What does enforced confinement reveal about who we are?

I want to share a story with you that I recently came across during the research I am doing for my book on WW2. I am not a massive fan (to put it mildly) of the use of war metaphors for our current predicament. It is too problematic, and leads us to some uncomfortable and frankly quite dangerous places. So I won’t be going there.

However looking at how a group of people coped with some aspects of confinement during WW2 can give us some interesting insights into the human condition (albeit within very different contexts of course). History can be both window and mirror for us. A window into a familiar yet different world, and also a mirror for us to look at ourselves and ask some searching questions about who we are, what we believe and why we behave in certain ways.

The story I am going to relate is based around the internment of some American and other foreign (mainly British) nationals in the Philippines during WW2 at the University of Santo Tomas. I will contrast this with a second blog where I look at the experiences of Japanese citizens in US internment camps.

The Santo Tomas internment – seen from both the inside and out – is a fascinating story. The confinement experience has much to tell us about simplicity and sharing, about discipline and social hierarchies, and about the incredibly powerful drive humans seem to have to restore “normality” to their lives. It also raises really powerful questions about “collaboration”, but that’s another story.

Let’s begin.

The story centres around Manila. The Philippines was attacked by Japanese forces on 8 December 1941. They entered Manila on January 2 1942, and they began rounding up “enemy aliens” (Americans, British, and others) on January 4th 1942 and transported them to the walled campus of the University of Santo Tomas. The campus covered around 48 acres. At its high point there were 3800 internees crammed onto the campus grounds. There were around 1400 women and 700 children under 17. Initially, the Japanese had no plan for what to do with the internees, but the US Red Cross Emergency Committee, the Dominican Fathers of Santo Tomas University and the Japanese military authorities agreed that the internees could move to the campus. The internees were not liberated until February 1945.

For over 3 years, the internees were confined to the University buildings and grounds. Interestingly, the internment camp was left very much to govern itself, and so was not subject to the same brutally murderous conditions that existed in many Japanese POW camps and transit ships (the so-called “hell ships”). Within the confines of the University, the internees had a good deal of autonomy in determining how to live. Interned, confined and subject always to the rules and codes of conduct set by the Japanese military authorities, they set about creating a community in enforced lockdown.

Initially, there was chaos, anxiety and fear in the camp. And there was anxiety ranging from the murderous (no-one knew how severe the Japanese camp regime would be) to the mundane (how to protect oneself against the mosquitoes). People were now separated from friends, family and acquaintances. Their businesses were closed. Careers were interrupted. Travel was impossible. There was deep and abiding uncertainty: how long would this last? Some even felt very deeply the new shift in their social status: internment placed everyone on the same level. Your previous life was now a distant, irrelevant memory. All of these psychological shocks happened abruptly and simultaneously.

The Japanese immediately segregated the men from the women and children. They were to be housed in different classrooms and corridors around the campus. The occupiers did not want the family unit to be sustained, nor did they wish to see personal intimate relations between the internees. But what now? How would the camp organize itself to ensure the survival of the internees? How would Japanese oversight of the camp be administered?

Within just a few weeks this confinement community had evolved into a “miniature city”, complete with administration, food rationing, disciplinary committees, entertainment, construction brigades, “lost and found” and so on. An internee committee was set up (under the leadership of an American businessman named Earl Carroll) who reported to the Japanese commandant. This committee set up an internal police force, an executive committee and a whole series of other committees to administer the camp on behalf of the Japanese. Funds were provided by the Red Cross and also from the funds of many of those who were interned. Each room had a monitor appointed by the committee, and this room monitor took a nightly roll-call. Each floor of every building appointed an overseer from the different room monitors. The internees wanted to provide as much autonomy as possible for themselves in order to prevent Japanese interference in their internal affairs. This was not just accomplished through setting up these internal structures though. They also adopted a posture towards their situation and towards the Japanese (acceptance and compliance) which provided minimal resistance and maximum co-operation (or collaboration as some have suggested). The internees did the roll calls. They took a census of the camp and they began to exert their own disciplinary measures against their own people in the hope of avoiding punitive sanctions from the Japanese. This did not go down well, as you can imagine.

The Japanese commandant – Tomayasu – initially believed that he would have to impose very strict surveillance and discipline on the community of internees when he first arrived, and 3 British internees who attempted to escape in February 1942 were executed. However, he softened his approach as he got to know the internment committee and how it worked. Russell Brines – a US journalist who lived in the camp for about 18 months -paints a deeply human portrait of Tomayasu (entirely different from our traditional ideas about Japanese military figures). Brines described how Tomayasu tried to plead for the lives of the 3 escapees by humbling himself with his superiors. His pleas went unheard, but it seemed to herald a softening of Tomayasu’s approach. Although Japanese soldiers continued to patrol the grounds to prevent any further escapes, Tomayasu came to trust the internees self-administration. From this point onwards, he tried to give some small concessions to the internees to try and make their lives as bearable as possible. Local Filipinos were able to come to the gates and supply the internees with various commodities: food and books were in great demand, but people also had golf clubs and furniture delivered. These deliveries were obviously searched, and any alcohol or anything that might be used as a weapon was confiscated.

The camp quickly established a whole range of activities and practices to try and “normalize” their confinement. 2 softball leagues with 18 teams were set up which drew large crowds. The British played soccer and tried to learn softball. There were athletic competitions and barn dances. A library was created. Movies were shown. A camp newspaper emerged. Religious services were held regularly. Educational programmes began to run, and the teachers managed to get a local manila Principal to sign off on the certificates achieved by the students in these open-air classrooms. But in the midst of these various innovations, three main problems remained. Severe overcrowding in the dormitories (alongside separation from your family). Food supplies to ensure an adequate diet for both sustenance and nutrition. Sanitation: there were only 6 bathrooms for the 2000 or so internees, and nearly 100 people to each toilet [imagine 1000 people trying to live on the King’s campus and you will get some idea of the scale of the problems].

