by Ernst Jünger [translated from the German by Michael Hofmann]
(Storm of Steel, 280)
On the second to last page of this insanely high adrenaline memoir, "privately published" in a limited edition of 2,000 copies in 1920 when somebody massively underestimated its popular appeal, Ernst Jünger matter-of-factly relates what it was like to be a survivor of the trench warfare and gas attacks of World War I: "Leaving out trifles such as ricochets and grazes, I was hit at least fourteen times, these being five bullets, two shell splinters, one shrapnel ball, four hand-grenade splinters and two bullet splinters, which, with entry and exit wounds, left me with an even twenty scars. In the course of this war, where so much of the firing was done into empty space, I still managed to get myself targeted no fewer than eleven times" (288). His soldier's luck, in combination with good genes, must have carried on well after the war ended because the resilient Tristram Shandy-reading lieutenant lived to be over a hundred years old before he finally passed away in 1998! In any event, reading about what Jünger called his "adventures," it's hard to underestimate just how fortunate he was to make it out of the war alive. His memories, based in part on a diary he kept during the hostilities, are extraordinarily vivid. En route to the Battle of the Somme on the road to the village of Guillemont, for example, Jünger paints a picture which is almost Thérèse Raquin-esque in terms of the sensory overload: "Over the ruins, as over all the most dangerous parts of the terrain, lay a heavy smell of death, because the fire was so intense that no one could bother with the corpses. You really did have to run for your life in these places, and when I caught the smell of it as I ran, I was hardly surprised - it belonged to there. Moreover, this heavy, sweetish atmosphere was not merely disgusting; it also, in association with the piercing fogs of gunpowder, brought about an almost visionary excitement, that only the extreme nearness of death is able to produce" (93). Elsewhere, the "sweetish, oniony smell" of a British phosgene gas attack in or near the woods of St-Pierre-Vaast serves as the Proustian madeleine for this surrealistic turn: "With weeping eyes, I stumbled back to the Vaux woods, plunging from one crater into the next, as I was unable to see anything through the misted visor of my gas mask. With the extent and inhospitableness of its spaces, it was a night of eerie solitude. Each time I blundered into sentries or troops who had lost their way, I had the icy sensation of conversing not with people, but with demons. We were all roving around in an enormous dump somewhere off the edge of the charted world" (114). Ironically or not given all the death and destruction witnessed and then depicted by Jünger, he doesn't come off as either anti-war or as an apologist for the war. There's very little editorializing along those lines. Which isn't to say that he isn't sensitive to the costs of the war to friends and foes alike as his descriptions of the impact of nonstop bombing--"The villages we passed through on our way had the look of vast lunatic asylums" (127); his account of a skirmish with Indian troops, "who had travelled thousands of miles across the sea, only to give themselves a bloody nose on this god-forsaken piece of earth against the Hanoverian Rifles"--"The whole scene - the mixture of the prisoners' laments and our jubilation - had something primordial about it. This wasn't war; it was ancient history" (150); and his remorse over a soldier he killed at close range all make abundantly clear: "Outside it [a dugout] lay my British soldier, little more than a boy, who had been hit in the temple. He lay there, looking quite relaxed. I forced myself to look closely at him. It wasn't a case of 'you or me' any more. I often thought back on him; and more with the passing of the years. The state, which relieves us of our responsibility, cannot take away our remorse; and we must exercise it. Sorrow, regret, pursued me deep into my dreams" (241).