THE BLOG
11/24/2014 01:29 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

A Farewell to Arms (1929): Giving Thanks...

For those who didn't say farewell, such as former Army Ranger re-upped aid-worker, humanitarian, Peter Kassig.

Giving thanks that there are very very few nurses and ambulance-drivers like Hemingway's Catherine Barkley and Frederic Henry.

Sooner or later, there will be boots on the ground to confront ISIS. No matter the souls (or the "heels") who are laced up in that service, there will have to be reconnaissance, well-informed "intel," coordinated movement and reaction - and medical evacuations that are reliable, adroit, unsputtering.

One wonders how Frederic Henry would handle the job of evacuating wounded from Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan, 85 years after he was deployed to the World War One Italian front as an ambulance driver, by Ernest Hemingway, in A Farewell to Arms. Would he have the stomach for the job?

The low-down on Hemingway's two high-tailers
First published in 1929, the novel is rightly viewed as anti-war, but Frederic Henry's and Catherine Barkley's room-service escapes are not especially heroic, when read against the World War One horrors and heroisms that have been rightly documented.

In Farewell, the reader isn't taken to trenches and barbed-wire no-man's lands. The focus is on lovers who find cover (and bed-covers) in hospital rooms and love-nest hotels.

Frederic Henry has more dealings with bartenders, porters, hotel desk clerks, barbers, maître ds and waiters, than he has with troops. He connects with menus, not so much with maps. He cares about vintages - as to cafés and restaurants, he knows how to do a reconnaissance, and how to place an order.

Action-adventure, not so much

Hemingway's tale of the Caporetto retreat doesn't have the scale or menace of the retreat-to-Dunkirk-and-the-English-Channel that Ian McEwan depicted in Atonement.

Lieutenant Frederic Henry's detouring escape from the rutted lorry-jammed roads of the Caporetto-retreat results in casualties: his ambulances and several of his men. True, his escape from the Italian military police (who indiscriminately execute Italian officers for the indignity of the rout at Caporetto) provides a bit of action-adventure.

The only other bit of action-adventure is the lovers' Lake Maggiore row-boat escape to Switzerland, which is a catered affair, with sandwiches, wine, and brandy. That escape doesn't have the tautness or menace that Dickens stroked for Pip-and-Magwitch's row on the Thames, in Great Expectations.

War's leave-takings

The novel's value is in the vividness with which war wounds and war's mortal leave-takings are described. Frederic Henry (FH) is wounded by a big trench mortar which announces itself by "chuh - chuh - chuh" and bursts with "a flash, as when a blast-furnace door is swung open." A member of his ambulance crew is undone: "One leg was gone and the other was held by tendons and part of the trouser. The stump twitched and jerked as though it were not connected.... there was no need to try to make a tourniquet."

The "embeddings" that instigate leave-takings are trench mortar fragments, steel splinters; shrapnel that pierce, embed, and infect.

AWOL - absent, with obsessive love

Another kind of "embedding" takes over: FH dallies with and wins over Catherine Barkley, the convalescent nurse (a member of Britain's Voluntary Aid Detachment; a VAD), who, early on, Hemingway portrays as a ninny, a simp, a twit: She gushes: "You're my religion. You're all I've got."

After two chaste meetings with her, FH is obliged to go off and scout positions for his ambulances. On his return, she chides him: "You couldn't have sent me a note? You ought to have let me know, darling." And after they've been intimate: "I don't live at all when I'm not with you."

Barkley is an emotional suction cup, who can't hold a bed pan in the vicinity of Florence Nightingale or, for that matter, Vera Brittain (Testament of Youth) and a legion of other real-life VADs.

No Florence Nightingale

In Notes on Nursing: what it is and what it is not (1859), Florence Nightingale insisted that a key to recovery is to "always keep a patient warm in bed, and well ventilate him at the same time." Catherine Barkley took those commands quite literally, for she quite personally warms Frederic Henry's hospital bed, and hyperventilates him at the same time. Her attentions and ministrations would never have been in Florence Nightingale's repertoire.

In Notes on Nursing, Nightingale warned against exciting a patient into deleterious exertion: "Remember never to lean against, sit upon, or unnecessarily shake, or even touch the bed in which a patient lies. This is invariably a painful annoyance." For FH, pre-op and post-op, Catherine Barkley's bed-sheet "shakings" were anything but a painful annoyance.

As to communication, Nightingale warned that "What doubt or hesitation there may be in your mind must never be communicated to patients...." Barkley can't hold back: "Oh, darling, you will be good to me, won't you?" and "You do love me, don't you?"

Exactly 70 years prior to the publication of Farewell, Nightingale skewered: "Popular novelists of recent days have invented ladies disappointed in love, or fresh out of the drawing-room, turning into the war-hospitals to find their wounded lovers, and when found, forthwith abandoning their sick-ward for their lover.... Yet in the estimation of the authors, these ladies were none the worse for that, but on the contrary were heroines of nursing."

Catherine Barkley joined a VAD unit in the hope of meeting her first swain in some field hospital (recuperating from a fashionable sabre cut). He never made that rendezvous; he was "blown all to bits" at the Somme. FH is his replacement. From him, she gets the reinforcement she needs. She swaps devotions, to abandon herself to him; deserting sick-wards to accompany him in his desertion.

With no money worries (FH cashes sight drafts from his grandfather) the couple take their farewells (to nursing and ambulance-driving) armed with vermouth, brandy, and baguettes.

Frederic Henry does indeed suffer a heart wound, dully.

In the age of ISIS, is armistice an anachronism?

The wounds inflicted in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are more full-bodied and severely penetrating than a lover's heartache. Medi-vac teams and surgery tents will have to be staffed by those made of sterner stuff than Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley; staffed by those with the heart of Peter Kassig.