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First Person

Ernie and Me

February 2, 2016 | by

Falling in—and falling out—with Hemingway.

Ernest Hemingway in uniform as an American Red Cross volunteer, 1918. Portrait by Ermeni Studios, Milan, Italy. Photo: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

As a young man of a certain kind, I read a lot of Hemingway growing up. My sixteen-year-old self, full of angst and emo aches, found a kindred spirit in Jake Barnes, even if Jake’s brooding was much deeper, darker, and more significant than my own. The northern Michigan of the Nick Adams stories bore a passing resemblance to the Tahoe Basin, where I grew up, and my earliest attempts at creative work were pale imitations of “The End of Something” and “The Three-Day Blow.” The Old Man and the Sea bored me to video games the first time I tried it, but that didn’t stop me from extolling Santiago’s badassness at the dinner table.

This was pre-9/11 America, in a suburban, white-collar community far removed from battle or turmoil. My parents were both children of World War II veterans, and both had protested the Vietnam War; as a result, my brother and I had been raised with a healthy respect for the military, mixed with a healthy skepticism toward the application of military force. While my Hemingway obsession did confuse my mom a bit, she later told me she figured at least it wasn’t drugs, or French philosophy. 

I started calling him Hem or Ernie in conversation, as if we were old friends. His pithy quotes, laden with macho pseudo-philosophy, infiltrated my AIM away messages and school assignments. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” “The only thing that could spoil a day was people.” Et cetera. Having taken careful note of how his early career as a journalist shaped his prose, I joined the school paper and began saying things like “Fuck adjectives” and “Sit down at the computer and bleed” and “This article about the powderpuff game needs to be truer.”

My favorite Hemingway biography carried the title A Life Without Consequences. At the time, that seemed like a thing to aspire to.

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It’s embarrassing to admit now, but For Whom the Bell Tolls had a lot to do with my joining the Army ROTC program in college. I wrote my history thesis on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the American volunteers who fought Franco and fascism in Spain over our government’s objections. The dark, awful romance of it all was like a siren song—the fact that they’d been dismissed as “premature antifascists,” like it was a bad thing, became a common rant of mine during beer-pong games. We were in the Bush era now: my worldview was being shaped by politicians who’d spent their youths doing everything they could to avoid military service, but who couldn’t be more eager to send me and my peers into combat. For freedom, they said. But it felt like something else to me. At the beer-pong table, I began to replace my talk of premature antifascists with a rant about chicken hawks.

One weekend in early 2003, my roommate traveled to DC to protest the looming invasion of Iraq. I went to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for a ROTC field-training exercise held in a swamp. Hemingway’s books stayed with me during all of this, though I referred to him as Papa now, because I’d learned the power of reverence. I held deep misgivings about the Iraq invasion. Preemptive war (even ironically reactionary preemptive war) seemed counter to our republic’s spirit, somehow, or at least to its idealized spirit. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade had reacted to a coup, to defend an idea. Whatever Iraq was going to be, it was never going to be that.

Was Iraq inevitable? Of course not. But as angry debates about yellowcake and weapons of mass destruction filled our television screens, it sure looked that way. I could leave ROTC—my parents offered to find a way to pay back the scholarship money, if that’s what I wanted to do. I told them I wasn’t even thinking like that, but I was, I was thinking like that a lot. Even so, history was happening, and I knew that the Hemingways of the world—and the Robert Jordans, the Jake Barneses, the Nick Adamses—didn’t jeer at history. They weren’t interested in something as small and self-involved as moral purity, not when it came time to act. They participated in history, or at least they tried.

I was proud of my thesis on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Before I turned in the final version, I added an epigraph from For Whom the Bell Tolls: “Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”

I wanted to believe that. More specifically, I wanted to live a life in service of that. The others did, too. So we went.

Hemingway, an American Red Cross volunteer, recuperates from wounds in Milan, September 1918. Photo: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection/John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston

Like many of those young men who’d read a lot of Hemingway growing up, I turned on him. I broadened my reading horizons, for one, and discovered he owed more to Crane, Stein, Tolstoy, and others than he’d liked to betray. The spare style so associated with him was less an invention than it was a repurposing—obvious to even a fledgling literary scholar, perhaps, but not to young men swept up in mythos.

Moreover, I was encountering a number of other Hemingway disciples. My complex, I saw, wasn’t special. Worse, it didn’t even signify intelligence. Some of the other professed devotees were actually quite stupid: they’d read The Sun Also Rises as a book about partying and Men Without Women as a book about men without women.

