Guests of the Nation

by Frank O'Connor

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How does Frank O'Connor's "Guests of the Nation" illustrate the collective trauma of war?

Collective trauma is a psychological term for when a group of people experience a shock together.

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Collective trauma may refer to an actual group of people who are involved in an incident, but it also applies to a conceptual group, such as a nation, that feels an experience. A recent U.S. example of the former is the people in Manhattan who survived the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, while the latter would apply to all Americans who feel affected by those and related events and their aftermath.

In Frank O’Connor’s story, we are presented with both types of groups. On the one hand, the individuals who are thrown together in the farmhouse are sharing an experience which will have a lasting effect on them. On the other hand, the British and Irish combatants are members of two distinct collectivities, and as such their experiences of the immediate situation and the British occupation of Ireland are extremely different. One of O’Connor’s impressive achievements in the story is to show how common humanity does, albeit temporarily, unite the British and Irish men.

The British soldiers, knowing their death is imminent, try not to think about it. They use the jokes and card games to forestall considering this inevitable fate. In that respect, we can consider that they are experiencing the trauma of war, in which death is always anticipated and the execution of prisoners of war, however unethical, frequently occurs. As members of the British occupying forces, their collectivity is the British army, and these men have doubtless heard tales of atrocities from other soldiers. These shared stories have helped form their collective consciousness.

The Irish rebels who are guarding the prisoners are experiencing a different kind of collective trauma. As colonized subjects of the British crown, the trauma that the Irish people has endured is part of their shared experience. This ongoing trauma has contributed to the men’s decision to join the republican movement, and to understand their individual actions as justifiable within the wartime context. Their belief in their cause enables Donovan and Bonaparte to shoot the enemy soldiers.

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In Frank O'Connor's "Guest of the Nation," there are two elements of the story that make me identify them as part of the collective trauma of war.

Donovan represents a part of the collective trauma—the man who does not see anything but the war. He does not become attached to Hastings or Belcher, spending no time with them, and never seeing them as men, but as enemies. The narrator cannot explain the compassion a man might feel for another, regardless of his politics, to Donovan. He explains:

I couldn’t tell him, because I knew he wouldn't understand. If it was only an old dog that you had to take to the vet's, you'd try and not get too fond of him, but Jeremiah Donovan was not a man who would ever be in danger of that.

You can also tell that Donovan is much too caught up in the savagery of war, in the glory and pleasure of killing, as seen when the men prepare to execute the "prisoners"—even when Hastings speaks of deserting his side to join them, eliminating the need to kill him, Donovan will not be moved. He is too excited at the prospect of being able to kill—and of course, there is no threat to him:

"For the last time, have you any messages to send?" said Donovan in a cold, excited sort of voice.

The use of the word "excited" conveys Donovan's desire to kill. Had the author chosen a word like "anxiety" or "nervousness," the reader would not be left with the idea that Donovan is a cold-blooded killer. For Donovan, war is a concept—not the destruction of human life. Like a board game, he finds no reason not to kill the two hostages because their own men had been killed. Donovan's behavior is uncivilized: killing to reciprocate for killing. Donovan's executions, especially the ease with which he kills the men, shows him to be no better than his enemy.

The collective trauma, which starts with Donovan's actions, culminates most clearly for me with regard to the narrator's response to the men's deaths. There is foreshadowing of the narrator's feelings about the entire process just after Donovan kills Hastings:

I knelt and fired. By this time I didn't seem to know what I was doing.

Trauma in itself, speaks of change. When someone is traumatized, he or she is not the same, but damaged in some way. It can be a physical trauma, such as a car accident, or an emotional or mental trauma experienced by heartbreak or a loved one's death. The trauma begins with the narrator when he fires the second shot into Hastings and feels like he has lost his grip on understanding the horror unfolding before him. At the story's end, Noble and the old woman are also traumatized, but the author (with first person point of view) allows us to understand how far-reaching the damage of these deaths has been, for the narrator tells us that nothing would ever be the same for him:

I was somehow very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow. And anything that hap­pened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.

This story shows the ugliness of war, especially that of the Irish Rebellion, when even families were divided, and brothers and fathers fired upon, and sometimes killed, each other. The collective trauma begins as the "guards" are made aware of the probable fate of the hostages, and ends with the narrator's note that life has changed for him, for good.

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