Wednesday, January 26, 2011

War Book: The Forgotten Soldier

I recently finished reading Guy Sajer’s account of fighting for the Wehrmacht on the eastern front from 1942 through 1945. I have not read many war stories so I feel somewhat unburdened by the overuse of language to describe the endless suffering and privations of a soldier. The account was enthralling and written in a style that chilled your bones during the Russian winter yet (thankfully) showed some restraint in repainting the full horror of battle.

Sajer’s experience informs me of the tragedy of war. Between the German/Prussian/Polish/Russian towns razed and the slaughter of civilians fleeing before the Russian horde, Forgotten Soldier impresses the obvious fact that war is costly and never bloodless. In what little I’ve read of Ralph Peters’ work, this theme - war is “war” - kept coming to mind from Sajer. Expectations of bloodless conflict and “clean” victory are foolhardy. It causes me to have at once a greater respect and fear (how they are bedfellows!) of armed conflict.

Guy’s character appears neutral to the reader and as a Franco-German he seems helplessly pulled into this conflict. I don’t hate him as a Nazi. I found myself rooting for him and his comrades against the Russians, who appear truly wicked. One has to remind oneself who the original aggressors were despite the brutality of the Russian reprisals. The entire ordeal smacks of the biblical scale of retribution poured out by one nation onto another. The cold irony of the Russian advance is that the people who supported the army/regime which massacred the Jews received similar treatment from the East. The Jews were handed over to the SS and then the Germans, Poles, and Prussians were handed over to Ivan. The entire ordeal is unthinkably horrible.

It is tempting to think of that time as simpler: Axis = bad, Allies = good. Sajer doesn’t allow such simplification. His humanity is magnified in each conflict and “right” and “wrong” are no longer appropriate labels for Germans or Americans. Such is war it seems.

My favorite moment from the book was the lone glimpse of humanity in the Russian soldiers. Sajer and his unit were defending a line against several oncoming enemy tanks. Their minefield had been removed either by artillery or a previous wave of attack. Firing machine guns and anti-tank weapons of every sort Sajer’s unit destroyed 2 tanks while a third was critically damaged. Unable to fight with their armor, the tankers exit and draw pistols. The heroism of the two is rewarded by the Germans not with execution (which was the custom practiced by Ivan) but by capture and a round of Schnapps after such displays of valor. For a moment I felt as if I was reading about some embellished aristocratic bond between fighter pilots of the previous Great War.

The denouement was startling in its emotion and brevity. A return to normal life after his war experience seems impossible. I do hope writing his book was cathartic. It goes without saying that I greatly recommend the book.

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