Memorial Day and Every Day
(published Circleville Herald 24 May 2012)
I was stilled by Spielberg’s powerful anti-war film “War Horse” . Yet it seems strange that we are disturbed more by the suffering of the equine hero “Joey” than by the deaths of millions of young men, hundreds of thousands of whose bodies were never recovered. They were lost in the high explosives, the mud, the machine guns, gas, flamethrowers, the relentless, inhuman mechanization of slaughter that was the Marne, Tannenberg, Loos, Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele, Belleau Wood. The pointless suffering of so many in World War l reaches through almost a century in the angry poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, the graphic trench art of Otto Dix who said he wanted to bring the war home lest we ever forget, the compassionate mourning figures of Kathe’ Kollwitz.
I first read Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” in 1969. My friend’s older brothers were coming home from Vietnam as haunted presences upstairs. Told through German Pvt. Paul Baumer, Remarque’s novel brings to the reader nightmare sights that previously only veterans of the trenches spoke of among themselves, of bodies with bloating bellies rotting in No Man’s land, of men caught in barbed wire and machine gun fire, of the smells and sounds, of hell itself. Remarque, a veteran of WWl ,warns in the epigraph “ This book is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure for those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men, who even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.”
Remarque recognized as did Spielberg, our ironic disposition to feel more compassion for horses than for men. In an early chapter , as Baumer’s friends are brought up to the front for the first time they are pinned down by artillery. Pvt. Detering, a farmer, and thus like the boy Albert from “War Horse” feels for the horses being ripped apart by shrapnel: “ I tell you it is of the vilest baseness to use horses in the war.—what harm have they done?” We must ask, as Remarque intended, what have Detering, Baumer and the classmates of 1916 done? Just boys, what have they done to deserve a fate as gruesome as the horses flailing, neighing in blood and entrails?
Baumer, suffering from PTSD commits suicide by standing up in the trench October 1918. Baumer is the last of 7 friends enlisted together , urged by the empty war-promoting rantings of their schoolmaster. Paul knows he has been destroyed by the war:
Had we returned home in 1916, out of the suffering and the strength of our experiences we might have unleashed a storm. Now if we go back we will be weary, broken, burnt out, rootless, and without hope. We will not be able to find our way anymore.
And men will not understand us—for the generation that grew up before us, though it has passed these years with us here, already had a home and a calling; now it will return to its old occupations, and the war will be forgotten—and the generation that has grown up after us will be strange to us and push us aside. We will be superfluous even to ourselves, we will grow older, a few will adapt themselves, some others will merely submit, and most will be bewildered;--the years will pass by and in the end we shall fall into ruin… … It cannot be that it is gone, the yearning that made our blood unquiet, the unknown, the perplexing, the oncoming things, the thousand faces of the future, the melodies from dreams and from books, the whispers and divinations of women, it cannot be that this has vanished in bombardment, in despair, in brothels.
I stand up. I am very quiet. Let the months and years come, they bring me nothing more, they can bring me nothing more. I am so alone, and so without hope that I can confront them without fea
He fell in October, 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to a single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.
U.S. Iraq/Afghanistan veteran deaths by suicide are at record levels. (“Military Losing the Battle Against Suicide” ABC News 2 Nov. 2011) The Army has purposefully misdiagnosed PTSD to save money. (“Army Probing PTSD Diagnoses” Washington Post 16 May 2012 ). There are many walking wounded Pvt. Paul Baumers among us. This Memorial Day and every day we owe them whatever they may need. They need welcomed back to life. Let’s also shut our ears to the empty war promoting rantings of schoolmasters, politicians, defense contractors and armchair bravehearts.
- - Brad CottonMember Veterans for Peace