Like a recurring childhood nightmare, John Knowles’ novel, A Separate Peace, continues to haunt me decades after I read it for the first time as a teenager. Set on the campus of a New England prep school during the Second World War, the narrative chronicles the relationship between two students: Gene, a quiet and pensive boy, and Phineas, his more pragmatic and athletic roommate. “Always say your prayers,” Phineas advises, “just in case there is a god.” Though distant, the ever-present war saturates the novel, its influence palpable on every page. In a moment of vulnerability, without fully comprehending his actions, Gene’s sudden lurch on an overhead tree branch indirectly brings about Phineas’ fall from grace and subsequent death.
Like the lives of Knowles’ characters, my day to day existence has become saturated with our current war. Though distant, the conflict creeps into my bed at night and waits patiently, exerting its presence as I open my eyes from a restless sleep. The war is always with me: when I lie down, when I wake up, when I go about my daily business. There is no getting away from it. I scan the daily newspaper headlines, and there it is in black and white; I turn on the car radio during my morning commute, and the latest bulletins blast my ears.
Only the daily number of casualties changes: those killed in skirmishes or by suicide bombers, those maimed by roadside IEDs. Sometimes a named journalist or high-level diplomat is kidnapped or murdered. Mostly the numbers remain anonymous, linked only to a time and place; and the names of the places resurface constantly, like carved horses on a carousel turning steadily in time to the piping of the deafening calliope.
Here at home, life goes on as usual. I arise, drive to the gym for my morning workout; shower up, grab a cup of coffee on my way to work; see my patients, and then pack it in at the end of an exhausting day; return home late to take my dinner alone in silence, while my wife sits in front of the TV, watching the evening news broadcast on the war.
The debate rages on: what can be done to remedy the situation? A troop surge? Immediate withdrawal? A timed exit strategy? Dig in for the long term? There are no good answers, it seems. As the saying goes, when we’re up to our derrières in alligators, it’s difficult to remember that the primary objective was to drain the swamp.
At this point, I’m desperate for a separate peace. But only the words of the Bard reverberate inside my head: “To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub.”