War and Shame: Martha Gellhorn gives it to us straight

I know Martha Gellhorn married Ernest Hemingway, but I just can’t hold it against her. In an attempt to compare their work, I located a used copy of The Face of War. It is one of the most riveting chronicles I have ever read. If you can get your hands on a used copy – do so. Then you can just skip Hemingway altogether – particularly The Sun Also Rises …

The Face of War, Martha Gellhorn

The Face of War, Martha Gellhorn

Martha Gellhorn is anti-war but never tells us so. Instead, she pragmatically describes the aftermath of atrocities. There is no embellishment – none is needed. Her crisp attention to detail deceives the reader into thinking that she reports objectively. She does not and that is a good thing. By describing precisely what she sees, the horror is fully exposed. We are seduced into seeing with her eyes, hearing with her ears, and we experience the terror of what it must be like to have lived in a world that was being violently striped of all hope and meaning. She accomplishes this with a stark lack of sentimentality and by carefully detailing the ordinary events that people cling to.

The Spanish Civil War rages and bombs lacerate Madrid. In the midst of shelling, a Spaniard Gellhorn has been sharing an archway with declares, “I am going out and [having] a beer.” (21). “He waited at the door for a shell to land and ran across the square reaching the café just before the next shell. You couldn’t wait forever; you couldn’t be careful all day.” (21). An old woman with a young child huddle – waiting for blasts to cease before trying to cross the square to get bread. “She is in the middle of the square when the next one comes. A small piece of twisted steel, hot and very sharp, sprays off from a shell; it takes the little boy in the throat.” (23). In an instant the child is dead. Strangers rush from nowhere to remove the dead child from the old woman and then proceed to the café – where only that morning, “Three men were killed sitting at a table reading their morning papers and drinking coffee.” (21).

Martha Gellhorn

Martha Gellhorn

Gellhorn’s account of the desensitization of a population is chilling. People wait patiently in line for bread rations while children play amidst the destruction, “in an empty lot or in caves they have found beside a river.” (23). Actors and poets mount theatrical productions and pause as exploding shells drown out their words – but the actors begin again immediately once the shelling stops. Words are forgotten and the actors apologize but the audience is rapt and applauds thunderously. People are happy with very little and Gellhorn takes care to illustrate their gratitude for small things.

As a family digs through the rubble that was once their home, the author recounts that they are delighted to find “…a cup that had no saucer left, a sofa pillow, two pictures with the glass broken.”(29). Everyday, mundane things that define our existence offer solace. This perhaps, is the thing that Gellhorn returns to time and time again. The idea of coveting the ordinary – of perpetuating the routine – is vital. Gellhorn’s description of the struggle for normalcy in the face of ruin reveals succinctly how war bankrupts people – literally and spiritually. No heat, no food, no water. People “…try to keep warm and wait for tomorrow and be surprised at nothing.” (31).

Picasso, Guernica (detail)

Picasso, Guernica (detail)

In December of 1939, the Russians bomb Helsinki. “The florists sent flowers to the hospitals and made wreaths for the coffins.”(55). It is a flat, portentous declaration. I suspect that the florists run out of flowers at some point, but until that time, they continue to attend to their work out of habit. It is the one thing they know how to do and the one thing they are able to do. By now, one is braced for Gellhorn’s avalanche of understatement. The unapologetic rancor, with which she derides the Germans, is stunning. The Second World War codified, ” …the greatest organized destruction the world has known.” (101).

Eventually, one ceases to notice the devastation. At that point, war becomes commonplace. Destruction is everywhere and those who are trapped within it, adjust their perception of what is normal. Gellhorn observes that soldiers on the sides of the roads in tent camps, were always shaving. “Naked to the waist in the cold, he wages the losing battle to keep clean.” (103). Almost lunatic in its simplicity, the very act speaks to man’s attempt to cling to the vestiges of a life that has been ripped from him. 

What is not said reveals volumes. Gellhorn observes that people – in the midst of unrelenting terror – mourn in silence. There is no use giving voice or definition to constant dread. “By unspoken agreement, people kept their sorrow to themselves.” (187). Silence is normal. Joy is found in the acquisition of a loaf of bread, in a child’s smile, or in a pleasant exchange with strangers in a desolate street. By the time Gellhorn writes about Vietnam, we have a clear image of the harrowing, uniform demographic of War; men are maimed and die while governments remain intact and design the next incursion. Gellhorn sums it up with the observation, “I do not know how to explain it, but aside from the terrible anger you feel, you are ashamed. You are ashamed for mankind.” (181).

— Deborah Johnstone

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