This is where things get interesting and complex. The internees had to try and solve all these different problems, the most pressing of which was that of food. There was not enough food for everyone, and many had no access to either funds or food. Rapidly, a system of sharing and distribution grew up. Internees donated food to those who had nothing. Those who had some funds applied for loans to purchase food supplies and equipment in order to start supplying communal meals. Breakfast and dinner were served communally. Lunches still had to be sourced by individuals. Breakfast was served between 7 and 9am. Dinner was served between 4 and 6pm, and there were long lines. Portions were minimal, and they had to start issuing meal tickets to prevent people getting multiple meals. The committee in charge took the best cuts of meat, all the milk and bread to feed the children and those who were sick. The majority of people were fed from the communal kitchens and supplied their own lunches. 200 or so internees were fed and clothed entirely by the camp administration.

The sanitation issue began to be addressed with the purchase of $5000 worth of sanitary equipment and the setting up of two tents (donated by a circus owner!) which were to act as hospitals so that the sick could be quarantined. Labour was mobilised to dig ditches for garbage. A large patch of land was cleared and weeded (and in so doing removing hundreds of rats from the campus to provide land for vegetable gardens). Drains were cleared, fly traps and mosquito nets installed, and the swimming pool was cleaned in order to keep a reserve supply of clean water. The rudimentary hospital facilities were augmented with physiotherapy and optometry. All births and deaths were moved outside of the camp. Although in general the health of the internees was good (esp given the rather basic diet) there were many different diseases amongst the internees, most notably gastro-intestinal and respiratory conditions.

Once the food and sanitation issues were starting to be resolved, so the question of overcrowding began to be addressed. Onsite carpenters and plumbers and electricians tried to make the rooms as comfortable as possible, and also to build several small buildings to help the internees cope with the rigours of day-to-day life. The blossoming of entertainment and education made it easier to cope with the close proximity and the separation.

In spite of all these problems – the living conditions, the inadequate diet, the overcrowding, the sanitation – a remarkable spirit of unity, co-operation, sharing and equality grew up amongst the internees. Confinement brought an amazing sense of human solidarity to the camp. The sharing of resources. The willingness of everyone to volunteer for even the most menial of tasks, to endure the privations without much grumbling. Perhaps most surprisingly, the creation of a taxation system to subsidise the operation of the camp brought little dissent. Moreover, confinement – by enforcing simplicity – also brought other benefits to the internees, as they exercised more, and read more and did more communal activities together. Life was stripped of an externally generated set of pressures to achieve or produce or consume, and it took on a hue of simplicity which provided some psychological, spiritual and physical compensation for the anxiety and frustrations and fears of confinement. It is important not to romanticise this experience. But in the midst of deprivation and separation, they found a modus vivendi. Once the internees had come to a place of acceptance of their situation, and of the unlikelihood of imminent liberation, they exhibited a remarkable sense of resilience and togetherness.

The sharing of resources and the willing donation of labour and talent and time was more than just a response to the plight they found themselves in. It was also at a deeper level, a manifestation of a desire for community, for belonging and for human solidarity. Talking of the mundane back-breaking work that people of all backgrounds volunteered to undertake, Brines notes, that it was, “a release for pent emotions.” He went on, ‘labour also expressed the individual’s desire to belong to the community whose cohesiveness was common hardship.”

The common hardship of enforced confinement produced social cohesiveness.

What is it about commonly shared hardship that can produce this type of response? And is it a particular type of hardship and a particular type of community that together create the conditions in which humans can and will co-operate, share, work and unite? The hardships this community endured were not existential (although there was obviously the constant pervasive threat posed by the presence of the Japanese soldiers). There was food and water and shelter and a seemingly reasonable predictability of supply (but the quality and quantity were low). There was just enough deprivation to require common efforts and labour to survive, but not so much that it became a grim, desperate struggle for survival, a war of all against all. The communal aspects are also interesting. It was relatively homogenous culturally and ethnically and linguistically, yet also divided by class and education and income and age. Although overcrowding was clearly deeply problematic, this was mitigated in part by the size of the community. It was neither small nor large, and so it was possible to both find groups of people with whom you had things in common and also to distance yourself from those who were annoying or irritating or unbearable. You could enjoy activities and events because there were sufficient people with the requisite skills and energy to make a diverse programme viable.

The particularities of their common hardship was interestingly a mixture of enforced confinement and voluntary sharing and co-operation on the campus of Santo Tomas. Forced together, confined into a certain space and needing organisation and co-operation to survive, they found within themselves the requisite capacity to join together and look after each other.

What does this mixture of enforcement and altruism tell us about humans in confinement?

It would be nice to end the story there. A heartwarming tale of human co-operation, of how confinement brought an unexpected and unanticipated culture of sharing and simplicity and equality to a group of internees. Of how this pattern of sharing continued until they were liberated in the spring of 1945.

But it didn’t end like that. Things began to break down and the spirit was gradually eroded over time. This is not to say that there was a total breakdown in discipline and co-operation. But over time, people began to pursue their own interests, seek their own pleasures in defiance of the internees own guidelines and rules. Confinement co-operation could not be sustained. Why?

It happened gradually of course. And it began with booze. But it was never just about the booze.

As the months dragged on, people began to miss things from their everyday life, and booze was the main thing that began to dominate people’s minds. It was obviously close at hand in Manila, but the Japanese had banned it (along with overt displays of personal affection), as they saw it as leading to a swathe of social problems, eroding morality, and leading to indiscipline, fights, sex, and so on. The camp authorities were eager to sustain the ban on alcohol, as they feared that it would bring overt Japanese intervention into the life of the camp.

The tipping-point for people starting to complain and then flouting the rules seems to have been when they felt that the immediate danger had passed, and that a degree of security had been established. This is when the desire for a return to “normality” started to grow. Nostalgia for their former way of life became the drug of choice for the internees. If they could just have…..[fill in the gap, for many it was alcohol, as they reminisced about cocktail hour] then everything would be fine. Bottles started to be smuggled in. Some started to make their own hooch. Stills were set up, in direct contravention of camp rules and regulations. People began to complain about their own camp authorities, and the “bureaucratic officiousness”. The same rules that had given them life and hope and autonomy and survival had now become a burden.

