A Farewell to Arms
The sergeants try to run off. Henry orders them to cut some brush to put under the mired wheels, but they refuse. He repeats the order four times, and, when they still pay no attention, he draws his pistol and fires. He misses at first, then drops one of the fleeing men. Bonello, one of his drivers, finishes off the sergeant, shooting him twice in the head.
This is a curious incident that comes close to defying explanation. Why does Henry shoot the fleeing sergeant? One possible reason is that although he dislikes fervent militarism, he usually follows regulations. In town he carried his side arm as ordered, though his friend Rinaldi stuffed his holster with paper. He made light of his decorations, but he wears the ribbons all the same. And while at night he suffers nightmares, in the daytime, before an audience, his bravely casual attitude toward his wounding is exemplary. That may be the key to this scene: because he has an audience, Henry must act like an officer. In front of his men, he has given an order and the order has been ignored. What is he to do? He asserts his authority, a very human reaction.
Still, the shooting may diminish him as a hero in your eyes. At this point in the novel Henry can't help but participate in the war and its cruel ironies. In the business of saving lives, he shoots a man. In the process of developing a growing distrust for authority, he becomes authoritarian. And though he is fighting the Austrians, the first and only man he kills in the war is Italian.
The scene also shows the political stresses within the Italian army. How happy is Bonello, a socialist, to shoot a figure of authority like a sergeant. All his life he's wanted to kill one.
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