One of my favorite aspects of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down was the departure from unrealistically long machine gun bursts and grenades erupting into ridiculous fireballs, and a distinct lack of overly-dramatic crying and shaking of fists to the sky. It has a visceral, primal tone to it as the quiet protagonists are firing single shots here and there, a machine gun bursts around a corner, or a sniper takes a few well placed shots. Also found in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, this sporadic violence increases the intensity instead of dropping it. It cuts through the unnecessary drama and shows realism at its core–brutal and simple.
Many wouldn’t think of early 20th century literature to capitalize on the same attitude on realism as our modern war films, but Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time paints just this type of picture.
Hemingway was no stranger to combat. In World War One, he tried to enlist in the Army but due to poor vision was denied the chance to serve. Rather than give up, he volunteered as an ambulance driver for the Allied powers, serving on the Italian front. On his first day there he would find himself picking up the tattered remains of female workers at a blown up munitions factory. He took major shrapnel to both legs in July of 1918, and despite his wounds still managed to move some Italian soldiers to safety.
The romance of war is not to be found in In Our Time, nor is it a political anti-war piece. Much of the collection of short stories (that together form a sort of novel), follow a veteran of WWI as he reintegrates back into American society. The majority of the book is not set in the heat of battle; it’s set in the desolation many Americans returned to.
Each chapter is prefaced with a sort of flashback, some alluding to combat. They are not glorious retellings of heroics, and they are not studies of the brutality and animalistic natures of men at war. They are simple and short:
We were in a garden at Mons. Young Buckley came in with his patrol from across the river. The first German I saw climbed up over the garden wall. We waited till he got one leg over and then potted him. He had so much equipment on and looked awfully surprised and fell down into the garden. Then three more came over further down the wall. We shot them. They all came just like that.”
Hemingway’s prose is both easy and difficult at the same time. Though the sentences are short and sweet, that staccato, unrelenting pace can be tiring at times and by the end many readers feel exhausted. This was actually one of the contributing factors to his success, as Hemingway was emerging as one of the masculine American voices of the 20th century. And it was that unrelenting pace that helps readers see war through the cold, dry lens, the way that many soldiers remember their time in battle.
Featured images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.