People were now getting intoxicated. What could be done? The internee administration did not feel empowered to use force so they tried other means to try and discipline the intoxicated. Renewed requests for co-operation fell on deaf ears. They tried shaming: publicising names and broadcasting names of miscreants; all to no avail. They appointed a special “court” and sentenced them to special work details or time in a designated “jail” ( a former storehouse). Eventually the Japanese threatened to send the intoxicated to a military prison. This had the most lasting effect.

So why had things changed?

The prevailing attitude now was “pay no attention to those in charge, they have no power over us.” Then Brines says something very interesting, “we fought towards normalcy with surprising determination.” The new craving was for minimal restraint, and alcohol was the symptom of this shift in attitude. Another sign of change was the growth of shanties: little semi-permanent structures began to be built across the campus, as families sought time together and for the restoration of some much needed privacy. They were still not allowed to sleep together in them, as the Japanese diktats on intimacy were non-negotiable. But over time more and more structures began to be built, many becoming quite substantial and sophisticated, with running water and multiple rooms, and architects in the camp employed to design them.

These shanty buildings gave some respite from the heat, and provided space for people to distance themselves. Eventually little mini-settlements grew up as several shanty homes joined together. They even got names: Glamourville, Shantytown, FroggyBottoms, JungleTown. Neighbourhood consciousness (with all the petty rivalries that go with neighbourliness!) developed and the camp authorities often had to intervene. Each settlement elected their own mayors and police chiefs and banded together to buy additional garbage cans.

These individual dwellings marked another shift: a corrosion of community and the restoration of social hierarchies from before the war. The shanties gradually grew larger as a desire for status and importance began to take root. Running water reduced the pressure to the main sanitation areas. People started preparing their own food and avoiding the communal eating times. The wealthier began creating separation from the rest. They started to employ filipino or black internees to undertake household duties. Party guest lists began to be curated, to separate the people out. Merchants and entrepreneurs developed businesses to serve the needs of the wealthier, while the poorer were now looked after by the camp. A gulf had now developed, and it was beginning to widen.

The camp lived a schizophrenic life. At night-time, relative equality returned as everyone had to go back to their rooms to sleep. Everyone had the same amount of physical space, and you slept next to anyone. But during the day, the social hierarchies and divisions were openly displayed, highly visible and fiercely maintained. Dissatisfaction grew and calls for an elected committee became louder and louder, and eventually the Japanese agreed and a new elected committee took over the running of the camp (although the Japanese still chose which internee was to lead the committee). Political divisions now came to the fore, and became increasingly intense during the rainy season when everyone had to abandon their shanties temporarily and move inside. Interestingly, the Japanese had to try and conceal evidence of the camp elections, as many German and Italian citizens in Manila were complaining that life was too easy in the camp.

Gradually life became more difficult, and this undoubtedly contributed to the erosion of confinement communalism in 1943 and beyond. Bedbugs began to appear in their thousands. Japanese troops who had served in the frontline treated the internees much more harshly when they took their turn as camp guards. The succession of Japanese victories in 1942 led to the Japanese being incredibly condescending towards the internees, and with the prospect of liberation being pushed into the distant future a resigned fatalism and lethargy began to grow across the camp. Complaints against the new leadership were increasingly vocal, although it was clear that what they were really complaining about was the extended period of confinement. Nostalgia for their old way of life grew and grew.

The camp became increasingly crowded. In May 1943 800 men were transferred to a nearby camp at Los Banos (a satellite campus of the University of the Philippines College of Agriculture). From 1944 onwards, the succession of Japanese defeats made life in the camp increasingly fraught. Food and medicines were in short supply. Weight-loss, malnutrition and disease spread rapidly. The Japanese took direct control and dismissed the internee administration. Oversight became more draconian and arbitrary. When 8 internees died from malnutrition and starvation, the Japanese insisted the doctors fabricated the cause of death on the death certificates.

Rumours that the Americans were close to liberating the camp began to grow in late 1944. The Japanese arrested and executed 4 of the camp leaders in January 1945. The camp was finally liberated in February 1945. The total number of internees liberated at Santo Tomas was 3,785, of which 2,870 were Americans and most of the others were from the UK. Between January 1942 and March 1945, there were 390 total deaths from all causes in Santo Tomas. Those over 60 years old were the most vulnerable. They comprised 18 percent of the total population, but suffered 64 percent of deaths. There is a lot more to this story, of course, and I have appended a reading list at the end if you wish to follow up yourself.

By way of conclusion, why did the dynamics of the camp change so, and what does this story tell us about humans living in confinement for long periods of time? It seems there is a paradox at work in this story. The move towards a whole new way of being for these internees – including radical sharing, compassion, other-mindedness, volunteering, social equality – only happened because people were forced into confinement against their will. It was in the midst of this enforced context that they began to display a much greater degree of community-mindedness and love-your-neighbour-as-yourselfness (in very tangible and meaningful ways) than they had in their everyday lives up to this point. But while the confinement produced changed behaviour and attitudes, it also undermined these attitudes and actions as time passed. People began to resent and resist, to complain and to chafe, to retreat into the old ways, to their own circle, to forget about others. This pattern of enforced confinement at Santo Tomas created meaningful solidarity but could not sustain it.

Does solidarity require hardship to live and grow? How can communal solidarity – over time – flourish?

How can we sustain the patterns and behaviours from confinement that benefit us in the long-run?

How do we make lasting changes to our lives (both personal, group and societal) when we all have such a powerful drive to restore “normal life’?

I would love to hear the thoughts of others on what you have learned about yourself and others from your own experiences of relative confinement, and what are some of the reasons why we seem to tire so quickly of the rules imposed upon us.

Some Further Reading:

Russell Brines. …until they eat stones, (1944)

A. V. H. Hartendorp, The Japanese Occupation of the Philippines (2 vols.1967)

Michael P. Onorato, Forgotten Heroes: Japan’s Imprisonment of American Civilians in the Philippines, 1942–1945, An Oral History ( 1990)

James Mace Ward, “Legitimate Collaboration: The Administration of Santo Tomás Internment Camp and Its Histories, 1942–2003” in Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 77, No. 2, pages 159–201.

