About three days after the Barcelona fighting ends, Orwell returns to the front. Orwell—and, he argues, anyone reading the news at the time—is deeply disillusioned by the bitter fight playing out in the press. In particular, he is dismayed by the one-sided narrative that systematically and unjustly vilifies the Anarchists. Orwell realizes that this war, which he had thought of as a unique fight in the name of noble ideals, is in many ways just as immoral and cruel as any other war. In the Spanish Civil War, as in other conflicts, democratic standards such as personal freedom and honest journalism have disappeared in the name of military efficiency.
Orwell’s rationale for joining the Spanish Civil War is turned upside down, as he realizes that his conception of the war is completely mistaken. The Republicans are not upholding democracy but, rather, are actively destroying it for political and military reasons. Although in other moments Orwell accepted the use of white lies to defeat the Fascist enemy (for example in order to boost the troops’ morale), in this case he strongly condemns the use of lies in the press to divide the anti-Fascist camp and scapegoat the POUM and the Anarchists.
Certain political patters become apparent. Orwell is convinced that the current Government will soon be replaced by a more rightwing one under Communist influence, which would then attempt to break the trade unions’ power. The political divisions in the country have become so apparent that neither democracy nor working-class control seems a likely outcome for the country anymore. After the war, Orwell concludes, Spain is bound to be a dictatorship, Fascist to at least some degree.
Orwell blames much of the divisions within the Spanish left on the Communists, whom he considers engaged in a crusade to dismantle working-class control. Orwell is so disillusioned that he compares his own leftwing, Republican camp to the rightwing, Fascist enemy. His conclusion that democracy is bound to vanish forever puts an end to his naïve understanding of the war as a fight in the name of working-class power and democracy.
Orwell’s cynical reflections do not diminish his commitment to fighting on the side of the Republican Government. Whatever might happen to Spain after the war, Orwell explains, a Fascist dictatorship led by Franco would be significantly worse than any leadership by the anti-feudal, anti-Catholic Government, which would at least protect the interests of the peasants if not of the urban working class. Franco’s brand of Fascism, to Orwell, means a return to an archaic, unjust past. The Government would at least be able to modernize the country in some respects, for example through education and health. Orwell also believes that this fight has international repercussions. Putting an end to Franco’s advance might, more broadly, serve to halt the rise of Fascism across the world. This is a goal that Orwell considers worth fighting for.
Orwell does not believe that both sides in the civil war are equally dangerous. While he abandons his hopes revolution, he justifies his commitment to the Republican cause in class-based, economic terms, as a defense of the peasantry—likely inspired by what he witnessed of the Spanish peasants’ poverty and hardships during his travels at the front. However much the Barcelona fighting might have impacted his outlook, he remains moved by ideals of modernization and progress. He remains convinced that this fight is not an ordinary war, but one that is still capable of impacting the course of history in Europe more broadly.
When he returns to the front, Orwell learns that his friend and fellow militiaman Bob Smillie has been thrown into prison. Orwell discovers that Smillie was arrested on the spurious charge of carrying arms, despite the fact that Smillie was not actually carrying usable weapons. Orwell explains this arrest as a vicious political tactic. Since Smillie was supposed to travel to England soon, the Spanish Government probably worried that, were Smillie to relate his experience in the POUM, he would contradict the Government-sanctioned version of events, according to which the POUM is a party of Fascist traitors that must be eliminated.
Once again, the Republican Government proves willing to use anti-democratic tactics to suppress its political opponents and present a skewed version of the truth. Smillie becomes a target for the Government’s evil actions: illegal arrest, censorship, fabrication of the truth. In this way, Smillie becomes a martyr of the left’s political cause. The Government’s unwillingness to allow freedom of speech abroad hints at the possibility that it is benefiting from the support of international actors. Democracy, it appears, has entirely broken down.
Orwell is sent to Huesca and put in command of about thirty men. While nothing ever seems to happen, despite a few attacks by snipers, a bullet suddenly hits Orwell in the middle of the day. He describes this experience in great detail. He recalls feeling in the midst of an explosion, as though he were hit by a violent, electric shock. He falls to the ground, dazed, without feeling any pain. He feels nothing but realizes that his right arm is paralyzed and that he is not able to speak. His wife, he reflects, will be glad that he has been hit, for she had wanted him to be removed from the front before the beginning of the great battle.
Orwell’s detailed description of being shot emphasizes that this book is as much about political history as it is about one individual’s experience of war. Orwell is wounded suddenly during a period of utter stagnation at the front, emphasizing the utter unpredictability of war.
When Orwell realizes that the bullet has gone through his neck, he becomes convinced that he is going to die. For a couple minutes, he watches as his thoughts fleet by. First, he thinks of his wife. Then, he is outraged at having to die and leave the world he so enjoys. He is angry at the senselessness of dying at such a trivial moment, in the monotony of the trenches, far from any battle. As soon as he is put on the stretcher, his arm begins to hurt excruciatingly. At the same time, he is able to appreciate the landscape around him, and experiences wonder at the beauty of the silver poplar leaves that brush against his face. The doctor gives him quick medical care and he is sent to a hospital in Siétamo.
