John Knowles wrote his novel A Separate Peace, after experiencing what he deemed as "perfect summers" at Phillip's Exeter Academy, and being a part of the air force for eight months. Both of these experiences are dealt with in his novel, the book set at Devon School, based off of Phillip's, and an important element, the aspect of boyhood during World War II. Through his characterization, John Knowles reveals it is only after you have fought and won your own personal war, that you can truly understand the cause of war.
Brinker is a character we are introduced to early on in the novel, described as a politician. He views the war with an air of general resentment, being of the opinion that the older generation is to blame for the turn of events that lead to the war, but he is forced to fight it. " I had heard this generation-complaint from Brinker before...this generalized, self-pitying resentment against millions of people he did not know." ( Knowles, pg. 193). He enlists, not for the glory, not for a sense of loyalty to his country, or for the sake of adventure, or as an outlet for a measure of hatred. He merely enlists, to remove monotony. " I'm enlisting...I'm going to 'serve' as he puts it, I may even get killed. But I'll be damned if I'll have that Nathan Hale attitude of his about it...I'm not any kind of hero." (pg 193) Brinker views the war as an obligation, he is forced into because of the shortcomings of others. He thinks the cause of the war is the stupidity of his father's generation.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, is Brinker's father, Mr. Hadley. The war excites him, he is thrilled to see his son, and his son's friends enlisting. He views the war as a chance for glory, but more importantly, as a way to gain people's respect. He considers a man defined by his war experiences. In his mind, the war is a chance to gain an impressive military record, to gain a sense of pride. " It's your greatest moment, your greatest privilege, to serve your country. We're all proud of you, and we're all-old guys like me-we're all darn jealous of you." (pg 192) When Mr. Hadley was in the World War I, he was not fighting for himself. He was fighting his country's war. He never fought his own, only someone else's. And so, he imagines that the young men of his son's generation are also just like he was, fighting their country's battle. It's incomprehensible for him, to imagine that they could not want to fight. In his mind, the cause of the war is pride. If you fight in it, you are defined, you have earned your manhood.
Phineas has a view of the war similar to Brinker's. Phineas would, and never could understand war, and so he denied it, saying blatantly "there isn't any war." (pg 107). To him, the war is a hoax, but also a hoax that he can never be apart of due to his leg injury. He is torn, between wanting to deny it completely, and wanting to be a part of it completely. And neither is possible for him. Phineas is described as conjuring an atmosphere, picking and choosing facts to accept and admit as true. He never had to confront the hostility of the world, the violence brought with the war, because to him, that aspect simply did not exist. Gene pinpoints this outlook, in explaining to Phineas, " Phineas, you wouldn't be any good in the war, even if nothing had happened to your leg...you'd get things so scrambled up nobody would know who to fight any more. You'd make a mess, a terrible mess, Finny, out of the war." (pg 182). This statement is full of irony, because in reality, what is war but a violent mess? By bringing humanity to war, Finny would have brought chaos to war. To Phineas, there was no cause for the war. Hatred was a foreign thought, he couldn't grasp the concept of being pitted against fellow man.
Gene, is the only character who shows an understanding of the reason and cause of war. This is because he, solely he, had already fought his own war. He has come to this realization himself, saying, " I never killed anybody, and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there." (pg. 196). He fought, and won, his war against himself. This brought him deeper understanding, and the ability to see the true cause of war. " It seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but by something ignorant in the human heart." (pg. 193) Gene, had conquered his fear, and so had conquered his hatred. Of all the characters in the novel, Gene is the only one who understands the cause of war. And this, is because he fought his own personal war.
John Knowles conveys his message quite clearly in his work, through the opinions and thoughts of his characters. Many people go to war, without understanding why. Some refuse to understand why, others aren't capable. Brinker views the cause of war as the mistakes of his predecessors. Mr. Hadley views the cause of war as man's ingrained sense of pride in himself, the chance for greatness. To Phineas, there is no cause of war. But to Gene, who fought his own battle before fighting his country's, has insight. He knows. Brinker resents because he doesn't understand. Mr. Hadley encourages, because he doesn't understand. Phineas denies, because he doesn't understand. But Gene, partakes, because he understands the deeper cause, the root of the matter. Gene could fight, and understand the World War, because he had fought his own world war. Knowles allowed none of his other characters this comprehension, because they had not endured a war of their own. Knowles' message is that, the comprehension will arrive only after enduring a battle within, after triumphing over your personal enemy. " All of them, except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that war- if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy." (pg. 196)