Some other materials were from the Hoover Archives at Stanford which I visited in 2016.

stories of fear I

Fear had many, many faces in WW2.

It came in all shapes and sizes. It affected everyone.

And fear remained with you long after the war was over.

The prolonged exposure to fear gets lodged in your memory. Emotional intensity – a central feature of war is the way that all feelings are intensified, condensed, telescoped – burns feelings into your brain and your soul, imprints moments directly onto your memory.

Fear makes unbreakable associations in your mind.

Fear transports you right back to that moment in an instant. And it is not just this instant recall or playback of the event. It is a breathless, panic-inducing, heart-stopping fear. It is a re-living, an excruciating encounter with a fear long gone but still real.

Svetlana Alexievich – a phenomenal writer and scholar – has written of the experiences of Soviet women at war between 1941 and 1945, derived from interviews she undertook with the survivors of the horrors of the Eastern Front. She recounts numerous tales of the war close up, capturing the war in both its tiniest details and also its broad panoramas. Here are some vignettes on fear from her wonderful book, The Unwomanly Face of War:


Fear produced truly monstrous choices, and unthinkable outcomes. The fear of death – the need to survive, the need to just live for a few moments longer – can cause you to do terrible things. The stories are heartbreaking,

The Germans found out where the camp of our partisan unit was. They cordoned off the forest… we hid in the wild thickets, we were saved by the swamps where the punitive forces didn’t go. A quagmire. It sucked in equipment and people for good. For days, for weeks, we stood up to our necks in water. Our radio operator was a woman who has recently given birth. the baby was hungry…It had to be nursed..But the mother herself was hungry and had no milk. The baby cried. the punitive forces were close..With dogs..If the dogs heard it, we would all be killed. The whole group. 30 of us… You understand? … The Commander makes a decision. Nobody can bring himself to give the order to the mother, but she figures it out herself. She lowers the swaddled baby into the water and holds it there for a long time…The baby doesn’t cry anymore. ..Not a sound…And we can’t raise our eyes. Neither to the mother nor to each other…

War presents these horrific dilemmas, these heart-wrenching choices in the face of capture and violent death. At this very moment what did the mother think? What swirl of emotions and possibilities were racing through her mind? Was she thinking of herself? Her comrades? Did she have other kids? Was she thinking of the children of all the people she was with? Was she fearful of how this small baby would be treated if they were all caught? Did she fear the judgement of the others if she did nothing, or if she did this most terrible thing?

And was this deed ever spoken of again, or did she hold the pain inside her until she died?


Fear of death and suffering was universal and ubiquitous. Animals too were subject to its particular torments. And the effects of fear on animals only served to compound the feelings of fear experienced by the humans in the war. Horses – who were normally fearful of dead human bodies – just saw so many bodies in the carnage at Stalingrad that they stopped fearing them, stepping on them with increasing regularity. Rats were everywhere in war. They feasted on the dead and dying. They devoured everything they could. But even the rats fled in the face of a bombardment. And they seemed to have a sixth sense…

Not even in the most horrible film did I see how the rats leave before the bombing of a town. This wasn’t at Stalingrad. this was already near Vyazma…In the morning swarms of rats went through the town, heading for the fields. They sensed death. There were thousands of them..Black, grey…People watched their sinister spectacle in horror and pressed against the houses. And precisely at the moment when the rats disappeared from sight, the bombing began…

An early warning sign of bombing, the mass exodus of rats served to heighten the anticipation of fear. People knew what was coming, and they also knew that if the rats were terrified and fleeing, then what were the next few hours going to be like if you were trapped under the bombs?


New fears come along and add to our existing fears. fear of the dark. fear of death. fear of snakes. fear of the forest. And the results were paralysing, physical, immediate…

We crossed the front line and stopped by some cemetery. we knew the Germans were 3 miles away from us. It was during the night and they kept sending up flares. With parachutes. These flares burn for a long time and light up everything far around. The platoon commander brought me to the edge of the cemetery, showed me where the flares were fired from , where the bushes were that the Germans might appear from. I’m not afraid of dead people, even as a child I wasn’t afraid of cemeteries, but I was 22, I was standing guard for the first time…In those 2 hours my hair turned grey…It was my first grey hair, I discovered a whole streak in the morning. I stood and looked at those bushes, they rustled and moved , I thought the Germans were coming from them…And something else…Some monsters…And I was alone…


Some were afraid that they had to wear men’s underwear. Some saw wounds and worried that they would not be able to wear particular types of clothes again, if their legs or hands were maimed. One woman hid her legs and her face in battle, lest they be damaged.


The sounds and sights and smell of war brought horror and terror,

Heavy combat. Hand to hand. ..That is a horror. Not for a human being…They beat, they stab with a bayonet, they strangle each other. They break each other’s bones. There’s howling, shouting, moaning. And that crunching..That crunching! Impossible to forget it..the crunching of bones..You hear a skull crack..Split open. Even for war its a nightmare; there’s nothing human in it. I won’t believe anyone who says war isn’t terrifying.


It was impossible to escape the war after the war. There was nowhere to go. It inhabited dreams, and so sleep was no escape. Fear haunted the dreams of the survivors. Pilots dreamt of the plane falling to the ground and perishing in the crash.

Fear snatched away people’s hopes of a normal life. People were afraid in case the war returned,

For a long time I was afraid to get married. Afraid to have children. What if there’s war suddenly and I leave for the front?

And even the natural world was tainted. For nothing escaped the shadow of fear, a shadow that cast long into the future…

For a long time after the war I was afraid of the sky, even of raising my head toward the sky. I was afraid of seeing ploughed up earth.

fear and war, fear in war, fear of war

I am about to embark upon the next phase of this blog by talking about fear. I am finished with the Letters From Stalingrad and am now going to talk about fear, as this is the chapter I am working on at the moment for my book. I will outline some of the contours of fear in today’s post, and then I will use my blog to try an capture various types of fear, and the different ways that fear was experienced by people in the war: both combatants and civilians.

