Throughout the existence of man on earth, the four elements of earth, air, fire and water have been vital to man’s existence and have been the driving force in sustaining the life and insuring the survival of humanity. These four elements are four basic building blocks that allow man to not only function and live, but to further himself and develop into the dominant race on the planet. These four elements are four basic natural commodities that ensure the survival of the human race but when they are present at times where unnatural things take place, they can take life away. War is not natural. At times of war, everything that is known and everything that is peaceful is thrown away to become an utter chaos where humans do things that are aberrant and deviate from what the course of nature is. It is at times like these where the four elements, which are the four natural building blocks of life, become a threat and inherently dangerous to the survival of humanity.
During The Wars, the four elements continually play a destructive role in the survival of soldiers in the army as the four elements they know and trust are continually manipulated against them. Fittingly, these four elements are placed as an inscription on the gravestone of the main character, Robert Ross, when he dies. Throughout the novel The Wars, the four elements are constantly deadly when they are found in places where they should not be, and when they are taken out of their natural state and used by humans against other humans; they are also present to help give and sustain life, but present as well to take it away which is why, in conjunction with their aforementioned attributes, the four elements are written on the gravestone of Robert Ross.
When any of the four elements are found in places where they do not belong, they invoke suffering, destruction, and in many cases death to those who are reached by their negative influence. The first example of the elements invoking death when they are found in unnatural places is when the book describes Rowena’s illness. The book says how “Still, they [Mr. and Mrs. Ross] were prepared for this. Children like Rowena weren’t expected to live…Hydrocephalics had a life expectancy of ten to fifteen years at most.” (15). This illustrates how water, one of the four elements, can be dangerous when it is found in a place where it shouldn’t be – in this case it is found in Rowena’s brain and this ends up leading to her early death. As water causes death when it is found in a place that is unnatural, it is written on the gravestone of Robert Ross. A second example in the novel of elements being dangerous in places they don’t belong is when Robert leads his troop through the fog of chlorine gas. This is shown when the book says “The air was foul with thick green fog. There was a smell that Robert could not decipher. ‘What’s that smell?’ he said to Poole. ‘Prob’ly chlorine,’ Poole replied ‘…but the groun’ is full of it [chlorine gas] here. There’s some that says a handful of this clay could knock a person out.'”(79).
This shows that when chlorine, a composite of minerals from the earth is found in the air – a place that it is not naturally found, it causes the air, which is one of the four elements, to become dangerous and hazardous to human survival. Lastly, the final example of one of the four elements becoming dangerous when they are in places where they should not be is when fire is put in the sky. This hazard is shown in the novel quite a few times when Germans are shelling the allied settlements and trenches. The “fire in the sky” is caused by the constant barrage of bullets and bombs that the Germans sent into the allied trenches. This fire was dangerous and shows how when fire is put in an unnatural place such as in the sky, it is very destructive and lethal and causes much harm. Due to the above examples and reasons, the four elements can be lethal and because of their deathly attributes when taken out of their natural state, they are written on the gravestone of Robert Ross.
Moreover, when any of the four elements are taken from their natural state and used unnaturally by humans against other humans, they become extremely dangerous and lead to great destruction prompting for their position on the tombstone of Robert Ross. Firstly, in The Wars fire is taken out of its original and natural position and state, and used by the Germans against the allies. This is shown when the book says “It was something called a ‘flame thrower’ and rumours had come down the line describing it – but no one had believed. Men, it was said, carrying tanks of fire on their backs came in advance of the troops and spread the fire with hoses. Water burned and snow went up in smoke. Nothing remained.”(147). This clearly illustrates how when fire is taken out of its natural state and used against humans, it becomes dangerous because the fire is not naturally meant to come out of hoses and tanks on the back of troops.
When it does do this unnatural behaviour, it causes ravaging of the lands, great suffering, and loss of life as illustrated by the quote and the destruction it causes when used against humans causes it, one of the four elements, to be put on the gravestone of Robert Ross. Secondly, the earth is used against armies and causes the ruin of many battalions during the war. This is shown in the novel when it says “In 1916, it was said that you ‘waded to the front.’ Men and horses sank from sight. They drowned in mud. Their graves, it seemed, just dug themselves and pulled them down.”(76). This displays how when the four elements, in this case earth, are used against humans, they become very dangerous as the mud from the earth becomes damaging to the battalions because of how it swallows men and horses whole. Due to its destructive and lethal power, earth is written as one of the four elements on Robert’s gravestone. Lastly, when another of the four elements, air, is used against humans, it causes a large amount of death. This is shown in the novel “When they made their way back through the trench there was no one there alive.
