As a work of postmodern literature, The Wars is characteristically disorienting. Findley rapidly switches among different points of view and narrative structures, a stylistic choice that parallels the traumatic, fragmentary nature of World War I at the center of the storyline. The novel examines the war both from the European battlefront and the Canadian home front, showing the visceral pain of war inflicted on the bodies and minds of soldiers, as well as the residual effects on their families and societies. The horrors of war drive Robert Ross’s fellow soldiers to self-destructive madness, while Robert’s family in Canada and Western society as a whole similarly deteriorate. By portraying these multiple scales of trauma alongside one another, Findley sheds light on the disorienting senselessness of World War I and its far-reaching ability to physically and mentally fragment individuals, as well as the broader groups to which they belong. In doing so, the novel seeks to understand and humanize the inherently dehumanizing effects of war.
In the novel, the foremost victims of World War I’s traumatic effects are Robert’s comrades, particularly his friends Levitt and Captain Taffler, who directly experience the war’s violence. This manifests physically, as the bodies of the soldiers are literally fragmented by unprecedentedly destructive modern weaponry. It also results in mental strife, as their minds and spirits are left disoriented and traumatized by shell shock. Robert, a Second Lieutenant in the Canadian Army, loses countless men throughout his time at war. The lives of these soldiers are “obscured by violence,” as millions die torturous deaths such as drowning in the muddy trenches or being consumed by the infernos of flamethrowers. This mass trivialization and destruction of human life fragments not only the soldiers’ physical bodies, but their mental wellbeing.
While Robert grows somewhat desensitized to this constant violence, many men are driven to the brink of insanity, including Robert’s fellow junior officer Levitt. Levitt is a devout reader of Clausewitz on War, a military strategy book that decries the use of “passive” modern weapons such as artillery, as they also make men passive and turn war into a disorienting experience where enemies are separated and depersonalized from each other. Levitt embodies this reality on a personal level, as he becomes catatonic with shell shock after their dugout is bombed by Germans, demonstrating the futility of trying to make sense of a war that fundamentally fragments the battlefield as well as the men who fight on it. Captain Taffler is another soldier who is physically and mentally devastated by the war. Although Robert initially looks up to him as a model of masculine confidence and competence, Taffler falls from glory after he loses both arms in battle and becomes mentally ill. He is sent to St. Aubyn’s convalescence hospital to heal, where he attempts suicide by unwrapping his wounds and rubbing them on a wall to make them bleed. Taffler’s terrible injuries and subsequent descent into madness show war’s ability to irreparably shatter soldiers’ bodies and minds into disparate pieces.
In addition to devastating those characters in The Wars who directly participate in battle, the war also wreaks havoc on the families of soldiers, epitomized by the gradual physical and mental decline of Robert’s mother, Mrs. Ross. The structure of the Ross family has already been fragmented by the accidental deaths of Rowena (Thomas and Mrs. Ross’s oldest child) and Monty Miles Raymond (Mrs. Ross’s younger brother). This initial layer of tragedy leaves the family weakened and terrified when Robert enlists in the army, reflecting war’s ability to further harm already traumatized individuals. Mrs. Ross, already well-acquainted with the random senselessness of death, is particularly affected by the stress of having a son overseas. Her acute awareness of the war’s horrors leads her to descend into alcoholism, paranoia, erratic behavior, and eventual blindness. This all-encompassing incapacitation, compounded by Robert’s absence, fragments the Ross family into dysfunction as Mrs. Ross is unfit to fulfill her role as a wife and mother. The Rosses’ collective decay demonstrates the war’s potential to destroy the lives of families on the home front as well as those of soldiers fighting overseas.
The horrific fates of Robert’s comrades, as well as the decline of the Ross family, show war’s far-reaching ability to destroy people’s lives. Throughout the novel, the geopolitical devastation of World War I, reinforced by the widespread trauma of individuals and families, radiate outward to reshape Western culture as a whole. The narration frequently references this reality alongside Robert’s story, describing the “muddied” and somber atmosphere of Canadian society during the war as well as the immense swaths of farmland and entire towns devastated by European battles. By acknowledging these broad social and geographic changes alongside more individualized examples, the novel highlights the war’s complexity in its ability to disrupt normalcy on both large and small scales.
This radical restructuring of society has a circular relationship with individual and familial trauma, as people’s personal experiences are both a cause and an effect of the changing Western world. The collective disillusionment of individuals causes Marian Turner, a military nurse who takes care of Robert, to hold the belief that ordinary people are the ones who make the world “monstrous, complacent, and mad.” This sentiment reflects the multilayered crises of the West during this time, as people struggled to piece together former notions of faith, tradition, and meaning that were fragmented by the evil, destructive nature of humanity brought out by World War I. Findley’s disorienting entanglement of these various scales of trauma reinforces the novel’s title, The Wars, which implies that there are numerous personal “wars” being fought beyond the battlefield during any given conflict, and that these parallel struggles are often indiscernible from one another. By constructing the narrative outwardly from its central focus on the direct experiences of soldiers, Findley humanizes the pain that these men and their families experienced in World War I and contextualizes their struggles within the era’s broader historical shifts.
Trauma and War ThemeTracker
Trauma and War 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.”
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?
“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.
But Mrs. Ross just stood at the windows of the private car and was afraid to go outdoors. Her mind was full of trolley cars and she knew that if she tried to cross the tracks, then she and everyone would be struck down. Instead, she waved from behind the glass and she watched her boy depart and her husband standing in his black fur coat—it seemed for hours—with his arm in the air and the snow falling down around him. “Come on back to the raf’, Huck, honey.” And this was what they called the wars.
The mud. There are no good similes. Mud must be a Flemish word. Mud was invented here. Mudland might have been its name. When it rains…the water rises at you out of the ground. It rises from your footprints—and an army marching over a field can cause a flood. In 1916, it was said that you “waded to the front.” Men and horses sank from sight. They drowned in mud. Their graves, it seemed, just dug themselves and pulled them down.
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.
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.
And what I hate these days is the people who weren’t there and they look back and say we became inured. Your heart froze over—yes. But to say we got used to it! God—that makes me so angry! No. Everything was sharp. Immediate. Men and women like Robert and Barbara—Harris and Taffler…you met and you saw so clearly and cut so sharply into one another’s lives. So there wasn’t any rubbish. You lived without the rubbish of intrigue and the long drawn-out propriety of romance and you simply touched the other person with your life.
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.
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.
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.
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.