My hope is to capture lots of fascinating stories – from first hand accounts – which will help us to piece together a “map” of fear as it were. Its height, its breadth, its depth, its quirks and its mysteries, its emotions and its behaviours, its language and its expressions. And in this way, we can begin to understand fear better and also understand war better. I will endeavour to use the words of the protagonists themselves, but will supplement them with my won thoughts and feelings.


Fear was everywhere in WW2. And fears were multiple and overlapping. Fear for yourself. Fear for others. Fear of others. Fear of death. Fear of separation. Fear of injury. Unexpressed generalised fear. Deep abiding fear. Momentary excruciating fear. Fear overlapped with anxiety and dread. Fear produced great resilience and courage, and also panic and cowardice.

Stuart Walton in his work on Humanity: An Emotional History has attempted to define the essence of various human emotions with reference to the work of Charles Darwin, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Darwin’s hypothesis was that humans convey their emotions by their facial movements and their bodily movements. These expressions are universal to the human experience, and each of our emotions has similar expressions. He believed there were 6 basic facially legible emotions: happiness, fear, disgust, shame, sadness, anger and surprise.

In fear, Darwin outlined the following physical expressions of fear:

  • opening wide of the eyes and mouth
  • raising of the eyebrows, motionlessness, breathlessness, crouching/cringing, increased heart rate, pallor, cold perspiration, erection of the hair; accelerated breathing, malfunction of the salivary glands, leading to dry mouth, tremor, failure of the voice, dilation of the pupils, contraction of the neck muscles.

At first glance it seems rather self-evident that fear was a ubiquitous part of the landscape of world war 2. After all, this was war. People die. People get bombed. People risk their lives. People get horribly maimed and burned. People have no idea what is going to happen to their loved ones on a daily basis. But was this a different type of fear from the “regular” or “normal” fear of people living in the mid twentieth century? Is there something specific about about fear in wartime? 

Fear is of course a complex thing. I am indebted to a wonderful book by Ian Miller on courage for many of the thoughts and ideas that follow. Fear is connected closely to a whole range of other emotions and states of being: panic, dread, anxiety, horror, terror, angst and the like. The distinction between fear on the one hand and anxiety on the other seems to hinge around the source of the emotion. Fear seems to be rooted in a much more specific, objective and immediate type of threat, whereas anxiety tends to be much more generalized, subjective and anticipated (ie it appears to be looming into view, or is in the shadows somewhere). Fear and anxiety are inextricably linked of course: one can transmute into the other very quickly (if a generalised threat becomes immediate, or is named for example.) It can also be connected to reverence, respect and awe, especially in religious contexts. It emerges in the phobias that humans seem to accumulate. Fear can also vary greatly in intensity. Some fears – fear of the dark for example – seem to have an almost infinite scale. The dark can contain so many potential terrors that they are almost too numerous to name. Fear can also seem impossible to escape at times, for fear can haunt us when we are awake and when we are asleep. Fear is future-oriented: it expects calamity and it knows assuredly that the world is malign. Fear can even operate in the midst of calamity. We can be experiencing the thing that we fear, and at the same time recognise that things still might get worse. There might be more pain and anguish – as yet unseen – to come. But the fear of today can remove the remote fear of tomorrow, and so fear can be highly present-minded too. The arrival of a new fear can push the existing fear to the margins of our consciousness, sequencing them rather than multiplying them. 

Fear also has an incredibly interesting relationship between the individual and the collective. Fear is contagious. It can be caught. And it seems to have a virulent quality to it. It spreads, and as it spreads it provokes alarm and panic. It is caughts easily and it spreads quickly. When others are afraid, we get fearful too. Aristotle has noted that the contagion of fear may be mitigated by the social hierarchies at play. Fear among those who are your superiors is liable to lead you to fear. The reverse is also true. 

This leads us on to questions around the types of behaviours which might be evoked by the contagious action of fear. Fear seems to evoke multiple overlapping and/or contradictory responses. Prolonged experience of fear can sometimes lead to its antithesis: courage, bravery, resilience or heroism. In other people or circumstances it can lead to panic, or cowardice or inertia or a complete breakdown in the capacity of the human to perform even the most menial of tasks. Repeated exposure to fear can produce habituation, whereby fear is decreased and weakened, or it can produce sensitisation whereby fears increase and become more powerful. Fear can come through direct personal experience or observation of a traumatic incident. But fear can also be transmitted vicariously, by being proximate to others who are experiencing fear, or by hearing of events or incidents which cause you to become fearful. Fear creates powerful urges to act in particular ways. We will have more to say on this below, when we come to talk about how fear can manifest itself in wartime, and how soldiers and civilians and organizations tried to develop strategies to manage fear.

Although it has seemed to be an ever-present feature of human life – probably possessing some evolutionary utility in regard to our struggle for survival with predators – it seems to some observers to be acquiring an increased prevalence and significance in modern life. The most prevalent of all fears has been the fear of death, of course, followed closely by fear of the unknown. This latter fear has a peculiar topography, because it is almost limitless and also exists purely in the imagination of the human. The power of fear seems to reside in the fact that it is limitless (almost everything in the future is unknown) and it is also not really open to refutation  or contestation, because as soon as the unknown thing becomes known, something else will rise to take its place. Anticipation of danger also often seems much more likely to induce fear than the actual event itself. Joanna Bourke notes how the fear of being bombed in the UK turned out to be far worse than the bombing itself. Much of the power that fear seems to hold over humans relates to this power it holds over the human imagination, and the feeling that the person who is experiencing fear has no control over the outcome. This is why the imagination is such a powerful catalyst for fear. In the imagination there seem to be no limits to fear. But fear also seems to speak to our sense of being human, of being alive and aware. The world – with its dangers and terrors – makes us feel the power and the mystery of the world, and so makes us feel things deeply. Nietzsche noted that without fear we will soon lapse into “bland complacency and torpor”. Fear makes us come alive, respond to our world, compels us to act, makes us feel deeply.

