Ernst Junger's memoir of his time on the Western Front (1914-1918) is a powerful glimpse at what it's like to be a soldier, made all the more powerful because it's unadorned with philosophical introspection or politics. The reader joins Junger as he joins his unit in Champagne and leaves him during his final convalescence in a Hanover hospital. In between, we vicariously experience the daily life of a German officer and his men - and "vicarious" is about as close as any rational person would want to get to war.
Junger is not
a pacifist. He did not enter the war an eager, young idealist only to have reality turn him into a burnt-out cynic or ardent pacifist as often seems to happen in other, perhaps better-known memoirs. He entered the war an ardent nationalist and patriot, and came out no less so. He is not, however, blind to the horrors and rampant stupidity and the capricious fortune that makes one man a hero and another a coward (or dead). A couple of examples: In the final months of the war, Junger's company (about 80 men) is ordered to advance againt the British lines. They enter the maze of trenches, quickly losing their way and stumble upon an equally confused group of British (New Zealand) soldiers (about 200). The surprise is so complete, the "fog of war" so dense, that, without a melee, Junger's men capture them all. In another engagement, Junger is ordered to take 14 men across the no-man's zone in a reconnaissance mission and to capture some soldiers for interrogation. Almost from the beginning, the patrol goes awry and 10 of the 14 never return. Needless to say, the mission objectives remained unfulfilled. But that appears to be par for the course - little exercises designed to keep the men occupied but with little or no tactical value.
Reading Storm of Steel
, I'm reminded of Christopher Hedge's War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning Paperback, where that author argues the allure of war - the feeling of ultimate power and aliveness - is what draws (mostly) men into an army. Junger was the living example of Hedge's theoretical recruit (he died in 1998).
A few of the more affecting passages and observations follow:
The chapter titled "Guillemont" is a nice snapshot of the war. Endless days in the trenches, the filth and physical misery, interrupted by pointless forays against enemy positions. Here and all through the book, Junger's emotional distance strikes the reader (or at least this reader). Colleagues and soldiers drift in and out of the narrative, often with little or no introduction and (perhaps) the briefest of leave takings.
In that same chapter, Junger defines what makes the "good soldier": "Nothing was left in this voice but equanimity, apathy; fire had burned everything else out of it. It's men like that that you need for fighting" (p. 92).
There are flashes of sardonic wit, as when the author describes the travails he encounters trying to protect his bicycles from shellfire: "To this unpleasant bit of target-practice I lost four bicycles.... They were comprehensively remodelled and cast to the four winds" (p. 139).
In that same chapter ("In the Village of Fresnoy") we get another glimpse into Junger's idolization of war and the soldier: "There was in these men a quality that both emphasized the savagery of war and transfigured it at the same time: an objective relish for danger, the chevalieresque urge to prevail in battle. Over four years, the fire smelted an ever-purer, ever-bolder warriorhood" (p. 140).
The hypocrisy and lying in war (regarding the write-up of an action): "Then we discussed the most important aspect of the affair: the report. We wrote it in such a way that we were both satisfied" (p. 155).
Evidence that even a "warrior" need to psych himself up to kill: "...I chewed my pipe and tried to talk myself into feeling brave.... Several times I murmured a phrase of Ariosto's: `A great heart feels no dreadof approaching death, whenever it may come, so long as it be honourable'" (p. 171).
And finally, a troubling sentiment that's excused all sorts of atrocities: "The state, which relieves us of our responsibility, cannot take away our remorse..." (p. 241).