There were more corporeal and immediate reasons for my Hemingway reevaluation, too. I was an Army officer now, in charge of a scout platoon of thirty soldiers preparing to deploy to Iraq. I was finding that the leadership approaches of Hemingway’s protagonists—what with their seriousness and self-seriousness, their righteousness and self-righteousness—didn’t work in my new world. I needed to be open with my men, genuine, even funny sometimes. And the circumstances of how Hemingway had become a war hero, wounded by mortars delivering cigarettes and chocolates to the infantry at the front, suddenly tugged at the soul. The authenticity of the man who’d advised “Write what you know” fell into question. Which wouldn’t have mattered so much if authenticity hadn’t been at the core of the Hemingway myth.

He’d been a pretender, I thought, something James Jones—another young man of a certain kind who’d turned on his influence—had in mind when he wrote, “You know what really ruined Hemingway? It was the 2nd war, when all the boys found out what war was really like.”

When we arrived in Iraq and got shot at the first time, the Papa doctrine was, for me, completely undermined. It didn’t feel like I’d gone through a great crucible of manhood, let alone “the best subject of all,” as Hemingway had once referred to war in a peacocking letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald. It just felt like my friends and I had been shot at. It wasn’t good.

We were there for fifteen long, strange months, part of the fabled surge that “won” the war. Looking back on that time and place, the thing I’m most proud of is a very un-Hemingway thing, I think, and certainly an unmanly man-at-war thing: none of my soldiers ever shot their weapons. We took fire, we dodged real and fake roadside bombs, we saw silhouettes running around with rocket launchers, which turned out to be kids playing with plastic toys given to them by insurgents. Only one of my men was wounded—in a freakish, noncombat incident—and he’s living a full life now. We were gentle far more often than we were forceful.

We weren’t ideal counterinsurgents and occupiers, if such a thing can exist, but we were damn fine ones. We tried to find justness, perhaps even justice, amid rampant unjustness and corruption. We tried to channel hope and idealism into something real and meaningful, into something sustainable. We blundered, then we learned. We opened schools. We detained insurgents. We brought down the violence numbers and raised up the local economy and left thinking that lasting peace in our part of Babylon was no longer a mirage.

We did our absolute best. It wasn’t enough.

A couple years ago, I reread my old college thesis. Parts of it, in their naked idealism and romanticism, made me cringe, but it was a solid effort from a twenty-two-year-old kid in love with language, even if he didn’t know what to do with it. I read the epigraph last. The line about the days and the todays and the other days. I sighed at it, then read it again. Then I put down the thesis and went to the bookshelf and pulled down the thick paperback. “You fuck,” I told the book. I opened it and, to my surprise, read for many hours. Ernie could still weave a hell of a yarn.

Hemingway with a tommy gun aboard his yacht, the Pilar, in 1935.

“Men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities … in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond,” Walter Lippmann once wrote. I’ve thought about this a lot as I’ve made my own transition from war to writing about it. Is it possible to take on the subject without mystifying it, without romanticizing it? It was a formative time, but a formative time much like any other.

Meanwhile, we’ve made our peace, Hem and me. He’s just a writer to me now, and his work matters more than the myth ever did. Of course he’s spawned a legion of imitators and posers. He put in the work. Besides, his pithy macho quips can—sometimes—hold up. Writing what you know, for example. That’s inspired many a reckless idiot to pursue the reckless and the idiotic, but direct experience is only one way of many to know something. And Hemingway’s obsession with finding the “true” bits—it took me time and perspective to figure out he meant more than transcribing reality, but tapping into the emotional wells of human existence and perspective. (That’s not “truth,” exactly, but macho pseudo-philosophies require some malleability.)

Granted, he made his share of overwrought decrees. Like this business about sitting down at the typewriter and bleeding. What the hell does that even mean? No one likes an emo, Papa.

Last year, my wife and I adopted a dog, a goofy, sweet-natured retriever mix who loves existence for what it is. We discussed a few possible names, inspired by the books in our apartment. Only one felt right, though. Ernie’s my friend again, and a daily inspiration. Now he makes me throw the ball for him instead of brooding with me over the enduring nature of armed conflict. He plays easily, his tongue hangs out the side of his mouth, and he tends to keep away from the moody husky in charge of the dog park. He’s too busy having fun to deal with alpha-male bullshit.

His namesake—the man and the myth—would take offense at all that, I hope.

Matt Gallagher is a former U.S. Army captain and Iraq war veteran. His debut novel Youngblood is out this week.