Interestingly historians have begun to speculate that fear of pain has begun to replace fear of death in the pantheon of human fears. This may relate to the ability of technology to prevent many of the diseases that have habitually killed us. Or that with extending the life-span of the average human in the developed world, the fear of death has been postponed way into the future, leaving other fears to take its place. It may also reflect a deeply unhealthy sense of denial about human mortality that we have in the modern West. The present ubiquity of fear in modern life may also be due to its prominent role in both contemporary politics and contemporary capitalist consumerism. Fear is used extensively by politicians and corporations alike because it is a powerful tool to manipulate human responses and behaviour. It can readily be mobilised in pursuit of a political goal, or to “sell” things to us. This too can be problematic for historians as we try to grasp a sense of the place of fear in a world similar to but also different from our own. Was fear as prevalent back then? Did it have the same power? Is it the same thing we know as fear today?

This question is further complicated by the changing ways that people have described and narrated their emotions. An understanding of how our language has structured our understandings of fear in wartime can be seen in the work of Joanna Bourke. Bourke notes that when emotion is used in narratives, the time period can dramatically affect not only how those experiencing fear describe it, but also at a deeper level their understanding and apprehension of it are almost entirely structured by the linguistic forms and shapes they deploy, We will quote her at length here,

… over and over again, servicemen prior to the Second World War used the language of instincts to describe their emotions in war. Thew drew this language from evolutionary notions about emotions arising out of universal instincts such as self-preservation, curiosity, pugnacity, self-assertion, self-abasement, parental love and revulsion..These instincts were inherited “from the brutes” and could not be avoided. In popular accounts of fear in wartime, this was the language adopted. This fear and panic in combat involved the feeling of being taken over by “primitive blood-lust” and only afterwards returning to their “true selves”… In the terror of combat, men reverted to their animalistic inheritance. This language began changing after 1939 and was dramatically different by the 1960s when the fashionably self-conscious, psycho-analytical style of war memoirs encouraged a more detailed, more individual and more confessional rendering of reminiscences and battle-stories…By the 1960s the language employed was that of psychoanalysis, the language of anxiety.

There have been many official accounts of fear (and courage) in combat. It is important to note here that these are not just studies of fear per se, but are studies with a particular purpose: to enable soldiers to cope with fear, or to overcome fear, or to prevent it from undermining the capacity of soldiers to perform. Large-scale surveys and psychological studies have been carried out by a number of different armies at different times. To give you a flavour of the findings of these reports, we will cite some of their key findings. Let us begin with John Dollard’s Fear in Battle (1944). Between 1942 and 1945 Dollard acted as a consultant with the Morale Services Division of the US Department of Way. Together with psychologists from Yale University Institute of Human Relations, Dollard did a survey of 300 volunteers from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that fought during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). It should be emphasised that these were volunteers (and so their experiences may differ from conscripts) and they were veterans, which may also have skewed the findings a little. 

His “findings in brief” were as follows:

  1. Fear is useful to the soldier when it drives him to learn better in training and to act sensibly in battle.
  2. The commonest symptoms of fear were: pounding heart and rapid pulse, tenseness of muscles, sinking feelings, dryness of mouth and throat, trembling, sweating. Involuntary elimination occurred infrequently.
  3. 7 out of 10 men reported experiencing fear when going into first action.
  4. Fear is greatest just before action.
  5. 64 men out of a  hundred agreed that they became less afraid the more times they went into action.
  6. Fear of “being a coward” diminished rapidly after the first action.
  7. Wounds most feared were those in the abdomen, eyes, brain and genitals.
  8. Enemy weapons most feared were bombs, mortar shells, artillery shells, bayonet and knife, and expanding bullets.
  9. Fear of bombs centred in the sound of the bomb dropping and on the concussion of the exploding bomb.
  10. The presence of hunger, thirst, fatigue, ignorance of plans, idleness increases the danger from fear.
  11. 8 out of 10 men say it is better to admit fear and discuss it openly before battle.
  12. 75 out of 100 believe that all signs of fear should be controlled – in battle.
  13. Experienced men who crack up should be treated leniently, deserters shot, and green men made to stay and face the music.
  14. The most important factors in controlling fear are: devotion to cause, leadership, training and materiel.
  15. Only 1 man in 4 thought that feelings of fatalism or belief in luck were of much importance in bearing fear.
  16. Veteran soldiers learn that to be busy means to be less afraid: “when fear is strong, keep your mind on the job at hand.”
  17. Thinking that the enemy is just as scared as you are is helpful in controlling fear.
  18. 8 out of 10 men believe that hatred is important to the effective soldier – but hatred of the enemy’s cause, not of him personally.
  19. Fear may stimulate a soldier to fight harder and better, if danger to the self also suggests danger to the outfit or the cause.
  20. The best discipline is based on the willing acceptance of orders by purposeful and instructed men. 

We will have much more to say on the management of fear by individuals and by armies. And we will also explore the causes of fear, the expressions of fear and the language of fear.

We will finish here with a poem by Cecil Day Lewis;

Now fear has come again

To live with us

In poisoned intimacy like pus. . . .

The bones, the stalwart spine,

The legs like bastions,

The nerves, the heart’s natural combustions,

The head that hives our active thoughts—all pine,

Are quenched or paralyzed

When Fear puts unexpected questions

And makes the heroic body freeze like a beast


Cecil Day Lewis Ode To Fear 1943

sandgrains: last letters XVII: tears

War tested human beings to the very limits of their physical and emotional endurance. And way beyond. War brought an emotional toll on individuals which is difficult to describe; impossible to quantify. It brought intense emotions. It was a time of extremes. It brought situations that people should never have to encounter, choices that people should never have to make, emotions that people did not know what to do with and sights and sounds and aromas that one would never ever wish to experience.

Why might war bring you to tears?

Seeing your friends killed?

Hearing your comrades cry out in agony?

The constant fear of bombing and shelling?

The separation from home and family?

The news of the death of a loved one?

The disintegration of hope?

The cruelty of your captors?

Sheer physical exhaustion?

