In The Wars, Robert Ross and his family experience profound tragedies, many of which cannot be logically blamed on any individual or singular force. Throughout the novel, Robert and his mother, Mrs. Ross, engage in parallel struggles of guilt over their personal grief as well as the horrors of World War I, and each try to create an artificial sense of justice. Mrs. Ross’s ongoing search for retribution causes self-destruction, while Robert’s causes him to act as a moral arbiter on the battlefield and exact revenge in a manner that destroys his life as well as the lives of innocent beings. Robert and Mrs. Ross’s guilt-fueled attempts at finding meaning in loss ultimately fail and cause more harm than good, demonstrating the destructive futility of trying to shoulder blame or seek justice for senseless tragedies, particularly within the context of war.
The first tragedy to strike the Ross family is the loss of their handicapped child, Rowena, who falls from her wheelchair to her death. Though clearly a freak accident, Mrs. Ross and Robert both blame themselves for her death, internalizing their guilt in a manner that causes additional suffering, rather than alleviation, for the family. Mrs. Ross, who also lost her young brother Monty in an accident, is jaded by loss. After Rowena dies, she tells Robert that “no one belongs to anyone” and that “I can’t keep anyone alive.” This attitude implies that Mrs. Ross’s self-blame and perceived failure as a sister and mother now manifest outwardly in a bitter resignation toward life itself. As a result, she decides to seek revenge on an innocent party, demanding that Rowena’s pet rabbits be killed. No real sense of closure comes about from this act, however, and it only adds to the family’s trauma. Robert, by contrast, has always felt like Rowena’s “guardian,” and blames himself for the accident because he believes that he should have been watching her when she fell. Rather than seeking external vengeance, Robert internalizes his guilt and decides to punish himself and escape the pain of his sister’s death by enlisting in the army. Though different from his mother’s response, his reaction is a similarly futile expression of self-blame, as it fails to imbue an inherently senseless tragedy with meaning and further fractures the Ross family.
Rowena’s death serves as the initial layer of the self-blame that plagues Mrs. Ross and Robert throughout the novel. Once Robert goes off to war, his struggles with guilt continue to parallel his mother’s as they each try and fail to gain a sense of justice for the traumatic violence of World War I. While her community is deeply patriotic, Mrs. Ross experiences a crisis of faith and demands to know “What does it mean—to kill your children?” As the citizen of a country that sends young men like her son off to war, she feels a sense of guilt by association. Mrs. Ross takes this out on herself by enduring long walks in Canada’s harsh elements, akin to Robert’s own struggles in trench warfare. As with her revenge on the rabbits, Mrs. Ross does not achieve any kind of meaningful retribution from this self-inflicted punishment, showing the senselessness of trying to shoulder the blame for a problem as massive and complex as war. Robert, too, feels guilty by association as a soldier despite the fact that he did not cause the conflict in which he is fighting. He particularly blames himself over the deaths of the soldiers he oversees as a Second Lieutenant, as well as the young German soldier he mistakes as a threat to his men and needlessly kills in their defense. Robert is haunted by guilt over these losses; rather than giving him a sense of resolution or justice, this self-blame only eats away at Robert and makes his time overseas all the more emotionally trying.
Robert’s ongoing internalized self-blame only dissipates at the end of the novel when he is confronted with a direct injustice that contrasts the otherwise indirect, depersonalized violence he has experienced in World War I up until this point. Robert’s murder of Captain Leather serves as his ultimate act of retribution against the horrors of war, but his decision to exact revenge only culminates in his own suffering and the deaths of innocent animals. Robert shoots and kills Captain Leather after Leather refuses to let Robert save their company’s horses and mules from shellfire and shoots Devlin for disobeying orders. Robert then sets the animals free and saves an additional train car full of horses from an approaching fire. Although his actions are driven by empathy and a sense of justice, his efforts are ultimately in vain, as his own choices lead him to be trapped with the animals in a flaming barn. In disobeying orders to free the animals and committing a war crime by killing Leather, Robert believes that this is the morally right course of action in spite of disobeying orders and going against the army’s code of conduct. This decision to act as a moral arbiter could be construed as either heroism or betrayal, but his motivations ultimately do not matter, as all of the animals perish in the fire and Robert is left near-dead and badly disfigured. Robert’s acts of retribution do not bring about any peace or resolution, as they only cause more tragedy (the deaths of Devlin, Captain Leather, and the animals) rather than bringing about justice.
Through Robert and Mrs. Ross’s parallel experiences with guilt and revenge, Findley highlights tragedy’s ability to instill a desire for retribution. Though motivated by empathy, Robert’s final decision to act as a moral arbiter is a violation of Carl von Clausewitz’s prophetic warning in the novel’s epigraph: “In such dangerous things as war the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are the worst.” Robert’s self-perceived act of justice ultimately causes more harm than good and demonstrates the futility of trying to avenge the innocent in the midst of an inherently unjust situation.
Blame, Revenge, and Justice ThemeTracker
Blame, Revenge, and Justice Quotes in The Wars
“He was unique. But you have to be careful, searching his story out. I’ve been through it all, you know…the whole of this extraordinary century—and it’s not the extraordinary people who’ve prevailed upon its madness. Quite the opposite. Oh—far from it! It’s the ordinary men and women who’ve made us what we are. Monstrous, complacent and mad.”
“I do not understand. I don’t. I won’t. I can’t. Why is this happening to us, Davenport? What does it mean—to kill your children? Kill them and then…go in there and sing about it! What does that mean?” She wept—but angrily.
You live when you live. No one else can ever live your life and no one else will ever know what you know. Then was then. Unique. And how does one explain it? You had a war. Every generation has a war—except this one. But that’s beside the point. The thing is not to make excuses for the way you behaved—not to take refuge in tragedy—but to clarify who you are through your response to when you lived. If you can’t do that, then you haven’t made your contribution to the future. Think of any great man or woman. How can you separate them from the years in which they lived? You can’t. Their greatness lies in their response to that moment.
Robert sagged against the ground. It was even worse than that. Lying beside the German was a modified Mauser rifle of the kind used by snipers. He could have killed them all. Surely that had been his intention. But he’d relented. Why?
The bird sang.
One long note descending: three that wavered on the brink of sadness.
That was why.
It sang and sang and sang, till Robert rose and walked away. The sound of it would haunt him until the day he died.
Robert I discovered was a very private man. His temper, you know, was terrible. Once when he thought he was alone and unobserved I saw him firing his gun in the woods at a young tree. It was a sight I’d rather not have seen. He destroyed it absolutely. Other times he would throw things down and break them on the ground…he had a great deal of violence inside and sometimes it emerged this way with a gesture and other times it showed in his expression when you found him sitting alone on the terrace or staring out of a window.
Someone once said to Clive: do you think we will ever be forgiven for what we’ve done? They meant their generation and the war and what the war had done to civilization. Clive said something I’ve never forgotten. He said: I doubt we’ll ever be forgiven. All I hope is—they’ll remember we were human beings.
He got out the Webley, meaning to shoot the animals not yet dead, but he paused for the barest moment looking at the whole scene laid out before him and his anger rose to such a pitch that he feared he was going to go over into madness. He stood where the gate had been and he thought: “If an animal had done this—we would call it mad and shoot it,” and at that precise moment Captain Leather rose to his knees and began to struggle to his feet. Robert shot him between the eyes.