In The Wars, nineteen-year-old Robert Ross and the other young men of his generation are tasked with defending their countries in World War I. As a result, their sense of honor is not defined by their individual accomplishments in life, but by their capacity for obeying orders and achieving victory in the war. Rather than going to college, starting careers, or having families, they long for the imminent danger of the battlefield that they believe will imbue their lives with meaning and allow them to leave behind valiant legacies. This desire to fight and die honorably leads Robert and his fellow soldiers to glorify battle and self-sacrifice, an all-consuming motivation that ultimately costs Robert the heroic reputation he so desperately desires.
Although Robert and his fellow soldiers are notably young and innocent when they ship off overseas, their involvement in World War I causes them to glorify otherwise violent and tragic acts. Before Robert joins the army, his sense of duty comes from his role as the self-appointed “guardian” of his disabled sister, Rowena. After Rowena’s death, however, Robert loses this sense of purpose, and enlists in the military out of both guilt and a desire to reclaim his role as a protector. Even before Robert ships off, he has romantic notions of war, fantasizing about his legacy as a brave soldier worthy of remembrance. In training, he aspires to find a masculine role model who can teach him how to kill enemies “as an exercise of the will.” As a sensitive, empathetic young man, Robert would likely never have considered killing people or dying young as admirable traits of manhood, were it not for the war. Many of Robert’s fellow newcomers feel similarly about fighting and dying in war; Clifford Purchas, an old classmate of Robert’s, views battle as “a deadly serious and heaven-sent chance to become a man.” Levitt, another junior officer in Robert’s company, also longs to see combat, feeling that he is not a real soldier unless he is in immediate danger. Their collective glorification of fighting demonstrates war’s tendency to create a violent, self-destructive mindset in young men.
As the war progresses, Robert and the other soldiers continue to be motivated by a sense of duty to fight and die honorably. On the battlefield, young soldiers dutifully help their fellow men and often risk their own safety in order to save one another. As a Second Lieutenant overseeing dozens of soldiers, Robert is often forced to think and act under extreme pressure to keep them safe, as when he saves his men from a chlorine gas attack during the Battle of Eloi using urine-soaked rags. His fellow soldiers, too, put themselves in jeopardy to save one another. At one point, Levitt braves a road riddled with dense fog and deadly sinkholes in order to guide Robert and Poole to safety. This pervasive self-sacrificial mindset shows that the soldiers are focused on duty and honor above all else—including their own safety.
This sense of duty leads Robert to take justice into his own hands at the end of the novel, driving him to an act of self-perceived heroism that ironically robs him of the honor he craves. Robert kills Captain Leather after Leather refuses to let Robert save their company’s animals and Leather shoots Devlin, another soldier, for disobeying orders. This decision ultimately leads to Robert and the horses he tries to save being trapped in a burning barn, where Robert is badly injured, and all of the animals perish. Although Robert believes that these drastic measures are what is most honorable and morally correct in the situation, others do not view him as a hero—his fellow soldiers (and his own family) disown him as a traitor. By going against his prescribed duty of obeying orders in order to stand up for what he personally believes is right, Robert ultimately brands himself as dishonorable in the public eye. While Robert and the other young soldiers in the novel are hyper-focused on serving their countries, families, and fellow men honorably, this motivation proves to be self-destructive for Robert in the end. Though the men’s self-sacrificial actions are honorable in the context of World War I’s harrowing violence, Robert’s disgraced downfall shows the danger of trying to achieve glory by violent means.
Honor, Duty, and Heroism ThemeTracker
Honor, Duty, and Heroism Quotes in The Wars
What you have to accept at the outset is this: many men have died like Robert Ross, obscured by violence. Lawrence was hurled against a wall—Scott entombed in ice and wind—Mallory blasted on the face of Everest. Lost. We’re told Euripides was killed by dogs—and this is all we know. The flesh was torn and scattered—eaten. Ross was consumed by fire. These are like statements: “pay attention!” People can only be found in what they do.
Oddly, too, he didn’t feel like sending love to anyone. It seemed unmanly. What he did do was enclose a photograph (official) and say to his father: “This will show you that my draft makes a brawling, husky lot of men. Not quite gunners or drivers yet—just as I can’t quite feel that I am a soldier myself.”
Ord said hoarsely that since he was going to do a boy’s work he must read the “stuff of which boys are made” and smiled. Clifford didn’t appreciate the humor. To him, the war was a deadly serious and heaven-sent choice to become a man.
Poole said: “You needn’t worry about the Germans here, sir. They’re a long ways off yet. At least as much as two miles or more.”
Levitt said: “Oh.” He seemed somehow demoralized by this news. Perhaps he thought you weren’t in the war unless the enemy could shoot you. In this he was much like everyone else who’d just arrived. You weren’t a real soldier unless you were in jeopardy.
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.
In another hole there was a rat that was alive but trapped because of the waterlogged condition of the earth that kept collapsing every time it tried to ascend the walls. Robert struck a match and caught the rat by the tail. It squealed as he lifted it over the edge and set it free. Robert wondered afterwards if setting the rat free had been a favour—but in the moment that he did it he was thinking: here is someone still alive. And the word alive was amazing.
This—to Bates—was the greatest terror of war: what you didn’t know of the men who told you what to do—where to go and when. What if they were mad—or stupid? What if their fear was greater than yours? Or what if they were brave and crazy—wanting and demanding bravery from you? He looked away. He thought of being born—and trusting your parents. Maybe that was the same. Your parents could be crazy too. Or stupid. Still—he’d rather his father was with him—telling him what to do. Then he smiled. He knew that his father would take one look at the crater and tell him not to go.
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 sat on the mutilated mattress and opened his kit bag. Everything was there—including the picture of Rowena. Robert burned it in the middle of the floor. This was not an act of anger—but an act of charity.
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.
Robert called out very distinctly (and there are twenty witnesses to this): “We shall not be taken.”
It was the “we” that doomed him. To Mickle, it signified that Robert had an accomplice. Maybe more than one. Mickle thought he knew how to get “them” out.