Feeling like its never going to end?

The destruction of your tank? But why would anyone cry over the destruction of a tank when they are surrounded by so much human suffering?

In this letter we find 2 stories of soldiers reduced to tears. But they are unexpected tears.

Story one relates the soldier who wept for his tanks when they were burnt and destroyed. It seems on the surface a weird expression of emotion for a lifeless inanimate object. Why weep over your tank?

But in war nothing really makes much sense. There is no normal. And the tank was so much more than a piece of metal. It was protection. it was defence. It was shelter. It was familiar. It was ours. It was, in many ways, home. And amidst the cold and the death and the constant fear, the loss of something familiar could push you to breaking-point.

Story two was a story of guilt and tears. This soldier had just destroyed 2 Soviet tanks, leaving a Soviet tank operative wounded and dying,

“Afterwards I drove past the smoking remains. From a hatch there hung a body, head down, his feet caught and his legs burning up to his knees. The body was alive, the mouth moaning. he must have suffered terrible pain. And there was no possibility of freeing him. Even if there had been, he would have died after a few hours of torture. I shot him, and as I did it the tears ran down my cheeks. Now I have been crying for three nights about a dead Russian tank driver, whose murderer I am…I am afraid I’ll never be able to sleep quietly, assuming that I shall ever come back to you, my dear ones. My life is a terrible contradiction, a psychological monstrosity.”

Ravaged by guilt. Beset by exhaustion. Emotions fraying. Inner turmoil.

These stories show us some of the hidden emotions of war, and reveal glimpses of humanity and compassion and vulnerability amongst the combatants. In spite of all the fury and noise and hatred, these soldiers found time to mourn for what they had done, to grieve for what they had lost, to long for a world in which they did not have to kill or be killed.

Their tears were also tears for the innocence and normality of a world that was now up in flames. Tears for the life they had left behind. Tears for the people they missed. Tears for the people they had become.

And tears too as they peered into the unknown,

But during the night I cry without control, like a child. What will all this lead to?

sandgrains: last letters XVI: disdain

War was frequently about solidarity. Comradeship. Camaraderie. Strangers thrown together who forged these incredible bonds in the crucible of death and suffering and fear and danger. People you would die for. People you would kill to protect. The combat experience produced depth of relationships which it seems are almost impossible to create in peacetime.

But not everyone thought like that. There were those others. Loners. Introverts. Eccentrics. Misfits. Withdrawn.

The war must have been difficult for them. Thrown together. No privacy. No downtime. Nowhere to escape the constant presence of other humans.

And there was another group too. Those who had no compassion for others. Contempt. Disdain. Hatred perhaps, just dripped out of them. And today’s letter is from this misanthrope: this soldier who hs nothing but disdain for all those around him.

It is not clear who he is writing to, but it is not someone from his family. A friend perhaps. Maybe a former colleague or boss or teacher. It is clearly someone whose opinion matters to him but also someone he is happy to open up to, and not hide his disdain for his comrades.

He opens the letter by revealing a conversation he has had with the army chaplain, with whom he seems to have enjoyed some philosophical and theological sparring. He is clearly not one to operate out of blind faith or mindless optimism. His time in Stalingrad has given him lots of opportunities to think, and he has concluded that “suffering is greater than the possibility of assuaging it.” He fails to find any meaning in his suffering, nor any comfort in religious belief.

He refuses to be drawn into the world occupied by his fellow soldiers. He sees little point in getting caught up in the anxieties which haunt the waking moments of all his comrades: spouses. children, their homes and streets, parents, siblings. They fret about their mail, their only tangible connection with whom. He refuses these thoughts because they merely torture themselves and this just creates despair

A fellow who is stationed with me asks in every letter about his cat. Grotesque! Money, job, position, property. But above all the fear about their personal fate. And they write about this fear in many of their letters. I feel disgusted when I see how they behave…their thinking and their common sense, insofar as they have any, is destroyed by fear. And they don’t even notice how ridiculous and unmanly their behaviour is..They are all alike, namely cowardly.”.

The disdain oozes out of him. Contempt for their fear. Contempt for their incompetence. Contempt for their inability to sleep. Contempt for their verbosity. Contempt for their pitiful rumour mongering. Its a litany of disdain for everyone around him.

He finishes by describing two things: his fatalism and his regrets. He writes – whether or not he believes this is hard to say of course – that he has imagined his death and what he will do,

“My personal needs are so small that the moment the first Russian comes in here I can pick up my bag and start walking.I won’t shoot. Why should I? Just to kill one or two people I don’t know? I shall not even shoot myself, why should I?”

And then his regrets,

“I have learned more during my four months of war here than I could have learned in a lifetime , even if I lived to be a hundred. The only thing I regret is that I am compelled by circumstance to spend my last days in such wretched company.”

The final words. No compassionate sentiment. No longing to keep living. No one he misses back home. No bitter tears for a life cut short. No tears for a lost future.

Just disdain.

I wonder what made him that way.

What brought him to this point? Why such disdain for those around him?

What would you write back to him in your letter?

sandgrains: last letters XV: when dreams die

Death took a tighter grip on some families more than others. Every loss was an unspeakable tragedy. Multiple losses an unimaginable reality. What did the future look like for those who had lost everyone they loved and cared for? How do you get through each day?

Grief was your constant companion, memories a place of haunting. Maybe your own death would be the only solace. Maybe your life would be lived in the shadow of sadness. Or maybe you would live life fully and joyously to honour their absence. Or maybe it would be all of them.

Today’s letter is a poignant family triangle. Two soldiers who are brothers serving in Stalingrad, and their sister back home. The letter writer is the elder brother and has been trying to look after his younger brother who was serving in a different regiment.

The soldiers have just heard the catastrophic news that their mother and father have died. Bombs fell from the sky and buried them in the wreckage of the family home. The elder brother tried to find words to console his little brother. But there were none of course. And he too was at the end of his rope. His only comfort was that in dying their parents had been spared learning that they would never see their sons again.

