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Guest of the Nation

In: English and Literature

Submitted By JoneSalka
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“Guest of the nation”

“Guest of the nation” touches upon the dilemma of justifying war on a personal moral and ethical level, and in describing this conflict it implicitly also touches upon the horrors of killing, and perhaps more importantly on what it does to a human being.
The text tells the story of three Irish soldiers holding two Englishmen as prisoners of war and is split into four parts. In the first part we are told about the daily life and interactions of the irish- and Englishmen. Their relationship is generally characterized by an unusual amount of mutual trust and friendship considering that they belong to rivaling armies, and especially considering that the cause that the Irish are fighting for is probably personally motivated, rather than being the result of a draft.
In the second part though this situation is darkened and complicated, by the fact that Jeremiah Donovan reveals that they are holding the Englishmen hostages as a mean of negotiation with the British, and that they are to be executed soon. In the third part the orders to execute are given, and part four depicts the Englishmen’s reluctant realization that they are to be executed by people who they perceive as friends and equals, as well as the Irish's reluctant attitude towards this execution, as Bonaparte puts it: "Why did any of us want to plug him? What had he done to us?" (S.62, L.7).
The overall dramaturgical structure of the text can therefore be seen as a transition from an initial harmonic state , the somewhat carefree environment of part 1, that is then interrupted by the message of the impending execution, eventually leading to a new altered order, resulting from the act of execution and the changes that it generates. And seeing as the initial order, characterized by friendship and trust, the interruption, characterized by reluctance and division, and the changed order, characterized by moral anguish, are the what makes up and drives the plot, these are also the main components of the theme and message of the text. What ties these plot-components together, is generally an underlying conflict between empathy on one hand and duty in a broad sense of the word on the other hand. Bonaparte and Noble's relation to the Englishmen generally represents the empathic side of the conflict; they treat them as equals and do not punish or constraint them, and when they hear learn about the execution they hope for the Englishmen to escape or be spared.
This can be said to reflect the aforementioned initial, harmonic order of the text, in which a humane treatment of the Englishmen is the natural behavior, at least from Bonapartes point of view, as he has an empathic relationship with the them, seeing them as equal human beings.
Donovan on the opposite does not sympathize much with the Englishmen, as Bonaparte expresses it: "it suddenly struck me that he had no great love for the two Englishmen", and he is also, in terms of the structure of the text, the one with the main responsibility for the execution. So being the strict one, having more focus on the war effort than on the specific condition he finds himself in, he represents the other side of the aforementioned conflict.
This order and environment is though pretty drastically tested and changed as the execution is to occur, because even though Hawkins appeals to the empathic side of the Irish men, emphasizing their ethic obligations ("not if I was to be shot twenty times over. I wouldn't shoot a pal"(S.62, L.33-34)) and their friendship ("You and me are Chumps…I'll come over to your side"(S.63, L.17-18)), they passively let the execution take place. Not that they do not feel empathy with the Englishmen, they just show that the power of authority weighs heavier than the power of empathy, in this case the authority of whoever general send the orders of execution. This also applies to Donovan who says "I'm sorry, Hawkins, but it's true" when asked about the execution. Apologizing to the man you are about to kill does not exactly sound like the words of a man completely dedicated to his cause, thus showing that even the man who had least close connection to the Englishmen is still divided between faith in empathy or authority.
And this is where the theme and message of the text appear, and leaves a somewhat dualistic point, because on one hand it shows how empathy and friendship can exist between people who are supposed to be in an antagonistic relationships with each other, but it also shows that it does not take much to overrule an empathic impulse. And the fact that people who are almost as close as friends can be made to passively let an execution take place, stands as a sharp critique of the condition that enables this situation: War.
Because in war you have to degenerate the enemy to something less than human, in order to endure the horrors of killing, and justify and accept your own actions. This requires a kind of cognitive generalization, where you only understand your enemy and yourself in the scheme of the entire war, and where actions are a result of duty and orders, not free moral choices. But when you are put face to face with the enemy, as it is the case in "Guest of the nation", you are suddenly no longer executing an enemy, you are executing a human being, and perhaps even worse, Bonaparte is executing what can best be described as a friend, "And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again"

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