Spain is Playing a Savage Game

Ernest Hemingway

Daily Oklahoman/April 25, 1937


The window of the hotel is open and as you lie in bed you hear the firing in the front line 17 blocks away. There is rifle fire all night long.

The rifles go tacrong, carong, craang, tacrong, and then a machine gun opens up. It has a bigger caliber and is much louder, rong, cararong, rong, rong. Then there is the incoming boom of a trench mortar shell and a burst of machine gun fire.

You lie and listen to it and it is a great thing to be in bed with your feet stretched out gradually warming the cold foot of the bed and not out there in University City or Carabanchel. A man is singing hard-voiced in the street below and three drunks are arguing when you fall asleep.

In the morning, before your call comes from the desk, the roaring burst of a high explosive shell wakes you and you go to the window and look out to see a man, his head down, his coat collar up, sprinting desperately across the paved square. There is the acrid smell of high explosive you hoped you’d never smell again, and, in a bathrobe and bedroom slippers, you hurry down the marble steps and almost into a middle-aged woman, wounded in the abdomen, who is being helped into the hotel entrance by two men in blue workmen’s smocks. She has her two hands crossed below her big, old-style Spanish bosom and from between her fingers the blood is spurting in a thin stream.

On the corner, 20 yards away, is a heap of rubble, smashed cement and thrown up dirt, a single dead man, his torn clothes dusty, and a great hole in the sidewalk from which the gas from a broken main is rising, looking like a heat mirage in the cold morning air.

“How many dead?” you ask a policeman.

“Only one,” he says. “It went through the sidewalk and burst below. If it would have burst on the solid stone of the road there might have been fifty.”

A policeman covers the top of the trunk, from which the head is missing: they send for someone to repair the gas main and you go in to breakfast. A charwoman, her eyes red, is scrubbing the blood off the marble floor of the corridor. The dead man wasn’t you nor anyone you know and everyone is very hungry in the morning after a cold night and a long day the day before up at the Guadalajara front.

“Did you see him?” asked someone else at breakfast.

“Sure,” you say.

“That’s where we pass a dozen times a day. Right on that corner.” Someone makes a joke about missing teeth and someone else says not to make that joke. And everyone has the feeling that characterized war. It wasn’t me, see? It wasn’t me.

The Italian dead up on the Guadalajara front weren’t you, although Italian dead, because of where you had spent your boyhood, always seemed, still, like our dead. No. You went to the front early in the morning in a miserable little car with a more miserable little chauffeur who suffered visibly the closer he came to the fighting. But at night, sometimes late, without lights, with the big trucks roaring past, you came on back to sleep in a bed with sheets in a good hotel, paying a dollar a day for the best rooms on the front.

The smaller rooms in the back, on the side away from the shelling, were considerably more expensive. After the shell that lit on the sidewalk in front of the hotel you got a beautiful double corner room on that side, twice the size of the one you had had, for less than a dollar. It wasn’t me they killed. See? No. Not me. It wasn’t me any more.

Then in a hospital given by the American Friends of Spanish Democracy, located out behind the Morata front along the road to Valencia, they said, “Raven wants to see you.”

“Do I know him?”

“I don’t think so,” they said, “but he wants to see you.”

“Where is he?”


In the room upstairs they are giving a blood transfusion to a man with a very gray face who lay on a cot with his arm out, looking away from the gurgling bottle and moaning in a very impersonal way. He moaned mechanically and at regular intervals and it did not seem to be him that made the sound. His lips did not move.

“Where’s Raven?” I asked.

“I’m here,” said Raven.

The voice came from a high mound covered by a shoddy gray blanket. There were two arms crossed on the top of the mound and at one end there was something that had been a face, but now was a yellow, scabby area with a wide bandage across where the eyes had been.

He Talks Without Lips

“Who is it?” asked Raven. He didn’t have lips, but he talked pretty well without them and with a pleasant voice.

“Hemingway,” I said. “I came up to see how you were doing.”

“My face was pretty bad,” he said.

“It got sort of burned from the grenade, but it’s peeled a couple of times and it’s doing better.”

“It looks swell,” I said. “It’s doing fine.”

I wasn’t looking at it when I spoke.

“How are things in America?” he asked. “What do they think of us over there?”

“Sentiment’s changed a lot,” I said.

“They’re beginning to realize the government is going to win this war.”

“Do you think so?”

“Sure,” I said.

