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

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belarafon | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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"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.


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