Thursday, May 26, 2016

"Storm of Steel" by Ernst Junger (1920)

This was one of those books that when you found it on the shelf you actually cheered out loud for joy in the middle of the store. Your local used books store has a pretty anemic World War One section and you have been looking for "Storm of Steel" for years, always dutifully glancing at the few titles on the lone WWI shelf and only occasionally picking up anything and taking it home. This is what you have been looking for. Sure, you could have just ordered it on Amazon, but this one has always seemed too personal for that. You wanted to find this one yourself. Sometimes the hunt is sweetest when it requires the most endurance.

The first edition of "Storm of Steel" was written in 1920, but Junger spent several decades refining it and re-releasing different versions. Also, there have been a few different translations from the native German into English. This translation was done in 2003 and the translator, Michael Hoffman, spends quite a bit of time describing the fascinating shortcomings of the previous attempts. Hoffman is clearly offended at the short shrift given Junger's masterwork by previous translators. His introduction was a reminder that translation is always a matter of interpretation. Translating word-for-word or even phrase-for-phrase often does not convey the original meaning from one language to another with any fidelity whatsoever. It takes a mind fluent in both languages to tease out the nuances and the beauty of a work and present it for someone who would otherwise have no hope of experiencing the original work. God bless good translators.

Or maybe you should just learn German and read the original as it was written. Lazy American.

The word baddass is too weak a title to describe Ernst Junger. A native born German with an affluent upbringing, he longed to prove himself in combat and joined the French Foreign Legion at the age of fourteen. When the summer of 1914 threatened to plunge his homeland into war, he raced home eager to do his part in service of his beloved Germany. Of the millions of German infantry commanders who served in the Great War, only 11 were awarded the Pour Le Merite, Imperial Germany's highest honor. Junger was one of those eleven. He led men into impossible battles and held untenable positions at all costs. After the war he questioned the rise of the Nazis and the wisdom of another war, publicly rejecting all requests to serve in Hitler's new government. Hitler recognized a fellow soldier, one who had served with such extraordinary distinction, and ordered him left untouched by his goose-stepping thugs, placing him in an administrative role in Paris. Implicated in Von Stauffenberg's plot to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazi government, Junger somehow survived the murderous purge of the German military and made it through his second World War unscathed. Junger lived to be 102 years old and was considered by many to be one of the greatest men Germany produced in the 20th Century.

Junger's writing style is simple and direct, almost stripped down. It's like listening to an acoustic set by the most talented musicians; direct raw and honest. Junger is not self serving in his story telling. He is matter-of-fact and to the point. He never extols the virtues of war but he never condemns war either, except to lament the horrors he had had to see when he did what he thought needed to be done. "Storm of Steel" is an outstanding example of what a combat memoir can be at its best.

Junger's descriptions of the static nature of trench warfare should be required reading for anyone who seeks to understand what the Western Front must have felt like. You found it interesting that he only occasionally encountered rifle or machine gun fire, and then only when he had left his trench to probe his enemy's positions or take a prisoner. Mostly what he and the other troops in the trenches experienced was constant, unrelenting shelling. It came in all sorts of varieties. There were differing caliber of shells, different types of fuses, and wildly different effects upon detonation. He became, as most soldiers of the Great War almost surely did, a connoisseur of explosions. Some detonations had a thumping feel while others rattled, some came without warning and filled the air with zooming needles of white hot steel while others tumbled from the sky like sausages dumped from baskets. Some of the shells were so massive that even the duds which did not explode shook the very ground and jarred the teeth of everyone anywhere near the impact.

Reading these descriptions of trench warfare made it clear to you that what we call "trench warfare" was really a phrase intended to describe the construction of two opposing impenetrable and primarily subterranean fortresses, built mere yards apart, manned by millions, that stretched from the English Channel to Switzerland. These two fortresses stretched and twisted through the French and Belgian countryside and were sometimes several hundred yards deep. If one small part of the enemy's fortress happened to be captured, typically at the cost of thousands of lives, that section was simply integrated into the victorious army's existing fortress and the enemy would bolster their own defenses at the spot they had retreated to, often a spot that had been prepared for just such an eventuality. Breakthrough was not possible. There was no exploiting of flanks. This type of fortress versus fortress warfare required constant vigilance and constant combat.

At all times, whether napping in a deep bunker or standing sentry at an exposed observation post, Junger and his fellow soldiers (on either side of no man's land) had to be prepared to either fling themselves into the best possible cover from incoming shells or rush, at a moment's notice, to defensive positions to fend off incoming waves of attacking infantry. And the gas was absolutely evil. Junger's descriptions of the poisonous gas attacks make this war seem like the place you would least want to be out of any place in history. Even Hitler recognized the madness of using gas on the battlefield and refused to allow it in the next war (it helps that he was gassed in the trenches too). Junger describes a level of attrition in his units that seems almost unbearable. Every day or two Junger looses another close friend even when they are not engaged in anything like a recognized named battle. These dozens and hundreds of deaths multiplied thousands upon thousands of times throughout the war represent the futility of the whole conflict. So many lives were thrown away for absolutely no gain. Even when one side launched a major offensive, no significant swaths of territory changed hands for any amount of time. And still the boys died. Over and over and over for years.