He Doesn’t Mind the Pain

“I’m awfully glad,” he said. “You know, I wouldn’t mind any of this if I could just watch what was going on. I don’t mind the pain, you know. It never seemed important really. But I was always awfully interested in things and I really wouldn’t mind the pain at all if I could just sort of follow things intelligently. I could even be some use. You know, I didn’t mind the war at all. I did all right in the war. I got hit once before and I was back and rejoined the battalion in two weeks. I couldn’t stand to be away. Then I got this.”

He had put his hand in mine. It was not a worker’s hand. There were no callouses and the nails on the long, spatulate fingers were smooth and rounded.

“How did you get it?” I asked.

“Well, there were some troops that were routed and we went over to sort of reform them and we did and then we had quite a fight with the fascists and we beat them. It was quite a bad fight, you know, but we beat them and then someone threw this grenade at me.”

Raven’s From Pittsburgh

Holding his hand and hearing him tell it. I did not believe a word of it. What was left of him did not sound like the wreckage of a soldier somehow. I did not know how he had been wounded, but the story did not sound right. It was the sort of way everyone would like to have been wounded. But I wanted him to think I believed it.

“Where did you come from?” I asked.

“From Pittsburgh. I went to the university there.”

“What did you do before you joined up here?”

“I was a social worker,” he said. Then I knew it couldn’t be true and I wondered how he had really been so frightfully wounded and I didn’t care. In the war that I had known, men often lied about the manner of their wounding. Not at first, but later. I’d lied a little myself in my time. Especially late in the evening. But I was glad he thought I believed it, and we talked about books: he wanted to be a writer, and I told him about what had happened north of Guadalajara and promised to bring some things from Madrid next time we got out that way. I hoped maybe I could get a radio.

 He Wants to Meet Lewis

“They tell me Dos Passos and Sinclair Lewis are coming over, too,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “And when they come I’ll bring them up to see you.”

“Gee, that will be great,” he said. “You don’t know what that will mean to me.”

“I’ll bring them,” I said.

“Will they be here pretty soon?”

“Just as soon as they come I’ll bring them.”

“Good boy, Ernest,” he said. “You don’t mind if I call you Ernest, do you?”

The voice came very clear and gentle from that face that looked like some bill that had been fought over in muddy weather and then baked in the sun.

“Hell, no,” I said. “Please, listen, old-timer, you’re going to be fine. You’ll be a lot of good, you know. You can talk on the radio.”

“Maybe,” he said. “You’ll be back?”

“Sure,” I said. “Absolutely.”

“Goodbye, Ernest,” he said.

“Goodbye,” I told him.

Downstairs they told me he’d lost both eyes as well as his face and was also badly wounded all through the legs and in the feet.

“He’s lost some toes, too,” the doctor said, “but he doesn’t know that.”

“I wonder if he’ll ever know it?”

“Oh, sure he will,” the doctor said.

“He’s going to get well.”

And it still isn’t you that gets hit but it is your countryman now. Your countryman from Pennsylvania, where once we fought at Gettysburg.

 He Tells of the Wounds

Then, walking along the road, with his left arm in an airplane splint, walking with the gamecock walk of the professional British soldier that neither 10 years of military party work nor the projecting metal wings of the splint could destroy, I met Raven’s commanding officer. Jock Cunningham, who had three fresh rifle wounds through his upper left arm (I looked at them, one was septic) and another rifle bullet under his shoulder blade that had entered his left chest, passed through, and lodged there.

He told me, in military terms, the history of the attempt to rally retiring troops on his battalion’s right flank, of his bombing raid down a trench which was held at one end by the fascists and at the other end by the government troops, of the taking of this trench and, with six men and a Lewis gun, cutting off a group of some 80 fascists from their own lines, and of the final desperate defense of their impossible position his six men put up until the government troops came up and, attacking, straightened out the line again. He told it clearly, completely convincingly, and with a strong Glasgow accent. He had deep, piercing eyes sheltered like an eagle’s and, hearing him talk, you could tell the sort of soldier he was. For what he had done he would have a V. C. in the last war. In this was there are no decorations. Wounds are the only decorations and they do not award wound stripes.

“Raven was in the same show,” he said. “I didn’t know he’d been hit, Ay, he’s a good mon. He got his after I got mine. The fascists we’d cut off were very good troops. They never fired a useless shot when we were in that bad spot. They waited in the dark there until they had us located and then opened with volley fire. That’s how I got four in the same place.”

We talked for a while and he told me many things. They were all important, but nothing was as important as that what Jay Raven, the social worker from Pittsburgh with no military training, had told me was true. This is a strange new kind of war where you learn just as much as you are able to believe.