A society at war tends to privilege the widow and the orphan over the grieving parent. Over the course of nearly two decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, those on the “homefront” have grown accustomed to seeing video clips of crisp-uniformed service members handing folded flags to tear-stricken spouses or their eldest children.
The tear-jerking scenes of reunion that trend on our social media feeds—when a service member “surprises” his or her family with a sudden return—are almost always of a husband desperately clasping his wife or of a mother scooping up her adoring toddlers into her uniformed arms.
That widespread cultural tendency is not a coincidence: wives and husbands and mothers and fathers are adults—and adults are the only ones who fight and die in these wars, right? What society would be so cruel as to send their children to war? “Certainly not us,” say these videos.
Edith Wharton’s novel, A Son at the Front, gives us a different perspective: what war is like for the parents of adolescent young men who end up in the armed conflicts begun, ironically, by the older generation. John Campton’s French-born son, George, enlists in the doomed French infantry in 1914, a full three years before America would enter the conflict. John has just recently gotten to know his son, and just as he begins to retrieve that lost relationship, war intercedes and threatens to take his son away from him for good.
George, like many 18-year olds I know, is bright and curious and opinionated; he’s somewhere between adolescence and adulthood without really being one or the other. He is not unlike most of the young men and women who come of age in war, who spend their first years of legal adulthood behind a machine gun, learning to kill and not die in the same way they had learned to play football and baseball so seriously just a year or two beforehand with their adoring parents in the stands, cheering them on.
But it is not George’s perspective that Wharton is concerned with—it is that of George’s father and mother and stepfather. Soldiers on the front lines often have some control over whether they live or die; certainly not always, but it is true that life and death can be determined in how fast you put on your gas-mask or how quickly you can get a jammed weapon back into service or how accurately you fire it or what you choose to use for cover and concealment or how fast you can run or how well you can kill. These are things that the soldier can practice; these are things that the soldier can master. The parent has no control over any of them; it will not help the soldier for mom to memorize the nine-line medevac procedure or for dad to learn the distinct sound that incoming artillery makes when it is getting closer and closer to his daughter’s position.
The night before George boards the train to join his regiment, John sketches his son as he sleeps, musing over the features he might never see again: “that was just the way a boy might lie on a battle-field—or afterward in a hospital bed . . . hundreds and thousands of boys like his boy, the age of his boy, with a laugh like his boy’s . . . the wicked waste of it!”
Wharton’s novel reminds us that there is more than one reason why poets called the children of World War One the “Lost Generation”—in one sense it is quite literal: wars are largely fought by children of the next generation, not the adults of the current one.
For HPPR, I’m Daniel Helbert of Canyon, Texas.