I remember having a silly idea he might come to the hospital where I was. With a sabre cut, I suppose, and a bandage around his head. Or shot through the shoulder. Something picturesque. . . . He didn’t have a sabre cut. They blew him to bits.
Catherine explains that she became a nurse because her fiancé was in the army. She had no realistic understanding of what war could do, especially not to her loved one. Now she does. She speaks of his death matter-of-factly, probably in part because in her nursing work she has seen much death and maiming both before and since her fiancé’s death. Her intimate understanding of death, as both a physical fact and emotional loss, explains why Catherine seems so straightforward. She feels determined to live for now and not let frivolous concerns get in her way.
I saw how their minds worked; if they had minds and if they worked. They were all young men and they were saving their country. . . . The questioners had that beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it.
Frederic watches as military policemen pull officers from the retreating army, question them, and shoot them. Their stated crime is having become separated from their troops, but their more fundamental sin, in the eyes of the shooters, is allowing the retreat to happen at all, thus shaming the “fatherland.” Here, Frederic observes with bitter irony that men in no danger themselves easily dispense “justice” in the form of executions. If they had ever been in mortal danger, in either battle or retreat, they would empathize with the other and thus be slower to kill. Frederic despises his potential executioners’ ignorance.
That was what you did. You died. You did not know what it was about. You never had time to learn. They threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you. Or they killed you gratuitously like Aymo. . . . Stay around and they would kill you.
After Frederic learns that his son was born dead, he reflects that, having never lived, the boy will not have “all this dying to go through,” meaning the dying of others. Frederic then immediately concludes that Catherine will die too and thinks of the killing of his comrade, Aymo, who was killed by friendly fire. He sees death as senseless, but rather than blaming nature or chance, he blames an unnamed “they,” as though malevolent forces are actively looking for excuses to kill. Having witnessed so much needless death recently, Frederic may understandably feel as though death is stalking his loved ones.
Once in camp I put a log on top of the fire and it was full of ants. As it commenced to burn, the ants swarmed out. . . . I remember thinking at the time that it was the end of the world and a splendid time to be a messiah and lift the log off the fire. . . . But I did not do anything.
Frederic recalls this memory just after learning that Catherine may die from a hemorrhage. He equates allowing a log full of ants to burn when he could have rescued them, which he remembers with some shame, to his inaction in the face of Catherine’s illness. The comparison seems unfair to him because the two situations are different. While he could have saved the ants, he certainly does not have the ability to save Catherine. Frederic took control of his own fate many times: separating from the convoy during the retreat, escaping the military police, rowing to Switzerland. Regarding Catherine, however, he has no control.