The Irish War for Independence is only one conflict in a long and bitter struggle for Irish independence which would last for decades to come. Despite that, Bonaparte, Noble, Belcher, and ‘Awkins have to be reminded that there’s a war on when Jeremiah darkens their door. The battlefield seems very distant from the old woman’s house, and the only thing O’Connor depicts that resembles armed conflict is the quick flash of violence against the unarmed prisoners at the close of the story. This act, instead of invoking patriotism, seems to be a fulfillment of an immoral duty mandated by unseen authorities, which casts doubt on the morality of war and its ability to achieve justice.
The war doesn’t seem to reach the old woman’s house where the two British prisoners are kept, and everyone involved seems just fine with that. The early parts of the story focus on recreation, including card games and stories about trips into town where “seeing they were such decent fellows, our lads couldn’t well ignore the two Englishmen.” Awkins and Belcher have even reverted to civilian dress, as they “wore khaki tunics and overcoats with civilian pants and boots…” Although O’Connor does briefly mention that the English are searching for Belcher and Awkins, “Guests of the Nation” is a war story without much talk of battles or maneuvers. The relative peacefulness sharpens the moral dilemma of the executions at the end, which might seem less violent or immoral in the context of an active battlefield, but is especially grotesque in a civilian environment.
In addition to the story’s peaceful setting, O’Connor downplays the conflict at the story’s heart through his language. Characters rarely mention the war, and when they do speak of war or violence, it’s through terms that soften the reality of it. For instance, when Jeremiah reports that the British have killed four Irish prisoners, he says that the prisoners “went west,” a euphemism for death that makes their fates abstract. Jeremiah also softens the truth when arranging for the execution of the prisoners. Instead of acknowledging that they’re being led to their death, Jeremiah says to “tell [Awkins and Belcher] they’re being shifted again.” It’s not clear whether this is out of expediency or sympathy for the prisoners, but it speaks to Jeremiah’s discomfort with the morality of the executions. Even the title of the story is a soothing euphemism for what Belcher and Awkins really are: prisoners of war. In this way, O’Connor drives home the way soldiers use language to distance themselves from the real acts of violence in which they participate. Until ideas of patriotism can fully take hold and prepare them to kill for their country, these soldiers comfort themselves by trying to depict the war as abstract or far away.
Doing one’s duty or serving the country in war is one of the noblest callings for a young man in the popular imagination. Earlier on in the story, Bonaparte tells Jeremiah he “would rather be out with a column,” or fighting directly on the frontlines, but this is his sole reference to actual fighting and it seems halfhearted from someone so comfortable with civilian life. The Irish make multiple references to duty and revenge, but they can’t even convince themselves, much less the condemned British prisoners, that they mean it. ‘Awkins, for instance, initially doesn’t believe they’ll go through with the execution and accuses them of “pl[a]ying at soldiers.” In doing so, he denies them the dignity and self-seriousness associated with soldiers at war. When Jeremiah first refers to duty, ‘Awkins says only “cut it out,” forestalling any speeches on the subject. Similarly, when Jeremiah insists that the execution is “not so much our doing. It’s our duty, so to speak,” Belcher rejects that out of hand. He says, “I never could make out what duty was myself…but I think you’re all good lads, if that’s what you mean…” Belcher forces the Irish soldiers to acknowledge how little they understand duty and how inadequately it justifies their actions, and still further, how much they took the morality of the larger war for granted. Instead, he appeals to simple civilian morality, claiming they’re “good lads” despite what they’re doing. But “good lads” can do awful things. The traumatized reactions of Bonaparte and Noble to the executions show that this violence was a duty tragedy forced them into, rather than a grim but necessary service to their country, as wartime violence is depicted in many other war stories.
War and Duty ThemeTracker
War and Duty Quotes in Guests of the Nation
He looked at me for a spell and said, “I thought you knew we were keeping them as hostages.” “Hostages — ?” says I, not quite understanding. “The enemy,” he says in his heavy way, “have prisoners belong to us, and now they talk of shooting them. If they shoot our prisoners we'll shoot theirs, and serve them right.”
Because there were men on the Brigade you daren't let nor hinder without a gun in your hand, and at any rate, in those days disunion between brothers seemed to me an awful crime. I knew better after.
I rose quietly from the table and laid my hand on him before he reached the door. “What do you want?” I asked him. “I want those two soldier friends of yours,” he says reddening. “Is that the way it is, Jeremiah Donovan?” I ask. “That's the way. There were four of our lads went west this morning, one of them a boy of sixteen.” “That's bad, Jeremiah,” says I.
“Just as a man mikes a 'ome of a bleedin' place,” mumbles 'Awkins shaking her by the hand, “some bastard at headquarters thinks you're too cushy and shunts you off.” Belcher shakes her hand very hearty. “A thousand thanks, madam,” he says, “a thousand thanks for everything . . .” as though he'd made it all up.
We walked along the edge of it in the darkness, and every now and then 'Awkins would call a halt and begin again, just as if he was wound up, about us being chums, and I was in despair that nothing but the cold and open grave made ready for his presence would convince him that we meant it all. But all the same, if you can understand, I didn't want him to be bumped off.
“Listen to me, Noble,” he said. “You and me are chums. You won't come over to my side, so I'll come over to your side. Is that fair? Just you give me a rifle and I'll go with you wherever you want.”