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.
I just finished The Unwomanly Face of War, Svetlana Alexievitch’s oral history of Soviet women in World War Two. I could only read the book a little at a time; there was too much pain, too much blood, too much thoughtless heroism in the face of incomprehensible suffering. Reading it quickly would inure you to their stories; precious testaments from a species of humans that once lived and is no more.
I wanted to share a few passages that stood out for me:
I remember the sounds of the war. Everything around booms and clangs, crackles from fire… In war your soul ages. After the war I was never young…
It’s a pity I was only beautiful during the war… My best years were spent there. Burned up.
Can I find the right words? I can tell about how I shot. But about how I wept, I can’t. That will be left untold. I know one thing: in war a human being becomes frightening and incomprehensible. How can one understand him? You’re a writer. Think up something yourself. Something beautiful. Without lice and filth, without vomit… without the smell of vodka and blood… not so frightening as life.
Sometimes I come home after these meetings with the thought that suffering is solitude. Total isolation. At other times it seems to me that suffering is a special kind of knowledge. There is something in human life that it is impossible to convey and preserve in any other way, especially among us. That is how the world is made; that is how we are made.
We had the Chimuk brothers in our detachment… They ran into an ambush in their village, took refuge in some barn, there was shooting, the barn was set on fire. They went on shooting till they ran out of cartridges…Then they came out, burned… they were driven around the villages in a cart to see who would recognize them as their own. So that people would give themselves away…
The entire village stood there. Their father and mother stood there, nobody made a sound. What a heart the mother must have had not to cry out. Not to call. She knew that if she began to weep, the whole village would be burned down. She wouldn’t be killed alone. Everybody would be killed. For one German killed they used to burn an entire village. She knew… There exists awards for everything, but no award, not even the highest Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union is enough for that mother… For her silence…
So what now? I carried our wounded man and thought: “Should I go back for the German or not?” I knew that if i left him, he would die soon. From loss of blood…And I crawled back for him. I went on carrying both of them…My precious one… there can’t be one heart for hatred and another for love. We only have one, and I always thought about how to save my heart.
What was going on in our souls then. Because there probably will never again be such people as we were then. Never! So naive and so sincere. With such faith.
I am reading Nobel Prize Winner Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of Soviet women in World War 2, The Unwomanly Face of War.
Some passages that have stood out so far:
I often see how they sit and listen to themselves. To the sound of their own soul. They check it against the words. After long years a person understands that this was life, but now its time to resign yourself and get ready to go. You don’t want to, and it’s too bad to vanish just like that. Casually. In passing. And when you look back you feel a wish not only to tell about your life, but also to fathom the mystery of life itself. To answer your own question: Why did all this happen to me? To gaze at everything with a parting and slightly sorrowful look… Almost from the other side… No longer any need to deceive anyone or yourself.
For us old people life is hard… but not because our pensions are small and humiliating. What wounds us most of all is that we have been driven from a great past into an unbearably small present.
In the center there is always this: how unbearable and unthinkable it is to die. And how much more unbearable and unthinkable it is to kill, because a woman gives life.
On her work as an oral historian / journalist
I don’t simply record. I collect, I track down the human spirit wherever suffering makes a small man into a great man. Wherever a man grows. And then for me he is no longer the mute and traceless proletarian of history