In A Farewell to Arms, what does Lt. Henry mean when he says, "Only the names of places had dignity"?
In Chapter XXVII of "A Farewell to Arms," as he converses with Gino who "was born a patriot," Henry becomes
embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them....and heard them...shouted...and read them....but I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing were done with the meat but bury it.
These abstract words have become meaningless to Lt. Henry who has seen and heard them used in connection with a war that he begins to perceive as senseless. Since these abstract words no longer have meaning and are "obscene besides the names of villages," etc., Henry says that only concrete nouns such as the name of places have "dignity." For, these nouns have not been sullied by being used to dignify killing and destruction.
This remark foreshadows Henry's later reflection in Chapter XXXII in which concludes that he will abandon all dreams of glory and bid his "farewell to arms" and no longer fight for a country that is not his own:
It was no point of honor....I was through....That life was over....I was not made to think. I was made to eat.
Here, also, some of the nihilistic philosophy of Hemingway comes through as his character thinks that only the basic desires of man make any sense. The rest is senseless in a world in which man vs. man and calls it "glory."