I’ve read many accounts of war over the years: campaign map style histories where individuals hardly feature; swashbuckling adventures ala Sharpe; Antony Beevor’s awestruck reconstruction of the Battle of Stalingrad; the intimate realism of Svetlana Alexievitch.
Never have I seen death described as in this excerpt from Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel. Jünger served at the front for all four years of the First World War, and his war diaries were the basis for the book.
In the ripped-up no man’s land lay the victims of the attack, still facing the enemy; their grey tunics barely stood out from the ground… A young man tossed in a shell-crater, his features already yellow with his impending death. He seemed not to want to be look at; he gave us a cross shrug and pulled his coat over his head, and lay still
From a book of nearly three hundred pages, this single paragraph haunts me.
What was that young man experiencing? Shame? Despair? Did he want a final moment of solitude? Was he angry at his powerlessness, at the uncaring god that had left him alone in a shell hole to die? Was he exhausted? Did he want to avoid pitying looks and empty words?
We’ll never know. Jünger moves on past him, never to return.
Stoicism, fear, acceptance, and rage. They are the forms we are comfortable arranging the dying in. But there is something about this young man, all those years ago, alone in a shell hole, curling away from the sight of others, that breaks my heart.