In Book Three (which begins with Chapter XXV), the focus of the novel switches noticeably from love, the major thematic interest of Book Two, to war. Hemingway reports from the battlefront with a neutral, journalistic style that heightens the realism of the narrative and proves surprisingly unsettling. When Henry shoots at the two engineering officers for refusing to help free the car from the mud, Hemingway’s detached prose refrains from passing moral judgment on his action. Rather, the text offers just the facts. This spare, disinterested tone sets Henry’s wanton violence against an amoral landscape; shooting a man out of anger is given the same weight as pushing a car out of the mud. Refusing to give the reader reliable moral ground from which he or she may view and judge the scene, Hemingway challenges the reader to deal with the scene on his or her own terms. Certainly, the support that Henry receives from his fellow soldiers suggests that his actions are not abnormal and that there is a larger, pervasive irrationality at work. Indeed, the lack of a well-defined sense of right and wrong in the narrative perspective mirrors the situation in which Henry finds himself. War has stripped the world of its certainties, leaving men to set their own moral compass. Some, like Gino, fight for their homeland because they believe in ideals such as sacred ground and sacrifice, while others, like Henry, attach no such grandeur or meaning to their behavior on the battlefield.
The murder of the engineering officer is a testament to Hemingway’s brilliant depiction of the confusion and meaninglessness of war. This act seemingly comes out of nowhere. The reader doesn’t expect the normally self-possessed Henry to display such aggression, nor does such behavior seem particularly justified. Bonello’s ruthless, point-blank extermination of the man’s life is equally senseless. That the engineer is guilty of no capital crime and thus merits no punishment so grave as death emphasizes that, oftentimes, one cannot account for men’s behavior in war.