The paradox of this kind of warfare was that it became difficult for either side to determine how effective their military actions truly were against their enemies. Hundreds of yards might exchange hands and dozens of enemy prisoners might be taken in an offensive of maximum effort, but to no larger strategic advantage. With such enormous forces involved it was simply too difficult to tell what they had accomplished. In a perfect example of this paradox, Junger took part in a famous withdrawal of German forces across the Somme river in the spring of 1917. In order to establish a more effective defense, to shorten the linkages with other segments of the fortresses, therefore requiring fewer soldiers to man the line as a whole, Junger and thousands of his fellow German soldiers were abandoning positions they had held onto desperately for years. As they withdrew the Germans suffered very few casualties but as their enemies moved into the now abandoned positions, the Germans inflicted heavy losses upon the British and French. The Germans had strengthened their position and weakened the armies of their adversaries by a count of thousands of men, and yet the Allies considered this battle to be a victory on their part. As great as it may have been, this was a strange war.

In war, of course, death is always a constant companion but in most wars this usually means the death of friends or the threat of your own death. On the Western Front death was literally everywhere, omnipresent like a malevolent god. So dangerous were some areas where waves of soldiers had died that no one could ever retrieve their bodies, every attempt only adding fresh corpses to the piles. Men lived mere feet from where their dead friends lay rotting on exposed ground. Heavy shelling often shook corpses out of the walls of the trenches and into the laps of the living. During one memorable bombardment Junger describes trying to dig a foxhole in the ground only to find the bodies of his countrymen layered in stacks beneath him. One company of men had died here in a previous season of fighting and they had been buried by the tons of dirt and mud flung upon them by the same artillery that had cut them down. And then the same had happened to the next company. And then the next. Junger and his men were literally surrounded by the dead.

During the summer of 1916, Junger and his unit were moved to Guillemont to defend against what the British would come to call, in somber and tragic tones, the Battle of the Somme. A German runner met Junger and his men behind the lines to guide them to their positions. Junger's description of this nameless veteran bears repeating. "He was the first German soldier I saw in a steel helmet, and he straightaway struck me as the denizen of a new and far harsher world. Sitting next to him in the roadside ditch, I questioned him avidly about the state of the position, and got from him a grey tale of days hunkered in craters, with no outside contact or communications lines, of incessant attacks, fields of corpses and crazy thirst, of the wounded left to die, and more of the same. The impassive features under the rim of the steel helmet and the monotonous voice accompanied by the noise of battle made a ghostly impression upon us. A few days had put their stamp on the runner, who was to escort us into the realm of flame, setting him inexpressibly apart from us."

Junger recounts his emotional reactions to intense combat in such honest and simple terms that it makes this war, fought a century ago, feel immediate and real to you. He unabashedly describes how he was unable to control his chattering teeth after one fearsome raid gone wrong, how a man's normal reaction to the terrifying depths of mortal dread can sometimes be uncontrollable giddy laughter. Enduring some of the heaviest shelling he had yet experienced, Junger describes the experience saying, "Throughout, we sat in our basement, with our heads in our hands, counting the seconds between explosions. The witticisms dried up, and finally the boldest of us had nothing to say... The shelling acquired a demented fury. Because of the racking pains in our heads and ears, communication was possible only by odd, shouted words. The ability to think logically and the feeling of gravity, both seemed to have been removed."

But however excruciating the newer, modern art of war had become, however industrialized and overwhelming the weapons of war had become, combat was still combat. In a later battle, this one fought against Indian troops (the British had used the peoples of their entire globe-spanning empire to fight the war) he speaks of the universality of armed conflict. "The whole scene - the mixture of the prisoners' laments and our jubilation - had something primordial about it. This wasn't war, this was ancient history." Junger was a soldier's soldier, the kind of guy who itched to leave the boring confines of his trench find action. he lead raids on enemy lines and his descrptons are nothing if not harrowing.

Like any good hero, Junger often managed to inadvertently avoid certain death by sustaining grievous wounds that kept him from more than one suicidal battle. "Leaving out trifles such as ricochets and grazes," he writes, "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 an even twenty scars. In the course of this war, where so much of the firing was done blindly into empty space, I still managed to get myself targeted no fewer than eleven times." His narrow escapes throughout "Storm of Steel" are just one more reminder that luck really is as important in combat as skill or training.

In the summer of 1918, desperate to end the war before the Americans could make it to the Western Front in anything like decisive numbers, the Germans launched several massive offensives against the Allied lines. Junger led his company against veteran Scotsmen. Charging the enemy's lines, unleashed from their subterranean dugouts and tunnels, Junger and his men finally felt like true warriors. They met other true warriors in close quarters and even hand to hand fighting. It was in this last massive effort that Junger lost most of his friends. It was in this battle that he suffered the wounds that nearly killed him and forced him to convalesce for two months. From his hospital, Junger was able to see that the last great push was doomed. All the veterans and elite soldiers were gone. Those that were left could not accomplish what their leaders asked of them. "There crept over me a mood I hadn't known before. A profound reorientation, a reaction to so much time spent so intensely, on the edge... I felt I had got tired, and used to the aspect of war, but it was from this familiarity that I observed what was in front of me in a new and subdued light. Things were less dazzlingly distinct. And I felt that the purpose with which I had gone out to fight had been used up, and no longer held. The war posed new, deeper puzzles." The war was over because it was unwinnable. At long last it was over.

Reading this account of the events that are now a century in the past, yet that still shape our world today, reminded you that this war, as titanic a struggle as it was, was fought by individuals, not by nations. Seeing it from the perspective of one of the war's greatest soldiers reminded you that millions of more young men did what was asked of them even though it was impossible. You pray that no other generation has to live through the hell they did.

On to the next book!

P.S. in the Spring of 1917, Junger moved into a new position along the front and was ecstatic to take a moment to record that his trenches were being defended from the air by Von Richthofen himself. Even Ernst Junger was awed by the fame and greatness of the Red Baron. It's good to remember that even heroes have heroes.

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