What are the morals in "War" by Jack London?

Expert Answers
belarafon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"War" is a short story by Jack London, about a young man scouting for his army. Sides and causes are never mentioned, so the conflict is reduced to its bare essentials; men are fighting, and the scout's job is to bring back information to allow his side an advantage. The morals in the story are explicitly anti-war; much of the narration focuses on the beauty of the countryside contrasted with the scout's unease and paranoia. He stops at a farmhouse, and sees a man with a red beard collecting water, but although he has a clear shot, he does nothing and continues scouting. Later, he is surprised by a convoy of enemies and shot dead by that same man:

...he was dead ere he hit the ground in the long crashing fall from the saddle. And they, watching at the house, saw him fall, saw his body bounce when it struck the earth, and saw the burst of red-cheeked apples that rolled about him. They laughed at the unexpected eruption of apples, and clapped their hands in applause of the long shot by the man with the ginger beard.
(London, "War," jacklondons.net)

London's own anti-war sentiments are well-known, and here he demonstrates the futility of war efforts; either side could be correct, but while the scout acts towards his own sense of morality, the red-bearded man acts out of pragmatism. It would be foolish to let the scout escape, and the wild shooting had little effect; the red-bearded man took his time and kept the opposition from gaining ground. Still, there is no obvious goal to either side and no resolution; it can be assumed that the war continued with little effect from this event. In this sense, the story's morality is pro-human and anti-war, and even anti-conflict, but in a cynical way: the scout, who avoids conflict, is killed for his trouble, while his enemies celebrate.

edcon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The scout who is killed at the end of London's story is the character that displays moral behavior. He has an early opportunity to kill the man with the "ginger beard" but does not see the man as an imminent threat and lets him live. The scout's morality is not paid in kind, because the ginger-bearded man turns out to be a remorseless marksman who shoots the scout as he is retreating.

The men who chase the scout to his death do not behave morally. The scout is not an imminent threat to them personally; he is gathering information, not lying in wait to pick them off with his carbine. They outnumber him. And perhaps most tellingly, when the scout is shot from his horse, the men cheer and express their delight at the sight of the apples the scout has gathered flying as he falls to his death.

Even though all the men are engaged in a war with its attendant risks and responsibilities, the actions of the men who chase the scout and the man who shoots him cannot be seen as simply doing the work of soldiers because of the circumstances of their encounter and their barbarity and celebration. There is nothing heroic in their actions.