They had all been gassed or had frozen to death. Those who lay in water were profiled in ice. Everything was green: their faces – and their fingers – and their buttons. And the snow.”(146). This gives a clear picture of how air can be dangerous when used unnaturally by humans against other humans because the chlorine gas, a poisoning of the air by humans to kill other humans, does exactly and causes great loss of life as shown by the quote. In addition to this, the symbol of the snow – which itself symbolizes death, is said to be green. This snow is turned green by the chlorine gas and shows how the death is caused by the chlorine gas. The deathly power shown by the four elements when used against humans in the aforementioned examples causes them to be written on the gravestone of Robert Ross.
Furthermore, another reason that the four elements were written on the gravestone of Robert Ross is because the four elements are present in both giving life and causing death – the only two assurances in existence on earth. Firstly, earth is present in both giving life and causing death. The way this apparent is because humans are made from minerals found in the Earth. They live on the earth and use many of the earth’s natural resources and properties to survive and therefore, the earth gives life. On the flipside though, the earth also possess the capability to take it away. This is shown, especially in the novel by how the mud during the war ends up taking the lives of many soldiers and inflicting great suffering the battalions. Through these reasons, it is clear that the earth not only brings about and sustains life, but also causes the end of life and therefore since these are the only two certainties of existence, it is written on Robert Ross’s gravestone. Secondly water, another one of the four elements is present in both life and death. This is clearly displayed because water is a necessity for life as without it we could not exist.
Nowadays, as in the past and especially in times where supplies were very short, water has been a common grievance for many as in its purest form it is a vital life giving element but, as with the other four elements it causes damage and destruction to life as well. Water becomes dangerous, as shown in the novel, during times of flooding and when it is impure. When Robert Ross wandered out onto the dike and had to come back, he was almost killed by the flood of water and this is described when the book says “Water. A smooth, deep sound like a sluiceway…Dear Jesus – he was going to drown.”(85). This clearly exemplifies the destructive and lethal powers of the element of water as it causes death to many soldiers who drown in its merciless power, and in this situation Robert Ross narrowly escapes its fatal grip. As it has presence in both life and death, it is placed on the tombstone of Robert Ross. Thirdly, air impacts our life and gives the ability to survive on earth, but when it is tainted and poisoned, it has the ability to take that life away as well. This is fact because without air, the human race cannot survive as air is essential and vital to our survival.
Also a fact is that when this air becomes tainted with poison, an example that is clearly depicted in The Wars, the air causes much death and destruction. This death and destructive power is shown in the novel during the various gas attacks in which many of the soldiers die. In this, it proves that air is present in giving life as humans need it to survive but is also present in taking it away, which is shown clearly in the novel through the various destructive chlorine gas attacks. Due to the fact that the chlorine gas is present both in life and in death, it is written on the tombstone of Robert Ross. Lastly, fire is vital to the survival of man as it generates warmth and gives humans the ability to cook build tools etc.
Throughout existence, man’s survival has become dependant on many of the properties of fire. Unfortunately for man, fire has the ability take life away as well. This property is shown in the novel through an example mentioned previously of the flamethrowers. These flamethrowers are a distinct symbol of the destructive power of the element of fire. Through these proofs, it is clear that both vitality and the deathly power are present in the element of fire and as with all the other elements, their presence in the two certainties of existence – life and death, cause them to be written on the gravestone of Robert Ross.
The four elements are written on the gravestone of Robert Ross due to their devastating power when they are placed in an environment that is unnatural to them, and when they are used against humans. They are also written on the gravestone because they are present in both life and death – the only two certainties to existence. At unnatural times, Robert Ross stuck to his natural instincts which is also a reason that the four elements were put on his gravestone. These four elements are the basic building blocks of life and in times that are unnatural they can be manipulated in horrible and dangerous ways. Though they are needed for survival, they can lead to demise which makes them and exquisite commodity in both life and death. The inscription on a tombstone is a caption of one’s life. From the four elements life is born, and fittingly, through the four elements it can be taken away.