The Second World War permeates the entire novel. Ostensibly hinged upon the success of the characters at war is the determination for Larry LaSalle to rape Nicole, and Francis to avenge this crime against her. Without the war, Francis would not have been maimed, and his life would have turned out very differently: possibly he would have ended it on the pavement beneath the steeple of St. Jude‘s Church. But why would Cormier have his character injured as a victim in war, or LaSalle decorated as a war hero? There are several reasons why Cormier might have used the War to trigger key events in the book, and one can look at what the war shows and tells us about heroes...
Francis is tortured: he says that jumping onto a grenade was just a way to end his life, that he was not being heroic or courageous, merely cowardly. His conscience plagues him, as he is a decorated hero, and was awarded a Silver Star. In much the same way, Larry LaSalle is the anti-hero of the book. At its conclusion we see his vile nature in his attempt to justify his paedophiliac tendencies. Yet he too was awarded the Silver Star, for heroism. Socially, Francis is recognised by comrades in a bar as a hero, despite his intrinsic sense of guilt and disingenuousness, as Larry LaSalle is given a hero‘s welcome as Joey LeBlanc calls „You‘re our hero!“ at a ceremony presided over by the mayor of Frenchtown in his honour. This juxtaposes the difference between a way hero and a true hero, highlighting two key literary themes of the novel: the meaning of heroism, and the contrast between image and reality. Chapter 8 of the book is very telling in light of this - a war veteran proclaims „We weren‘t heroes, we were only there.“ This illustrates what Cormier had set out to identify: the way was not like it was in the glamourous „newsreels“ and in face we should always be critical about those who are claimed to be heroes, particularly considering that Larry LaSalle‘s rape of Nicole would not have been possible had the children of Frenchtown looked beyond his shiny teeth and not allowed him to get so close to the innocent girl who subsequently became his victim. There is great irony in that those who should feel like heroes, like the young soldiers of the likes of Francis Cassavant and Arthur Rivier, have ended up suicidal and stuck, drunken in Pee Alley respectively, while a serial rapist is heralded as a champion of moral standards. The use of war is a clever ruse by Cormier to encourage us as readers to consider what a hero truly is, as it often may not be the one with a medal on a cinema screen but the unrecognised individuals like Nicole Renard who demonstrate true, heroic stoicism. In writing the book, Cormier said that he had set out to demonstrate the value of true everyday heroes, and in using war as the backdrop to his novel he has certainly done that.
Notwithstanding the War is even more relevant to the plot and characters of the book, and it is from war from which Francis derives his physical ailments and psychological torture, even as he sleeps. This is done firstly to demonstrate the horror of war, once again showing a contrast between expectations and actual fact, in which the war itself is glorified as being patriotic and glamourous in media, but in face has harsh consequences on all partakers in warfare: Larry LaSalle in his decrepit state at the end of the book, Enrico with missing limbs and Francis whose face was blown off by a grenade. Cormier has used the novel to take a firm stance of the horrors of war, to tell the world about its devastating affects upon the young people of the world.
However, it could well be the case that there is a deeper reason as to Francis‘ injury. Perhaps, for instance, it is merely a vehicle for fate: for the tragic irony that Francis tries to commit what his religion sees as an act of cowardice and not only survives but is punished by a morally judgemental god for doing so by being gravely wounded, and almost physically cut off from the rest of society. Or perhaps the tragedy is merely a means of drawing sympathy from the audience to the boy whose life was so badly affected by the knock-on impacts of the rape, or in showing how prepared we must be for the bad things that happen to principally good people; we as readers must consider critically the actions of jumping on a grenade, or not acting when our friends are in time of great need, wherein both instances the action of inaction had terrible effects, and was seemingly for self-centred purpose.
The war has great effect upon every single character, and most details of the plot. The war is arguably a catalyst for Francis seeking revenge, Larry LaSalle committing suicide, and the same sexually assaulting a character. The book would have been entirely different without the war, after which we see how Francis had changed in order for the plot to unfold: how he has become a cold, clinical seeker of revenge from being an innocent child. This transition from boy into man triggers his vengeful vendetta, and therefore is imperative in establishing the key events of the novel.
But the reason of setting the plot and characters against war could be interpreter as being far deeper. Larry and Francis go to war, starting in the overtly competitive table-tennis championship to their final confrontation, and this conflict alludes to the aggressive nature of war. However, many of the key themes of the novel are lucidly demonstrated to the reference of war, most notably its horrendous affect upon young Americans as well as the true nature of a hero, and through the symbolic allusion of an ideal of a war hero lies an effective juxtaposition with the courageous morality of conscience and forgiveness in the ethics of the protagonists, thereby emphasising their plight at the hands of those who do not compare carefully enough the juxtaposition between the conventional image of a hero, and the true nature of heroism.