Frank O'Connor's writing frequently deals with the issues of everyday violence which people have to engage in, whether they want to or not. Some people commit crimes because they believe that they have no choice. Other people kill in the name of religion. One of the most universally acceptable reasons for widespread acts of murder is nationalism. Two political factions, if not more, fight against one another in order that their perspective becomes accepted by the other population. For soldiers, particularly those who are members of the lower infantry ranks, they are given orders which must be carried out. If a soldier is told to kill, then he must continue killing until he is given an order to stop. It is a fact that soldiers are ordered to kill other human beings for reasons which may not be clear to them, which they may not even agree with; to think is not the soldier's job. Even when the motivation for the war is clear and the side of right and wrong obvious to the soldier and his brothers in arms, the issue of murder in the name of nationalism can become confusing. It can be far easier to dehumanize another person as an abstract term, as "the enemy," in theory or principle, but this becomes far more difficult when that abstracted enemy is represented in a single flesh and blood human being, no different from the soldier in question, his family and friends, and his fellow soldiers on the line of battle. In O'Connor's "Guests of the Nation," he addresses the issue of a soldier's duty towards his country and commanders and how that is often in direct contrast to his individual sense of morals and ethics.
The central character at the heart of the story is a soldier named Bonaparte. Bonaparte's name is a very interesting choice on O'Connor's part because of the historical connection (Winston 2009). Napoleon Bonaparte was the leader of France and fought against the British for the majority of his rule. Although set in the 1930s and the civil war between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and British over the issue of Irish independence, the factors of war remain the same: young men have to take up arms against other people in the name of their country, regardless of personal feeling or even friendship. During this period in history, violence was an everyday occurrence; many parts of Ireland and England were bombed without concern for who would be targeted. Explosions went off in normal city streets, in government buildings, all over. The IRA took a great deal of the blame for these attacks. For the men in the IRA, they were focused on the goal of their organization: namely independence. When the political motivation is great enough, even murder can become acceptable, particularly when you do not have to be there to commit the crime. It is easy to lay down a bomb and set a timer; far easier than looking a man in the eye and pull the trigger, ending his life which is the reality that the men in this story must face.
The members of the IRA, Bonaparte, Jeremiah Donovan, and the ironically named Noble, all perform their assigned tasks in the hope that their political ambition will one day be realized. They have been indoctrinated in the belief that the actions of the IRA are justified because the British government should not be able to rule over Ireland. The young men are able to maintain this psychological perspective so long as it goes unchallenged, except for Donovan who seems to be completely devoid of emotional conflict regarding the coming murders. It is likely that they have never given serious consideration to the darker side of the fight for independence. Instead, they are overtaken by the glamorous notion of fighting for a political ideology and for the independence of the people. These are certainly romantic ambitions, and arguably noble ones, however when faced with the reality of what the fight for independence would cost, the dream begins to get tarnished. According to Simon Korner (2008), "The story has been widely regarded as an expression of revulsion against war, a turning away from armed struggle, a humanist statement: that no cause, no matter how right, can justify killing." Close examination of the story shows this to be exactly the case. Bonaparte in particular struggles with the concept of patriotism in the face of moral turpitude.
Trapped in a farmhouse with their two British hostages for a period of days has changed the way that these young men see their enemy, as it has changed the way the British soldiers view the IRA members. A great friendship has developed in these close quarters, which would be no problem if not for the fact that the members of this friendship are all sworn enemies, dedicating themselves to the nation of their origin and promising to sacrifice whatever is necessary to bring the other side back in line. This relationship is a perfectly natural occurrence, resulting from five young men of similar interests and companionable personalities all being cut off from the rest of the world. Bonaparte was not even wholly aware that Belcher and Hawkins were being kept as hostages. Eugene O'Brien (2007), writes: "The feelings towards the Englishmen would seem to set this story in the realm of honorable comradeship -- the notion that war is a form of advanced game and when chaps are not fighting they can show each other mutual respect and treat each other decently, as chums" (page 115). There is nothing negative about the interactions between these men, aside from their allegiances and their opinions on subjects like religion. Despite their differences, they have become close to the point where they all consider each other to be friends; the fact that they are enemies does not matter in this limited space. In addition to this, something of a maternal relationship has sprung up between the old woman who owns the house and Belcher, one of the British soldiers.
The relationship between the men becomes stronger than their nationalist ties, at least on the behalf of the British; this is indicated when Hawkins says, "You and me are chums. You can't come over to my side, so I'll come over to your side…Give me a rifle and I'll go along with you and the other lads" (O'Connor 1987). These fellows have transcended the dynamic between enemy factions and have become a sort of family, one which is destroyed when the war intrudes into their makeshift homestead. For the British soldiers, Bonaparte notes that they seem content to be hostages instead of having to take part in the bloodshed outside their door. This is very likely the case; most men would rather sit around and talk and play cards than shoot and kill their fellow men. The British were trained with the ideology that they were putting down the Irish rebels and ending IRA terrorism, but this is hard to remember when faced with three companionate young men.
When the English soldiers are taken out to be killed, Bonaparte is completely overcome with disgust. He wishes that his friends would either fight with him or try to run as that would make their execution easier. As they are neither of them willing to do this, Bonaparte is forced to commit the murder of two people whom he had come to care about. It is interesting to see how the various characters react when the murders are imminent. Hawkins begs for his life while Belcher simply accepts his fate, understanding that in joining the military this was a potential end for him. At first Hawkins does not even believe what is going on, insisting that it must be a sick joke; his friends, his "chums" could not be his killers. Belcher is calmer about the whole thing. He does not want to make things harder for his friends and goes so far as to put on his own blindfold (Renner 1990,-page 371). When facing death, he does not blame the executioners, but rather says, "I don't mind…I think you're all good lads, if that's what you mean. I'm not complaining" (O'Connor 1987). Ironically this makes the murder all the harder because then Bonaparte is forced again to see the British soldiers as friends and individuals when he would much rather revert to a point when they were simply "the enemy."
At story's end, Bonaparte is a completely changed person. Whatever had gone on before the events which are told in the story are irrelevant which is why so little background is given on the characters. A single moment ended two lives, but it forever changed the lives of those who did the killing, with the exception of Donovan. Bonaparte says, "With me it was as if the patch of bog where the Englishmen were was a million miles away, and even Noble and the old woman, mumbling behind…