War. When the word is said, what immediately comes to one’s mind is a battlefield; blaring guns, generals screaming orders as planes roar overhead, with soldiers watching as their comrades have unimaginably gruesome deaths. The same is expected for a novel about war. The main character is enlisted and goes through all of the aforementioned things and then some. However, one book does not fit under this stereotype. Even though a huge theme in this novel is war, not a single gun is fired throughout the entire story. Not only that, but the main character does not share his time in the war until the last few pages of the book. This is because the novel accurately depicts the effects of an actual war instead of a romanticized version of one. By showing the impact of war on his characters, John Knowles uses his novel, A Separate Peace, to reveal how Americans reacted to World War II.
As one goes through life, their opinion on things change a great deal. For example, one month one might love the color pink, and then the next month the same person can’t stand it. This drastic change in opinion happened during both the war in A Separate Peace and World War II. While the second world war was taking place, everyone in America contributed to the war. “Americans focused their lives on the war,” says Carl and Dorothy Schneider. Patriotism took over the country. Americans either enlisted or helped the war effort from their homes; there was no in between. Over five million Americans fought from within their own walls whenever they had time. Volunteers were everywhere, from chipping in and helping prepare for air raids, to learning how to apply first aid, to watching for enemy planes (Schneider and Schneider). The thought that one either contributed to the war with all of one’s might or they weren’t a part of the country was not only popular in America. This belief is also beloved in the best-seller, A Separate Peace, when the war is just starting. In the beginning of A Separate Peace, the characters are all for war, believing that anyone who didn’t enlist is basically an unpatriotic bum. One of the characters even states, “Everybody in this place is either draft-dodging kraut or… I’m giving it up, I’m going to enlist. Tomorrow’ (Knowles 100). Some of the other characters in the novel enlist as well, and most of those who don’t enlist planned on enlisting. With all of this patriotism and nationalism going on, It is rare to hear of someone who didn’t somehow take part in the war effort in A Separate Peace and America. However, in both cases, it didn’t last. The very same people who muscled the effort towards the war now went against everything it stood for. At first, the popularity of volunteering “dwindled or died a natural death” (Schneider and Schneider). However, as more time passed, some people opposed the idea of the U.S. being a part of the war. This event in the novel also coordinated with the views of the people in John Knowles’ book. For example, in A Separate Peace, Brinker, the character with the most love for the war, now despises it. He even says, “‘Left out! He and his crowd are responsible for it! And we’re going to fight it!” (Knowles 201). Only a few months after the war is fully fired up, Brinker now thinks that the old men and politicians who started it should go into battle, which is the complete opposite from his previous belief of everyone fighting in it. Just like someone loving the color pink to hating it the next minute, both the novel and history showed that romanticizing war and showing affection for it went from being extremely popular to being something that one was ostracized for doing.
Even though the public’s opinion on war changed, one thing that never changed was the after-effects of war-related trauma for the American soldiers. John Knowles uses the impact of war on his characters to show one last thing to show how Americans in the real world reacted to World War II, and that is the change of setting from before to war to during. In the real world, American soldiers reacted very badly to the poor environment that the battlefront provided. These soldiers survived thousands of misfortunes while serving time in the army. From bomb attacks to gun battles to suicide bombers, one would have to look on a considerably bright side to think that these men could get off perfectly fine. Sadly, there is no silver lining for the soldiers of World War Two. Many of the enlisted got medically discharged after PTSD became apparent. Soldiers suffered from palpitations, shaky hands, and extreme cases of anxiety. This intense condition forbids the sufferer to calm down and let go of their feeling of being in imminent danger (Was This Muslim going). The after-effects from the horrible treatment of combatants that is shown in in A Separate Peace is almost identical to the real-life symptoms. For instance, when Elwin Lepellier, also known as Leper, is describing his life during war, he says, “ Because they turned everything inside out. I couldn’t sleep in bed, I had to sleep everywhere else. Everything began to be inside out. And the man next to me at night, coughing himself inside out. That was when things begin to change” (Knowles 150). This quote reveals the parallelism between what the Americans experienced in World War II and what the characters experienced when going into war. In both, the soldiers faced such a treacherous and hectic lifestyle, that it really affected them mentally. Not only that, but Knowles also shows how the actual soldiers have to go through life with their symptoms of PTSD. As mentioned above, the symptoms of this disorder were very bad. Knowles shows this by having Leper describe what having PTSD feels like for him. He states that one day, after becoming fed up with never being able to sleep and being so far from home, Leper begins hallucinating. He sees a man’s face turn into a woman’s (Knowles 150). Just like the American soldiers, Leper becomes extremely anxious, yelling and screaming after his PTSD strikes. “I started to yell for everybody, I began to yell so that everyone would see it too, I didn’t want to be the only one to see the thing like that, I yelled louder and louder to make sure everyone within reach of my voice would hear…” (Knowles 150). Knowles made sure that his war novel accurately portrayed what the real-life soldiers went through by showing the horrible things that happened to the soldiers in World War Two.When authors write about history, It is a known fact that they must be describing the topic perfectly. Sadly, this does not usually happen in most novels. However, John Knowles accurately portrays World War II and its effect on Americans perfectly. He shows how opinions of the second World War went from supporting it to disliking it through his characters. Furthermore, Knowles reveals the terrifying effects that war had on the soldiers through his characters. By doing all of this and more, it is no wonder critics claim that this book gives such a realistic twist on a war novel.