There is nothing as bad as war. . . . When people realize how bad it is they cannot do anything to stop it because they go crazy. There are some people who never realize. There are people who are afraid of their officers. It is with them the war is made.
Frederic talks with the ambulance drivers he commands. Although he makes a detailed case that being conquered is worse than war itself, Passini disagrees with him here. The drivers assert that “there is no finish to a war” and “everybody hates this war,” so refusing to fight would be the best course of action. However, their arguments fail to change Frederic’s mind. In this conversation, the characters express ambivalent or nuanced views in the form of an argument. Readers may note that Frederic’s views on war also become more ambivalent over time.
It looked as though the war were going on for a long time. . . . Next year would be a bad year, or a good year maybe. . . . The Italians were using up an awful lot of men. I did not see how it could go on. . . . Perhaps wars weren’t won any more. Maybe they went on forever.
Frederic, like everyone else, expected this war to be short, and yet now no end seems near. The Americans will not arrive in large numbers until next year, which is why next year might be a good year. The Italians have been fighting all summer but have made no progress in the mountains. Frederic previously expressed his belief in the importance of winning. He knows that horrible things can be done to a conquered people. He now reflects that the war could go on forever, never being won, yet he does not admit that the war could be lost.
If they killed men as they did this fall the Allies would be cooked in another year. He said we were all cooked but we were all right as long as we did not know it. We were all cooked. The thing was not to recognize it. The last country to realize they were cooked would win the war.
Frederic remembers the words of a British major he met at a club. The major’s philosophy of warfare—that the last country to realize how much it was losing would win—reflects a hard-nosed realism that acknowledges but does not dwell on all the losses implied by being “cooked.” The major apparently takes the big-picture view that winning is the ultimate good and worth all of the sacrifice involved. Frederic describes the major as pessimistic, but the major’s basic philosophy may be sound: Since war always means loss and sacrifice, those who are best able to ignore the loss will ultimately prevail.
No one ever stopped when they were winning. . . . It is in defeat that we become Christian. . . . I don’t mean technically Christian. I mean like Our Lord. If they felt the same way as we do, it would be all right. But they have beaten us. They feel another way.
After Frederic’s friend the priest expresses optimism that the war will end soon because he observes decreased enthusiasm for fighting in the officers, Frederic points out the priest’s misunderstanding. He points out that only the defeated clearly see the wastefulness of war. The winning side, in this case the Austrians and Germans, will be energized to continue fighting. Frederic possesses a fighter’s attitude, which the priest does not, so he understands how winning can allow one to discount all the waste and suffering that losing emphasizes. Frederic is proven correct almost immediately when the Austrians and Germans make a late-season attack.
I would like to have had the uniform off although I did not care much about the outward forms. . . . I was through. I wished them all the luck. There were the good ones, and the brave ones, and the calm ones and the sensible ones, and they deserved it. But it was not my show any more[.]
After nearly being executed by some ignorant military police, Frederic flees the army. He has already lost the ambulances he was responsible for and some of his men, and the retreating army is turning on its own officers. Once, Frederic believed victory in the war was necessary. Here he reveals how he now feels no more connection to the conflict or the army as a whole, only to the individuals who are fighting honorably. Of course, Frederic only rejects the Italian army after the army rejects him. If he still had men to lead and was allowed to do so, he would still be serving.