War Themes

The main themes of War include the futility of war, the loss of innocence, and the hypocrisy of patriotism.

  • The futility of war: The characters in the story are all too aware of the pointlessness of the war in which they are fighting. They are not motivated by any sense of duty or patriotism, but merely by a desire to survive.
  • The loss of innocence: The war takes a heavy toll on the innocence of the characters. They are forced to confront the possible loss of their loved ones and compatriots.
  • The hypocrisy of patriotism: The characters in the story are all too aware of the emptiness of patriotic rhetoric. They see through the lies that their government is telling them, and they know that their country's aims are not really worth fighting for.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Patriotism

In the background of the parents’ discussions of their losses exists a bond that unites them all: feelings of patriotism. While each parent faces different circumstances in sending a son to war, none of the parents suggests that war should be avoided altogether. One father even suggests that “any one of us…[would] gladly take his son’s place at the front if he could.” The other passengers silently nod their approval to this sentiment.

The love of Country, he argues, is felt most deeply among a nation’s youth, who have not yet begun their own families and have not yet experienced a bond that is even deeper than that to one’s country: the love a parent feels for his child. He insists that “Country” as an idea is a “natural necessity.” Therefore, there must be people willing to defend that idea.

This father has already lost his son in the war and finds comfort in the fact that his son died “in the best way he could have wished.” Boys willing to die for Country are described as “decent boys, of course,” indicating that a lack of patriotism indicates poor character. Another father comments that their children “do not belong to us, they belong to the Country.”

The grief these parents face rests on the altar of their feelings of patriotism, which is also the fuel for the war. Ultimately the story demonstrates that while patriotic sentiments may guide and even win wars, parents and families must bear the deep grief associated with such “victories.”

War and Loss

War is often romanticized in literature as feelings of nationalism are bolstered to exemplify the great political success which can be achieved through united wartime efforts. “War,” however, deconstructs the “positive” outcomes of war through an examination of what is required to achieve those “successes.”

Using the perspective of parents, this short story focuses on the sacrifice individual families must make during times of war. The woman who initially boards the train is “in deep mourning,” not because her son is dead but because she understands the likely sacrifice she must make as the mother of a soldier. Thus far, she has not found it in her heart to “resign [herself], without crying, not only to the departure of [her son] but even to [his] death,” as other parents have done.

Another father tries to convince others–and himself–that dying in war is noble and that perhaps it is even better to end one’s life “young and happy, without having the ugly sides of life” which come with aging. Yet when pressed to consider the implications of sacrificing his son for such “noble” causes, words “fail” the father as he realizes “at last” what he has truly and forever lost.

Notably, every person on the train is too old to fight, which highlights that the true sacrifices of war rest on the shoulders of a nation’s youth. Within victorious national outcomes exist profound personal losses, which particularly affect a nation’s young people.

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