Monday, February 8, 2010

Storm of Steel

Storm of Steel
© 1921 Ernst Jünger
319 pages


Storm of Steel is the oddest war memoir I have ever read. I've read a few of them in hopes of understanding various motivations for young men marching off to war, and ensure that I never foget the human cost of war and nationalism, but Lieutnant Jünger's story begins when he and his company disembark from troop trains onto the front and ends with his final retreat from the front, having been injured repeatedly in the meantime. For about four years, Jünger lives in the trenches or in occupied French homes on the front when he is not in the hospital recovering. He writes of life in the trenches and the experience of "going over": he coughs his way through clouds of poison gas, roots for Baron von Richoften's airmen above him, admires the new tanks being brought into battle, and writes frequently on the trials of war. 

 Although he offers many details about life at war, humanity seems to be missing. Junger is a curious soldier: his passions are never inflamed. He sees the war as a rough trade, a game almost: he does not view enemy soldiers with hatred nor contempt, and he pities his fellow Germans who have made the war personal. He sees the war as a crucible of sorts: a great trial of the soul. It is a chance fro him to prove himself. He sees nothing greater than  a man's ability to stand in the admist of a storm of bullets and artillery and fight -- never losing his nerve, never doubting that his cause is just and his duty imperative. Aside from this, Junger seems detached from the dirty business of fighting. He scarcely reacts to the horrors around him except to hope that things can be repaired after the war. When he is injured by shrapnel and arms fire, his reaction is bizaarely non-emotional. He merely comments that blood loss is copious and summons one of his soldiers to help him back to the nurse's station. When a trench partially caves in on him, he comments that it made for a "very unpleasant" half-hour.  What he does wax emotional about beyond courage under fire  is a soldier's Duty, which is his primary motivation for fighting. So committed is he to "duty and honor" that when he and his company are partially surrounded by English troops, he drags himself up from the ground with blood in his lungs and starts shooting at them at close range. Incredibly, his company escapes to safety.

There are many details here for the student of the Great War: one of the most poignant for me was his account of digging a trench and encountering long-buried equipment left over from 1914, serving as a grim reminder that for all the western front's bloodshed, the lines of battle scarcely  moved.  Despite this, I don't know how effective  the memoir might be in communicating the horror of life on the front. Jünger's detachment seems to deny war its sting, but at the same time adds a deeper level of subtle horror in giving him the ability to accept it. The worst kind of tragedy is the unnoticed. Although Jünger's attitude makes him appear to be a stereotypical soulless Prussian soldier, intent on advancing the Fatherland, I have not noticed the attitude expressed in such an extreme way before -- and I wonder if this version of the memoir has been edited to reflect the postwar Jünger's political views. 

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