Pick your poison

Paul Marx

November 07, 1990|By Paul Marx

LAST MONTH marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of Ernest Hemingway's great novel of the Spanish Civil War, "For Whom the Bell Tolls." The book still holds valuable lessons today because there is so much talk about "the military option" in the Persian Gulf.

Between July 1936 and March 1939, Spain was the scene of the first great struggle in the 1930s between democracy and the rising forces of fascism. While the democratic governments of Europe and the United States did not get involved, both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini sent substantial military aid to Francisco Franco and his army of fascism.

Hemingway went to Spain in 1936 as an anti-war war correspondent. Quickly, however, he became sympathetic to the "little people," those who were opposed to Franco. He became involved with the making of "The Spanish Earth," a propaganda film intended to raise money and sympathy for the Loyalists.

The theme of the film, he stated, was this: "We gained the right to cultivate our land by democratic elections. Now the military cliques and absentee landlords attack to take our land from us again. But we fight for the right to irrigate and cultivate the Spanish Earth, which the nobles kept idle for their own amusement."

The attitude toward the war that emerges from the novel is much more complex. By early 1939, when he finished his fourth tour of duty in Spain, a certain amount of disillusionment had set in. The war was not as simple a matter as it seemed.

In the 72 hours he spends with Pablo's and Pilar's guerrilla band, Robert Jordan, Hemingway's American protagonist, hears accounts of actions by both sides. He comes to realize that there is plenty of evil among the Loyalists, and good to be found among the fascists. "What barbarians!" the guerrillas say about participants on both sides. And although in the end Jordan gives his life for the Loyalist cause, he is not so willing as he might have been.

One of the great accomplishments of the novel is the portrayal of the guerrilla leader Pablo. Near the beginning of the war, Pablo, Pilar and their band overrun a town held by the fascists. Pablo, to use a phrase in vogue today, "takes no prisoners," and so he dispatches the captured enemy soldiers with bullets to the back of the head.

Pablo rounds up the leading citizens of the town, most of whom are landowners and fascists. He has them brought to the town hall and has a priest give them the sacrament. In the meantime, he equips local peasants with flails, and arranges them in a double line between the front door of the town hall and the cliff that abuts the town's plaza. One by one the fascists are pushed out the door and they are clubbed. The only escape from the flailing is the drop from the cliff into the river below. One of the final victims is the priest.

Pablo defends the massacre by saying that flailing is a way to save bullets and a way for each peasant to have a share of the responsibility. Pilar, who tells the story to Jordan, says that this was the worst day of her life except for three days later, when the fascists re-took the town and they committed atrocities.

When Hemingway sent this chapter to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, he cautioned him about letting any of the "ideology boys" see it. He was speaking about those who were unequivocal in their support of the Loyalists. Hemingway was no longer unequivocal. He had learned that war, by its very nature, produces barbarians even among those fighting for a just cause.

And there we have this book's importance for today. What is right before the slaughter starts may be perfectly clear. But once the killing starts, right becomes a matter of simply staying alive, and participants on both sides will descend to barbarism. Barbaric acts terrorize, and terror may weaken the enemy's resolve.

The time has come in human history to put aside the military option. The time has come when international disputes must be settled as if there were no military option. We must call on the resources of human ingenuity for other options. It is too easy, and too barbaric, to take the position that the enemy's use of force justifies our use of force.

"Military option" and "surgical strike" are clean, tidy phrases. But once they are employed, misery, stench and barbarism will surely afflict all participants.

Paul Marx is a professor of English at the University of New Haven in Connecticut.

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