Monday, May 07, 2018

Immersion (War is Hell, part 4)

Regular readers have probably already noticed that one way I tend to dive into things is bookishly, reading many books on a similar topic close together. Then they can reinforce each other. (This was also helpful when taking four classes about Roman art, architecture, archeology together, though at times it felt like overcommitting.)

It is not really surprising that the experiences of US forces in World War II - read about in Audie Murphy's To Hell and Back and Hampton Sides' Ghost Soldiers recently, and in Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken a little farther back - contain certain similarities.

It should possibly be more surprising to find those same similarities in the account of a German soldier in WWI, as told in Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. 

Maybe it is not all that surprising. The Germany that went to war a few years later was furious with the book, the movie, and the author. Remarque himself was able to escape the country, but the Nazis beheaded one of his sisters and sent a bill to the other, ostensibly for the executed sister's own acts in undermining Germany's war effort, but more obviously as a way of lashing out at her brother.

Realistically, the similarities aren't that much of a political nature. It ends up being more about the moments of recklessness, and the growing deadness inside. It's about the suffering, and how starving changes you physically, but also how wonderful it can be then to have a full stomach and to get rested for a change. Reduced to basics, good food, good rest, and good company end up being the most important things.

None of the books spend that much time on politics. All Quiet spends a little more, but that is merely a discussion on how the physical features of a country - like mountains in France or rivers in Germany - can't offend each other, and shoemakers and farmers in the different countries are really very similar, so what can they be there for? And that is surely that without fighting wars a leader doesn't get a reputation, and it must be useful for some, even if it is not useful for them there in the trenches.

There are many ways in which Remarque's book is more philosophical. I don't know if that came from being part of an older generation, or waiting longer after his combat experience to write, but there is a part where he points out that he and his counterparts are too young to be attached to anything. They have not married or found trades yet, but they are no longer children, and it will make going back hard.
Kantorek would say that we stood on the threshold of life. And so it would seem. We had as yet taken no root. The war swept us away. For the others, the older men, it is but an interruption. They are able to think beyond it. We, however, have been gripped by it and do not know what the end may be. We know only that in some strange and melancholy way we have become a waste land.

To Hell concludes with Murphy vowing that he will learn to live again, because he realizes he has lost his ability to live normally.
In the streets, crowded with merrymakers, I feel only a vague irritation. I want company, and I want to be alone. I want to talk, and I want to be silent. I want to sit, and I want to walk. There is VE-Day without, but no peace within.
An earlier story he was told of a man who completed his tour and re-enlisted after being unable to adjust to civilian life, and then died during his second tour, must have made his fears seem worse, but he is not giving up.

Gradually it becomes clear. I will go back. I will find the kind of girl of whom I once dreamed. I will learn to look at life through uncynical eyes, to have faith, to know love. I will learn to work in peace as in war. And finally--finally, like countless others, I will learn to live again.
I don't know if the words ring hollow more because there is no plan or more because I know that he struggled with PTSD and anger for the rest of his life. It's not that the desire rings hollow - I absolutely believe in his desire and determination - but I worry about the possibility.

Reading Remarque's words, I had a better understanding of why it might be hard, but not necessarily an understanding of how to make it easier. He may not have known either. His main character had dabbled in writing before the war, as Remarque had, and Remarque was able to successfully return to it. He also ended up living kind of an unsettled life, full of excesses. Was that because of his wartime experience, or for having to flee his country as it was overtaken by Nazis (not realizing at the time that it left his sisters in danger), or was it something else?

Because of reading the books so close together, I associate these authors in my mind, but it's not necessarily a new thought either. A few years ago I ran into a friend from school whom I had written to for a while after he joined the Marines. We had not seen each other for ages, and we were glad to see each other, but he had some hesitation.

"I know you don't like the military." he said.
"It's not that," I told him. "I worry about it."

Then he admitted to seeing and doing some things that he might have been better off without. I had heard about some anger issues through the grapevine before that. I mean, it's not that I didn't know at all, but it felt so much more tragic when he was there in front of me.

And it's not that there is never a need to fight, but the prices are high and I worry about it.

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