Required Reading: “Forgotten Soldier”

I am currently reading “Forgotten Soldier,” by Guy Sajer, a half-German Alsatian who served as an infantryman in the German Army during the last three years of World War Two on the Eastern Front. I’m about halfway through, and let me tell you, I’ve seen enough. For those of you who do not know, the struggle between Germany and Russia in Eastern Europe was the largest and most devastating military conflict in history. For perspective, in its conflict with both Germany and Japan, The United States suffered a total of about 437,000 combat deaths. It’s a staggering number and should never be discounted, but the Soviet Union, in its struggle with Germany, suffered over ten million military deaths. That excludes wounded and the vast number of its civilians killed (also over ten million).

Ten. Million.

That is an insane number of soldiers KIA in a single war. The scope of the brutality in the Eastern Front is literally impossible to imagine. Sajer captures as much as he can through the eyes of a teenage enlisted man and it is some of the most unrelentingly grim stuff I have ever read: mud, filth, frostbite, dust, spattered guts, deafening noise, shellshock, devastated cities, crying, pants-pissing, putrefying corpses, and senseless, profitless slaughter. The Germans suffered a few million military casualties of their own and one can see how.

It is neither glorious, uplifting, regretful, redemptive, nor anything a lot of people would expect a war narrative to be.  Situated where I am in the story now, the winter of 1943-1944, I know the history of the events  and what Mr. Sajer is trying to do well enough that it will only get worse before it comes to a halt in 1945. So why continue to look into the abyss?

For one thing, I feel like I owe it to him. Sajer hints repeatedly at his bitterness over his (and his comrades) fighting for so long and so bravely on the losing side of such a conflict. They had to suffer not only defeat after all their heroism and sacrifice in standing by each other, but also oblivion: history has cast them indelibly as villains. There were no parades, no awards, no monuments, and no commendations to provide some measure of redress for everything they endured. This seems sad, because in “Forgotten Soldier,” Sajer and his companions were no Nazi ideologues, SS fanatics, or concentration camp guards. They were literally a bunch of kids who had no idea what they were getting into. He refers more than once to a sense of duty to tell the story and capture what it felt like, because he feared no one would remember the perspective of men like him (and his dead friends) otherwise. Who would remember? That resonates with me.

I have long felt it was my lot to remember the forgotten or misunderstood warriors: the thousands of slain Chechen nationalists, mislabeled ‘terrorists’ by the world, and their families blown to shreds by indiscriminate Russian carpet-bombing; the poorer Crusaders, driven half-mad by thirst, hunger and two years of deprivation, outside the walls of Jerusalem in 1099; the moldering bones of the Roman Nineteenth Legion in some deep German forest, victims of their own commander’s arrogance and the decadence of a civilization that took its own superiority for granted.

Because of course, they weren’t ALL ‘bad guys:’ not even the infantrymen of the troops Adolf Hitler sent to war. The ‘enemy’ never is. And this is why I think a lot of other people owe it to Sajer to read the story as well, even if they don’t feel my natural inclination to do so. People who would send their countrymen to war, any war,  for a cause they believe is just, would do well to remember what’s truly waiting for them. That isn’t a call for pacifism, which I think is unrealistic given some of the evils that show themselves in the world (Hitler’s menace being one of the greatest), but rather a call to remember what Sajer depicts: whatever the cause or its justification, war is most often fought by regular people, standing by their comrades, for whom combat has formed a unique bond. At a human level, the sacrifices made by these people are beyond the comprehension of most folks.

I remember when I picked this book up to see if I thought it might be worth a read, I opened to a random page and caught Sajer’s description, with full horror, of German Tiger tanks rolling over a trench full of Russian soldiers, and his realization that human remnants were ground into the tank treads. It seized me immediately. I think of those tank treads every time I hear some politician in a suit talk about bombing, or some person I know talk about ‘boots on the ground’ in some foreign country. Nietschze warned us about gazing too long into the abyss, for then it also gazes back into us– we become monsters when we look too long on monstrosity and are desensitized. Maybe some of our leaders and citizens over the years have failed to look long enough. Guy Sajer’s sixteen year old Alsatian grunt is worth following for every page, as a reminder of war’s true face, whatever side of history we might be on.

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