The Face of War Analysis
by Martha Gellhorn

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The Face of War Analysis

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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As Gellhorn explains in her introduction to her first piece of war reporting, “High Explosive for Everyone”—an account of her experience of the war in Spain in July, 1937—she had come to Spain after immersing herself in the politics of Europe in the early 1930’s. Though she was already a novelist and journalist, she was in Spain not to report on the war but to observe and to offer her aid to the supporters of the Spanish Republic, which had been attacked by the Fascist forces of General Francisco Franco. Having entered Spain on the strength of a letter from Charles Colebaugh, the editor of Collier’s magazine, she soon found herself in the company of war correspondents, one of whom suggested that she file a story on the war. Initially reluctant to do so, she was persuaded that there would be special value in her on-the-spot impressions. She sent her piece to Colebaugh, not expecting that he would print it, but to her surprise she became a regular correspondent for a magazine that never altered or cut anything she wrote. Most of the pieces in The Face of War were written hurriedly and yet expertly for Collier’s.

“High Explosive for Everyone” is as good as anything Gellhorn has written on war, and it demonstrates why she is such a good reporter. Gellhorn’s point of view, her sympathy for the Republican government, is implicit, but there is no editorializing; the writing appears to be transparent—a window on war. Constructed like a story, “High Explosive for Everyone” begins with a “thud,” the sound of the shells leaving the rebel artillery with a kind of “groaning cough” until they are heard “fluttering toward you.” Then there is the quick acceleration of sound and the huge boom of the explosion. Shifting to the second-person “you,” Gellhorn brings home the dreadful closeness of war. When the shells land very near, they seem to whistle and whirl and spin, whining higher and higher like a “close scream” until they tear up the streets in “granite thunder.”

Using understatement, Gellhorn alludes to her own hysteria by changing to the first person to describe her descent to the hotel lobby, concentrating on her breathing because the air sticks in her throat. The strict controls she puts on her language are themselves indicators of the discipline she had to maintain during the constant shelling. War is given a face, an intimacy and immediacy: A window shatters “gently and airily, making a lovely tinkling musical sound”; in doorways people await the next bomb with “immensely quiet, stretched faces” until the “whistle-whine-scream-roar” of the shells again vibrates in Gellhorn’s throat; a sliver of coiled steel is sheared off an incoming shell and “takes” a “little boy in the throat.” There is a light touch, a delicacy, in her prose that makes the ugliness of death and destruction all the more appalling. It is not only these people, this earth, that has been violated; it is Gellhorn’s representative human sensibility that is under attack.

Having plunged her readers into the daily bombing of Madrid, Gellhorn turns to other vignettes of war. Pedro, a janitor, and his family are staunch supporters of the Republic, proud of the fine apartment they will not abandon in spite of the heavy shelling and hopeful about a government that has made it possible for women to have careers. Four men stay in a military hospital—one with a bad chest wound, one with his face shot off, two others with a smashed knee and a head wound. The soldier with the bad chest smiles, but it is too painful for him to speak. The one with the smashed knee sits and props his leg on a chair, talking about his friend with the head wound, who is also out of bed painting a portrait. Jaime has always had a dream of becoming...

(The entire section is 991 words.)