Real War: The Horror

blood

W.J. Astore

I recently read Blood Red Snow: The Memoirs of a German Soldier, by Günter Koschorrek, which focuses mainly on combat on the Eastern Front between the Germans and Soviets during World War II.  As Dan White has noted, military history sometimes degenerates into war porn – exciting tales of derring-do that save the day and end in citations and medals.  Real war isn’t like that.  Real war is horror, a horror that Koschorrek quickly came to know as a very young man.

Writing about his first weeks of combat, Koschorrek notes “how impatiently we waited for the opportunity to fight at the front!  Now, after exactly three weeks in combat, no one talks of heroism or enthusiasm any more.  On the contrary, the only wish is to get out of this death trap alive.”

Koschorrek’s first wound in combat is a minor one, which does not qualify him for evacuation from the front.  He writes:

I feel the disappointment—a hope has been dashed.  And then I think how quickly human feelings and attitudes can change.  It is only a matter of weeks since I was dreaming of glory and heroism and was so full of élan that I was almost bursting.  Now I long for a Heimatschuss—because it appears to me to be the only way that I can, with any sort of honor, say goodbye to this soul-destroying environment …

Koschorrek, a machine-gunner, quickly became a hardened veteran of the war.  When he sees friends killed in combat, he writes of a “sort of madness” that came over him, the desire for “bloody revenge.”  He writes:

Revenge and retaliation!  That inflammatory clarion call for revenge!  That’s the way all war leaders want their soldiers to be.  Remorseless, and with hatred and retaliation in their hearts, men can win battles, and quite ordinary soldiers can be converted into celebrities.  Fear is converted into hatred, anger and calls for retribution.  In this way you are motivated to fight on—even decorated with medals as a hero.

As the war drags on and Nazi Germany begins to lose, Koschorrek writes of “deserters and dissenters” within the ranks.  “They are called traitors to the fatherland,” he notes, but Koschorrek concludes with an important insight: “Nobody can be himself during a war—we all belong to the people and the state.”

War witnesses the death of individuality in the name of a collective: the people, the state.  More frightening is the death of individual conscience, as even the worst war crimes are excused in the name of “defending” the state.

As the Soviets close in and begin to invade Germany proper, Koschorrek encounters the aftermath of horrific reprisals committed by the Soviet invaders on the German people.  In one case, he notes how ordinary German villagers “were surprised in their sleep by the Soviets and couldn’t escape.  The [Nazi] party bigwigs, however, were all able to get away in time.”

When the war is finally over, Koschorrek was able to evade capture by the Soviets and transportation to Siberia as a POW.  He writes of trading his war medals (such as the Iron Cross) and ribbons for cigarettes, noting how American soldiers lusted after German war memorabilia.  Koschorrek’s medals and ribbons—marks of valor he wanted so keenly at war’s start—became by war’s end nothing but barter for smokes.

His last words reflect the hard-won wisdom of a man who fought as part of a war of annihilation on the Eastern Front:

when will people realize that it is possible for any of us to be manipulated by domineering and power-crazed individuals who know how to motivate the masses in order to misuse them for their own ends?  While they keep well out of the way [of war], in safety, they have no hesitation in brutally sacrificing their people in the name of patriotism.  Will mankind ever stand together against them?

Koschorrek, a frontline combat soldier, can be faulted for not being more critical of Nazi ideology and its megalomaniacal designs.  He has little to say about Nazi war atrocities.  His account is focused on combat and comrades, in the thick of the fighting, where the desire to stay alive is all-consuming.

It’s a book to be read carefully by anyone who thinks war is glorious.

Fighting for Coveted Combat Badges and Patches

the point

W.J. Astore

What will West Point graduates do without wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Don’t worry! There are a lot more threats listed on the classroom chalkboard.

The New York Times this morning has an interesting article on this year’s West Point graduates.  With the end of the war in Iraq (at least for us) and the winding down of the Afghan conflict (again, at least for us), West Point graduates face the prospect of not being immediately deployed to a shooting war.  The article paints this as grim times, at least for the graduates, many of whom are seeking opportunities in the Special Forces for a better chance at earning “coveted” combat badges and patches.

And this is precisely the problem with a professional military that is self-defined as “warriors.”  Its members desire war: a chance, so they think, to test themselves in the crucible of combat.  They want to be where the action is, even if that action is ill-advised or even illegal under international law.

Two centuries ago, the model for West Point was a citizen-soldier engineering school, a band of brothers who would help tame our continent more through engineering skill than fighting prowess.  Our army, of course, has never been reluctant to fight when the cause was just (or when they were told by various leaders the cause was just), but the emphasis was on civilian needs first, notably the development of our nation’s infrastructure.

Contrast that with today.  The article in the New York Times includes a photo of a chalkboard used in a West Point class to explain today’s security environment.  The threats listed on the board include terrorism, cyber, Egypt, Syria, China, Iran, and North Korea (NK).  The Army’s priorities appear to be defense of the homeland (the HL), something about preserving order, and something about promoting our economic interests and values overseas.  Notably absent (as far as I can tell from the photo) was any explicit mention of the citizen-soldier ideal of supporting and defending our Constitution.

A slice of military education at West Point (Source: New York Times)
A slice of military education at West Point (Source: New York Times)

I wouldn’t want to make too much of a few words scribbled on a chalkboard.  But it appears from that list of “threats” that our West Point graduates will have plenty of opportunities in their military careers to march to the sound of gunfire.  And probably more than a few opportunities to add some “coveted” combat badges and patches to their uniforms.

They’ll be no lack, in short, of red badges of courage.  More’s the pity for ourselves and for our nation.