The experience of something as devastating as warfare can be difficult to put into words. As a society, we have developed various ways to try and process these experiences and come to terms with the destruction and suffering that warfare incurs. Whole genres of art, poetry, and literature have sprung up around the topic of war and its effects on the societies and individuals who feel its impact.
One of the most powerful ways that art has come to terms with war is through literature. Literature gives its author the opportunity to delve into the deepest reflection of an experience and gives readers an insight into the lives and thoughts of others. Indeed, some of the finest literary minds in history have turned their talent to writing about the horrors of war.
Here we’ve put together a collection of some of the top literary quotes about war. Some focus on the experience of war, its psychology, others on the effect war takes on society in general. Regardless, these are the most powerful quotes about warfare from literary history.
“I survived, but it’s not a happy ending.” – Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (1990)
Tim O’Brien was born and raised in the USA in the mid 20th century. Like many men of his generation, he was drafted into service following his graduation from college in 1968. The US involvement in the Vietnam War had at that point been dragging on for the most part of the decade, in what appeared to be a bloody and futile endeavour. Like much of American society at the time, O’Brien considered the war immoral and was deeply torn regarding his conscription. In the end, he chose to accept enlistment and served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970.
This service served as the basis for his 1990 collection of short stories, The Things They Carried. The book follows a platoon of young men on the ground during the war and was intended to raise awareness about the reality of the war. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried contains the poignant quote, “I survived, but it’s not a happy ending.” This idea sums up how the inhumanity of warfare means that there are no real winners and makes the perfect basis for a The Things They Carried essay!
“When the rich wage war, it’s the poor who die.” – Jean-Paul Sartre, The Devil and the Good God (1951)
Jean-Paul Sartre is one of the most well-known French philosophers and dramatists of the 20th century. His philosophy belongs to a school of thought known as existentialism, which seeks to demystify the nature of existence itself. This highly cerebral and self-reflective brand of philosophy came to particular prominence in Europe following the destruction of the Second World War, as people tried to comprehend what life could possibly mean in the face of such absolute horror. This search for meaning is apparent in Sartre’s 1951 play, The Devil and the Good God.
The play offers a moral reflection on the choices of its characters, the cast of whom feature a warlord, a clergyman, and a communist leader. The German Peasants Revolt of the 16th century serves as the backdrop for the play’s action. With this play, Sartre makes the point that those who die in battle are rarely those who are benefitting from the fight. The world we live in, according to Sartre, is one in which the powerful can send the weak to make war and die on behalf of their interests. This idea is powerfully encapsulated by the quote, “when the rich wage war, it’s the poor who die.”
“War is what happens when language fails.” – Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride (1993)
Margaret Atwood is a Canadian novelist who is currently one of the world’s most celebrated literary minds. Her work delves into a vast range of the different conflicts that are currently faced by society. Social division and violence are major themes that permeate much of her work. This poignant quote comes from the 1993 novel The Robber Bride and offers an illuminating insight into the conditions that produce war and violence.
In saying “war is what happens when language fails”, Atwood suggests that war is a preventable occurrence and only comes about as a failure of other means of negotiation. This is an encouraging notion, as it implies that we can indeed put an end to the fight and that the path to peace begins with a dedication to a healthy discussion.
“Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.” – Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway, during his lifetime, was one of the most prominent and influential writers in the world. His most prominent work was published between the 1920s and the 1950s, a period during which few people were spared the experience of war. As a young man during the First World War, Hemingway volunteered to enlist as an ambulance driver on the Italian front, and this experience marked his outlook on life and war forever.
Watching swathes of men his age and younger be sent to the front to die, and himself suffering an injury that put him out of action, left Hemingway to include war and violence as a major theme of his writing for the rest of his life. Working partially as a journalist, Hemingway was present for many pivotal moments in the history of warfare – such as the Allied landing at Normandy and the Liberation of Paris. Having seen all of this, Hemingway was left with the belief that no war he had witnessed, “no matter how necessary, nor how justified”, should be thought of as anything other than a crime. This quote is an important reminder that although we tend to dress war up as something heroic, it is an act of organised brutality.
War is an intensely difficult and disorientating experience for all those involved and can leave individual lives and entire societies in ruins. Being so cataclysmic, it’s no surprise that artists and writers are so drawn to tackling the subject in their work. These are just four of the most powerful quotes to come from the minds of literary giants regarding the nature of war and violence, but the literary canon has so much to offer that any student looking to pen an essay shouldn’t hesitate to dive right in!