The Wars takes place during World War I, when Western society’s idealism gradually turned to disillusionment. When Robert Ross, a young Canadian soldier, passes through his hometown on the way to military training, he does not recognize his once quiet, wholesome neighborhood’s transition into a hotbed of the industrial war effort. While the novel frequently alludes to these broad cultural and economic changes, Findley focuses primarily on Robert and his fellow soldiers’ personal loss of innocence in order to provide a more humanized context for the corrupting effects of war on society. By detailing soldiers’ gradual loss of moral innocence alongside Robert’s loss of sexual innocence, Findley demonstrates how forcing young men to witness and commit terrible acts of violence on the battlefield robs them of their virtue, and ultimately threatens to destroy the moral fabric of humanity.
Before the war, Robert and his fellow men are still distinctively boyish despite the adult role they are undertaking as soldiers, a contrast that shows just how innocent the young men are in contrast with the sobering trauma of World War I. After his sister Rowena’s tragic death, Robert’s mother tells him that he is a “grown man” and must kill Rowena’s pet rabbits. While the family eventually hires Teddy Budge to kill them instead, this traumatic incident (in combination with Rowena’s death) is Robert’s first significant departure from childhood at age eighteen, as Rowena and her rabbits were the ultimate embodiment of purity and innocence. Although Robert’s enlistment in the army marks an acceptance of his fleeting childhood, he and his compatriots remain relatively innocent and immature. Robert’s timidity, insecurity, and sexual inexperience are exemplified by his mortifying night at the brothel during military training. Here, he has an awkward encounter with a prostitute named Ella and is horrified to witness Captain Taffler having sex with a man (the Swede). Fellow young soldiers like Clifford and Regis also behave like adolescents rather than men, contrasting the harrowing conditions of war that will inevitably rob them of their boyhood.
Once they have shipped off to war, Robert and his men lose all remnants of this childhood innocence, as they are forced to witness and commit acts that tarnish their formerly naïve view of the world. The extreme moral atrocities they are faced with as soldiers show the traumatic nature of their transition into adulthood in comparison with their former notions of morality. Robert’s forced shooting of an injured horse on the ship journey from Canada to England marks the beginning of his descent into lost innocence. This passage is ironic because the killing of Rowena’s rabbits is what solidified Robert’s decision to escape his family and enlist in the army, yet here he is made to commit the same act that so distressed him. There is no escape from this obligatory transition into manhood, whether from his family or from the military. Robert’s killing of the German soldier whom he mistakes as a threat is another example of how young men lose their moral innocence in war. While Robert is exceptionally empathetic and kind, his preemptive murder of the German in defense of his men again demonstrates how war renders society’s moral norms irrelevant, as he is essentially forced into a terrible act that he would never have committed otherwise.
This loss of moral innocence is a collective one that affects all of Robert’s fellow soldiers and serves as a parallel to Robert’s loss of sexual innocence. This shift shows war’s ability to cause not only death and destruction, but to encourage a pervasive tendency for violence among soldiers that can pervert sex into an act of domination rather than an expression of love. When twelve-year-old Juliet d’Orsey tries to sneak into Robert’s room at St. Aubyn’s convalescence hospital to pull a childish prank, she is instead horrified to see Robert and her sister Barbara having alarmingly violent sex. This moment represents how Robert’s experiences at war have changed him. Just a few months before, he was terrified of sex and disturbed by what he saw in the brothel. Now, the roles are reversed, as Robert’s desensitization to sex parallels his desensitization to the war, and he indirectly corrupts Juliet’s innocence in the same way Taffler corrupted his. Soon after this passage, Robert is brutally raped by four men at Asile Desolé, an insane asylum where soldiers take refuge to bathe and rest. Realizing that his assailants were soldiers (as opposed to the asylum’s “crazies”), Robert burns his only photo of Rowena, as he cannot bear the thought of her purity existing in such a perverse world. This horrific assault demonstrates the moral depravity of war in its potential to corrupt soldiers’ moral standards and degrade fundamental elements of the human experience.
Robert and his comrades’ gradual loss of moral and sexual innocence, culminating in Robert’s rape, is an embodiment of Western society’s collective degradation during World War I. The changes in Robert’s character, as well as his fellow soldier’s willingness to commit this atrocity against him, ultimately demonstrate war’s ability to strip men of their virtue and demoralize the very essence of humanity.
Loss of Innocence ThemeTracker
Loss of Innocence Quotes in The Wars
Nothing he’d read had covered this situation. Whores, of course, had been discussed at school but no one actually ever said this is what you do. They’d made it all up. But what they’d made up was not like this. At all. They’d flown from trapezes and made love in bath tubs and ravished several women to the bed posts, but no one had ever sat in a room with lilac wallpaper and been asked if there was “nothing special you’d like.”
What had become of all the spires and the formal, comforting shapes of commerce he remembered—banks and shops and business palaces with flags? Where were the streets with houses ranged behind their lawns under the gentle awnings of the elms? What had happened here in so short a time that he could not recall his absence? What were all these fires—and where did his father and his mother sleep beneath the pall of smoke reflecting orange and red and yellow flames? Where, in this dark, was the world he’d known and where he was being taken to so fast there wasn’t even time to stop?
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.
From the gap, when Robert’s eyes had cleared, he cast a single look back to where the man had been. He saw that the whole field was filled with floating shapes. The only sounds were the sounds of feeding and of wings. And of rafts.
All he wanted was a dream. Escape. But nobody dreams on a battlefield. There isn’t any sleep that long. Dreams and distance are the same. If he could run away…like Longboat. Put on his canvas shoes and the old frayed shirt and tie the cardigan around his waist and take on the prairie…But he kept running into Taffler. Throwing stones. And Harris.
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 his bed in the old hotel at Bailleul and read what Rodwell had written.
To my daughter, Laurine;
Love your mother
Make your prayers against despair.
I am alive in everything I touch. Touch these pages and you have me in your fingertips. We survive in one another. Everything lives forever. Believe it. Nothing ever dies.
I am your father always.
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.
Robert thought of a Saturday crowd at a football game where everyone would link hands on the cold, fall afternoons and the long chains of singers would weave back and forth in the stands till the whole arena would be swaying from side to side.
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.