At the brink of what he believes to be death, Orwell remains convinced that his time as a militiaman at the front was a senseless experience, far from the glory-filled action he expected to engage in during this war. At the same time, his search for political meaning vanishes before the raw, bare meaningfulness of living as a human being. Orwell is overwhelmed by the sensations of nature and everyday life, suggesting that thoughts about bravery and worth are ultimately less important than the simple, non-political act of living.
At the hospital, despite suffering from a throat wound and being in great physical pain, Orwell notices that the nurse, in a fashion that he considers typically Spanish, attempts to make him swallow an entire hospital meal. A little while later, two fellow militiamen arrive. Instead of inquiring at length about his health, they proceed to take away all his possessions, a practice that Orwell explains is normal at the front, where tools and weapons of any kind are so desperately needed.
When he sees the nurse’s behavior, Orwell once again both laughs at and feels frustrated by what he considers to be typical Spanish inefficacy. When Orwell’s possessions are taken, he is confronted with two conflicting aspects of his identity in Spain: his status as an ordinary civilian and his role as a useful resource, in this moment, for the militia.
Orwell then travels to Barbastro in an ambulance that is so unsteady that, Orwell realizes, it would easily kill a man with a wound in the stomach. As the staff forgets to tie the wounded to their stretchers, one man is thrown to the floor, suffering unspeakable pain, while a woman vomits throughout the entire trip. Orwell is able to hold onto his stretcher with his one usable arm.
The pain that the people in the ambulance experience is unnecessary and, when compared with the battle that is being fought at the front, completely absurd. The inefficiency that Orwell has so often bemoaned extends even to these non-military actions, such as tying the wounded to a stretcher.
After one night in Barbastro, Orwell is sent to Lérida, where he spends five or six days. There, two militiamen on leave come to visit him. As a clumsy, shy gesture of affection, the soldiers offer him all the tobacco in their possession and leave hurriedly. Orwell later realizes that, because of this generous gesture, which he considers typically Spanish, the men have lost an entire week’s ration of cigarettes.
Orwell is once again moved by Spanish generosity, which transcends linguistic barriers. However much war might strengthen people’s sense of rivalry, Orwell discovers time and again that, individually, everyone is capable of generosity and greatness.
At the hospital, Orwell observes the hospital system. While the doctors seem good and medical equipment is readily available, these hospitals at the front only treat men who are too seriously wounded to be moved. Everyone else is supposed to be sent to bigger cities, but lack of available transportation and capable nurses means that they are often left for days without medical care and people with grave wounds are left seriously neglected.
Breaking with his habit of attributing most inefficiencies to cultural traits, Orwell identifies the root of the hospital system’s problems as utter lack of resources. The real danger, paradoxically, is not necessarily being hurt at the front, but being left without care. As usual, the most dangerous enemy is not necessarily the Fascists themselves, but the Republican camp’s own lack of resources and organization.
After being told that he is going to be sent to Barcelona, Orwell is in fact driven to the city of Tarragona. After a ghastly train ride, where men who have left their sick bed for the first time are rocked around and sent flying to the floor, Orwell arrives at the station in Tarragona, where a group of Italian volunteers is being sent to the front. Orwell is impressed by this graceful, smiling group of men, who seem to embody the traditional, heroic image of war.
Orwell experiences more of the lack of organization and punctuality that he considers typically Spanish. Orwell admits that there is something fascinating about the idea of war, thus proving that he is not completely disillusioned with the glorified ideal of this anti-Fascist struggle.
At the hospital in Tarragona, Orwell sees a variety of horrific wounds. At the same time, when after a few days he finds the strength to walk down to the beach, he is surprised to note that, by the seaside, civilian life is going on as usual. People are enjoying the sun and the ordinary pleasures of life as though the war were a distant dream.
Orwell’s time in a seaside town demonstrates that the country is not only divided along political or class lines, but also between politically engaged and politically aloof citizens. From a broader perspective, this signals the difficulty of engaging an entire population in a political effort, such as launching a revolution.
Finally, after eight or nine days since being shot, Orwell’s wound is examined. Cheerfully, without thinking twice about the gravity of what he is announcing, the doctor tells him that one of his vocal chords is paralyzed and that he will never be able to speak again. This prediction turns out to be wrong, as after two months Orwell would be able to speak again. Doctors often come to examine Orwell’s wound. They consider it a miracle that he has survived a shot that came so close to touching the artery. Orwell comments that he would have preferred not to be shot in the first place.
Orwell’s attitude toward his wound is humorously ironic. His description of the doctor is in line with his previous description of the Spanish as a people incapable of taking life-and-death matters seriously. It appears that death is so normal in time of war that the mere act of surviving is regarded as a wonderful feat. Humorously, Orwell hints that he cares less about the historic momentousness of this even than about his own personal comfort.