clear. But when he’s inches away from losing it all forever, he begins to notice those things. He notices the physical things, but also the emotional and spiritual ones. He realizes just how much he appreciates the love and warmth his parents gave him, that he never thanked them for. He realizes that he really did love that girl back in high school in a way, despite everyone telling him that he ought to grow up. His heart aches for all things he’s done and felt, and he realizes that his life was very good.
Of course combat isn’t the only path to this mentality, but standing on the verge of losing one’s life is the fastest way they’ll ever go from the haze and ignorance to a deep awakening that is both troubling and comforting.
These thoughts don’t typically occur during combat (most people are usually concerned with the task at hand, Robert Jordan included), unless the soldier has the time to sit and contemplate at some point. But these feelings are all-too-familiar to many of those wading through the blood on the battlefield, at some point in their lives.
Earlier in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Robert Jordan says,
How little we know of what there is to know. I wish that I were going to live a long time instead of going to die today because I have learned much about life in these four days; more, I think, than in all the other time. I’d like to be an old man and to really know. I wonder if you keep on learning or if there is only a certain amount each man can understand. I thought I knew about so many things that I know nothing of. I wish there was more time.”
In a similar vein, it’s tempting to apply this line of thinking to those lost in combat as well — they didn’t get to learn all those things, and there’s merit to mourning that. It’s a profoundly tragic loss that cannot be made right, not entirely. But it’s important to recognize that these service members who give their lives did learn in the way that Robert Jordan learned (if you read the book, you’ll know just how true this is). They lived that life and experienced a thousand of the beautiful, terrible, funny, romantic, heartbreaking and joyous experiences that life has to offer. Most people only dream of feeling a fraction of the intensity of those feelings.
Those who left with their lives must reflect upon these things. They must not return to the haze and ignorance of the past — it’s easy to slip back into those ways. If you have woken up, don’t go back to sleep.
Some people talk about renaming “post-traumatic stress disorder” to “post-traumatic growth.” This is because there are several possible paths when it comes to overcoming trauma — many of which wind up at the bottom of a fifth of whiskey or at the end of the barrel of a gun; many others end up in growth, strength and thriving later in life. However, these things are forged in a fire — a common metaphor, but one that couldn’t be more apt. It’s a fire that burns, scars, deforms, but ultimately can forge one into something greater than they ever were before.
And that’s the great irony of combat — a profound appreciation for all things at what may be the very end of them.
To read more of my thoughts on “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” check out my other articles here:
- On the poem “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by John Donne
- On the nature of a revolution in a small town
- On the act of killing
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.