[T]hey snapped at the heels of the seniors, driving and molding and arming them for the war. They noticed our games tolerantly. We reminded them of what peace was like, of lives which were not bound up with destruction.
The narrator Gene reminisces as an adult in his thirties on attending high school for a special summer term before his Upper Middle or junior year. Gene remembers this time in his life as an especially carefree period for him and his friends despite World War II. At sixteen, the draft had not yet caught them up in the war machine that pursues the seventeen-year-old senior students. As the story goes on, the war will affect them more and more directly.
“No maids,” I said. “After all, there’s a war on. It’s not much of a sacrifice, when you think of people starving and being bombed and all the other things.” My unselfishness was responding properly to the influences of 1942.
Gene explains to the newly returned Finny the absence of the maids who used to clean their rooms. The war effort has absorbed the women in more important work. Gene accepts the change but Finny reacts with indignation—at least in part because, with his leg in a cast, tasks like cleaning require much more effort than usual. Gene strikes the appropriate pose of unselfishness in reminding Finny of the far worse suffering others in the war zone endure. Gene takes pride in his own self-sacrifice.
“Leper’s gone crazy. When I heard that about Leper, then I knew that the war was real, this war and all the wars. If a war can drive someone crazy, then it’s real all right.”
Finny finally admits the brutal reality of war. For some time, he half-seriously denied the existence of World War II and wars in general, attributing the war effort to a plot by leaders to enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary people. But after seeing for himself the effect that joining up has had on their formerly gentle friend Leper, he must accept war’s very real consequences. Leper’s experience in basic training led him to hallucinate and eventually run away from serving. War as an abstract concept, as Finny has thought of it to this point, could not drive someone insane—only harsh reality can do that.
There were hints of much worse things around us now like a faint odor in the air, evoked by words like “plasma” and “psycho” and “sulfa,” strange words like that with endings like Latin nouns.
Gene reflects on how the war gradually affects his and his classmates’ lives more and more. Gene first hears the word “psycho” when his friend Leper refers to himself after he suffers a breakdown during basic training. The other words relate to new high-powered weapons Gene sees in “newsreels and magazines.” These new ominous realities hover in the consciousness of Gene and his friends. Gene concludes the relatively minor “casualties” suffered by his class so far—Finny’s broken leg and Leper’s breakdown—pale in comparison to what the war may do to them.
[I]t seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart.
Gene doesn’t agree with Finny and Brinker’s idea of war as a conflict inflicted by the older generation upon the young. Instead, Gene believes that the inability of most people to see past their own fears and insecurities leads them to see others as enemies. He recognizes Finny as the only person he knows who never had this problem. After having this revelation, Gene never hates anyone again.