Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 315
The primary theme of Under Fire is the hardships that war inflicts on the men who serve in the military. The novel takes place during World War I and is a fictionalized version of events that the author himself survived and which he learned about from his comrades. A closely-related theme is the individual differences of psychological reactions and effects that the same events have on different people. That is, at the same time the novel generalizes about experience, it also emphasizes the importance of the individual. The differences between classes who support the war effort is another resonant theme throughout the book, as the author was a socialist whose views come through clearly.
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Among those negative effects and hardships are the men’s decisions to put themselves first. These actions include the selective robbing of the German wounded and dead on the battlefield. Although they were aware it was unethical, they found such things as good-quality boots irresistible and justified their actions with the idea that everyone else did it so if they did not take something, they would just be losing it to the man who did.
Social inequality is another theme that emerges. While the unnamed narrator comes across as deeply patriotic, he is unstinting in his description of many negative factors that caused the war and their consequences. He understands the need to fight in the trenches on the front, but he also comments on the social differences between the men who serve and those who avoid service. The fact that away from the front, life goes on as normal for the wealthy, is brought home to the men when they go on leave—especially in Paris, where it seems that café society continues undeterred. As the action in the novel progresses, the social commentary and criticism increases. The longer the narrator serves, the more he sees the war as futile.