Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Forgotten Soldier - Guy Sajer

The Forgotten Soldier is a bit of an odd book to read. It's written by a German soldier, about his experiences in World War 2, mostly on the Eastern Front. Which means there's a lot of dying, a lot of starving, freezing, a lot of feeling adrift in the featureless vastness of the Russian steppe.

People have apparently questioned its authenticity because of some of the factual inconsistencies, but as Sajer says in the book, this is meant to recount his experience at the level of common soldier, not to provide some authoritative account on the war. Which seemed abundantly clear to me without Sajer saying it. There are already a thousand books about the big picture, arrows on a map view of WW2, anyway.

It begins like a lot of these types of books begin, the wide-eye rookie being introduced to the realities of war. How that gradually wears down the things they were trained to hold on to. Nationalism, honor, things like that are ground down in the face of being overwhelmed by the sheer numerical superiority of the Soviets (or "Popovs", as Sajer frequently calls them), the relentless assault of the elements, the inconsistent supplies, the endless artillery barrages.

The most affecting parts of the book are in the latter half, when the Germans are in retreat, and Sajer describes the mental state of he and his close friends in his company. They enter this curious state, where they want to live, where they may think of what they want to live for, but Sajer describes each man as trying to hide that hope, afraid to let the others see it. As if having some reason to want to live will be precisely what gets them killed. Sajer describes himself as being past that point, because he's dreamed too often, he can't retreat to them anymore. They've all turned too sour, or, if they actually come true, that hurts too much.

He's also very good at describing the immense size of the Russian wilderness. I'm usually fond of open spaces myself, but Sajer makes you understand how terrifying it could seem, to be in a hostile land, where everything looks the same in every direction, with no sign if you're heading towards or away from direction, or even that you're moving at all.

Sajer's pretty open about describing himself as not being a great soldier. He's fairly small (and went into battle before he was even 17), and comes down sick multiple times. When and his company find their fellow soldiers brutalized by partisans, he wants to respond with equal brutality. Beyond that, he's not really cut out to lead. He's not the one who sparks the heroic charge, he's the one who keeps his head down for an extra beat before he gets up and follows the guy leading the charge. He's not a bad soldier, tries to do his best, but he's not the guy they were gonna make war flicks about. Not that I blame him. I wouldn't be eager to get up and move towards people trying to shoot me, or keep firing in the face of advancing tanks.

The undercurrent that ran through me the entire time I was reading this was the fact Sajer was fighting for the Nazis. He doesn't discuss the beliefs of the Nazis, outside of recounting a speech made by a Hauptmann of his, Wesreidau, who describes how the idea of all men being equal is nonsense, and these countries fighting Germany, while speaking of liberty and freedom, are all hypocrites. I get the impression Sajer was less impressed with the words, and more with the man saying them. Sajer and his friends regard Wesreidau with the same sort of affection, trust, and awe Easy Company had for Sgt. Rock. Even so, it wasn't the sort of sentiment I could ignore, and it reminds me of what these guys were fighting for, whether they meant to or not. For his part, Sajer seems most bitter towards the world that came after. The problems of peacetime are a trifle to him, and to hear others complain of them irritates him. I don't think he misses the fighting, but he isn't able to enjoy having survived, if he even considers himself to have survived.

'The relatively large size of our force was in no way reassuring. Even if we overwhelmed the partisans in the end, each bullet they fired was bound to hit someone, and if I should happen to be the only casualty in a victorious army of a million men, the victory would be without interest for me. The percentage of corpses, in which generals sometimes take pride, doesn't alter the fate of the men who've been killed.'

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