Memorial Day

I’m sitting here at dusk in my comfortable home… with my two children enjoying the luxury of television… having eaten a hot meal, though goodness knows I could stand to skip a few of them…

I see the pictures on social media: the flags, the pristine graveyards, the obligatory ‘support the troops’ posts, some from people who would object to giving the troops the health and mental health care they need when they come back.

And I think of war. How pointless and wasteful it almost always is. How glorified society makes it. Brave and noble heroes out fighting evil. Played by handsome and beautiful actors in the movies and TV shows. Their deaths noble and sometimes beautiful. Never pointless. Never wasted.

It’s all so very sanitized and glamorized for our convenience so we never feel regret at the horrors we choose to inflict on others and on our own young people.

From World War I, an interview with Stefan Westmann, NCO with the 29th Infantry Division of the German Army 1914-1915.

“In front of our trenches near La Bassée was a brickworks. The French used to put their bricks together as high as houses and on top of these houses there were machine guns which prevented us from going near them.

One day we got the order to attack these brickworks and to take them. The only possible means to take them was by a surprise attack in full daylight and we got orders to do so. We cut zigzag lines through our barbed wire entanglements and at noon we went over the top.

We ran approximately a hundred yards when we came under machine gunfire which was so terrific that the losses were so staggering that we got orders to lie down and to seek shelter. Nobody dared to lift his head because the very moment the machine gunners saw any movement they let fly.

And then the British artillery opened up. And the corpses and the hats and the arms and the legs flew about and we were cut to pieces…

One day we got orders to storm a French position. We got in and my comrades fell right and left of me, but then I was confronted by a French Corporal. He with his bayonet at the ready and I with my bayonet at the ready.

For a moment I felt the fear of death and in a fraction of a second I realised that he was after my life exactly as I was after his. I was quicker than he was. I tossed his rifle away and I ran my bayonet through his chest He fell, put his hand on the place were I had hit him and then I thrust again. Blood came out of his mouth and he died.

I felt physically ill. I nearly vomited. My knees were shaking and I was quite frankly ashamed of myself. My comrades, I was a corporal there then, were absolutely undisturbed by what had happened. One of them boasted that he had killed a poilu with the butt of his rifle, another one had strangled a captain, a French captain.

A third one had hit somebody over the head with his spade and they were ordinary men like me. One of them was a tram conductor, another one a commercial traveller, two were students, the rest were farm workers, ordinary people who never would have thought to do any harm to anyone.

How did it come about that they were so cruel? I remembered then that we were told that the good soldier kills without thinking of his adversary as a human being. The very moment he sees in him a fellow man, he is not a good soldier anymore. But I had in front of me the dead man, the dead French soldier and how would I liked him to have raised his hand.

I would have shaken his hand and we would have been the best of friends. Because he was nothing like me but a poor boy who had to fight, who had to go in with the most cruel weapons against a man who had nothing against him personally, who only wore the uniform of another nation, who spoke another language, but a man who had a father and mother and a family perhaps and so I felt.

I woke up at night sometimes drenched in sweat because I saw the eyes of my fallen adversary, of the enemy, and I tried to convince myself what would have happened to me if I wouldn’t have been quicker than he, what would have happened to me if I wouldn’t have thrust my bayonet first into his belly.

What was it that we soldiers stabbed each other, strangled each other, went for each other like mad dogs? What was it that we, who had nothing against them personally, fought with them to the very end and death?

We were civilised people after all. But I felt that the culture we boasted so much about is only a very thin lacquer which chipped off the very moment we come in contact with cruel things like real war. To fire at each other from a distance, to drop bombs is something impersonal.

But to see each other’s white in the eyes and then to run with a bayonet against a man it was against my conception and against my inner feeling.”


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