But what of their sister? She was at home mourning the loss of her parents, and now she has to read that she will never see her brothers again,

“It is terribly hard that you will have to carry the burden of four dead people through your future life.”

Looking forward must have been an intensely painful exercise for all involved. How do you suddenly re-imagine your life in the midst of all this pain and trauma and suffering? All of your plans and dreams and hopes have suddenly been snatched from you. And the bleak future also makes you re-narrate your past too. Memories now are tinged with regrets. Things that should have been said can never be. Things that should never have been said cannot be made good.

And dreams die too. This is the inescapable poignancy of the sudden and unexpected death. The life they dreamed of, the life they hoped for no longer exists,

“I wanted to be a theologian, Father wanted to have a house, and Hermann wanted to build fountains. Nothing worked out that way…Our parents are buried under the ruins of their house, and we, though it may sound harsh, are buried with a few hundred or so men in a ravine in the southern part of the pocket.”

Hermann wanted to build fountains. Such sadness in those 5 words. The loss of a young man’s dream seems somehow heightened by the extraordinary contrast between the grim destructiveness of war, and the simple purity and beauty of a fountain.

The losses of war are numerous, almost incalculable. We tally up the deaths. We tally up the cost. We estimate the casualties. But such a crude accounting takes little account of the incredible richness and complexity of every life that is taken. It is so much more than the physical death of the body. For every death embodies the loss of a life. A person. A sense of humour. A web of relationships. A myriad of dreams and hopes and regrets and gifts and talents and fears.

War steals lives.

And it steals dreams and futures.

sandgrains: last letters XIV: 38 letters

War often forges incredible unexpected bonds between people. This is the yin to the yang of separation and loss. Camaraderie. Togetherness. Belonging. The tightness of the primary group created a powerful sense of community, often exclusive and fiercely loyal.

Yet for soldiers at the front, the primary group always lived – co-existed perhaps – with the pull of home. Friends. Family. Lovers. Spouses. Children. Parents. The people they loved and who loved them. Knowing there was someone out there who loved you, even if you could not see them or touch them or talk with them, was often more than enough to sustain you. To know that there was someone out there who carried you in their heart, who whispered your name at night, who held you in their dreams and in their memories, who thought of you every day was a truly redemptive thing. Some bonds cannot be broken by physical separation.

This was often why soldiers at the front were so anxious to hear from their loved ones, and also why they were so stressed and distressed at what was going on at home. Is my family safe? Have the bombs dropped on them? Do they have enough food? Have they taken another lover? Will they be faithful to me? How will I know? British soldiers in Africa were constantly driven to dark imaginings when they heard that other Allied soldiers were now stationed in their towns and villages back home. They dreaded the letter from home…

Dear John, I have something to tell you…

It became a critical issue for all armies: how to manage the morale of the troops who were separated from their loved ones, and fearful of losing that love? For this fundamentally affected their willingness and capacity to endure the suffering and conflict at the front.

But what about those who had no lover to write to? Many people back home decided to act as pen-pals. They would write letters to try and sustain the soldiers at the front.

Today’s letter relates the last letter of the young soldier to his female pen pal. He has written 37 so far, and this is to be his 38th and last one. He evidently had hoped at some point that they could meet up. Who knows, perhaps love would blossom when they finally encountered each other in the flesh?

But now, no meeting will happen. They will never get to meet. Never to embrace. Never to look into each other’s eyes. See the face of the other. Feel the touch of skin on skin. Hear the laughter.

The wistfulness and poignancy of this letter is amplified by the dawning realisation that having been wounded in September he had the chance to go home and meet up with her, but he turned it down, because he wanted to stay and witness the fall of Stalingrad. But now the despair of knowing they will never meet is mixed with disillusionment at the war itself, “this idiotic and totally one -sided struggle”.

And so he signs off, “Farewell, and as a good bye my thanks for the time which you have lovingly devoted to me.”

The final blow though is that he knows that he has been just one amongst the many soldiers that Hanna has been writing to. She will carry on writing. She has many to write to, and he was just one of the many. This must have been so painful. He will never see her. Never receive another letter from her. He will just be a completed note in her log of letters. And she will move on. Write letters to others.

And he will become a distant memory. A collection of letters. Bundled up. Put in a drawer.

The ink fading slowly on the page.

A relationship of 38 letters.

sandgrains: last letters XIII: on being wounded

War kills. War brings death. War brings adventure. War brings boredom. And grief. And loss. And despair.

And war breaks minds and bodies.

Fear of death was accompanied by the fear of maiming, of being wounded. The loss of a limb, or an eye. Loss of movement. Loss of sight. Loss of mobility. And underpinning this fear – of the physical pain and suffering – was the related anguish: would they still love me, accept me, want me if I am physically disfigured??

In this Letter (#28), the writer has to break the bad news of being wounded. The letter is tinged with irony. The reality of the wound is that he hopes to leave soon and make it home, and so the war is over for him. He will return. This was always the great hope of all the soldiers in Stalingrad: to get out and get back home.

But this return is overshadowed by the reason his war is over,

That I will be coming home is a great joy for me and for you my dear. But the condition in which I’ll get home won’t be any joy to you. I am in complete despair when I think of lying before you as a cripple. But you must know sometime that my legs were shot off. I’ll be quite honest in writing about it. The right leg is totally shattered and amputated below the knee. the left one is amputated in the thigh. the doctor thinks that with prosthesis i should be bale to get around like a healthy man and means well…Dear Elise if only I knew what you are thinking. I have time all day long to think of nothing but that. Sometimes I have also wished that I were dead…

Being wounded. The mental and physical anguish. Lying there, surrounded by the groans and screams of the dying. Seeing the faces and feeling the touch of the carers and the healers. And nothing to do but think. Imagine. Fret. Cry. This must have been the time when the imagination – the anxiety -fueled, despair-driven wanderings of the mind – went into overdrive, thinking of all the scenarios which awaited you, if you survived, if you got out, if you reached home.

What welcome would await you?

Will they still love me?

Will I ever lead a “normal” life again?

Why me?

Won’t I be better off dead?

War changes everything.

For the wounded, the war would not just haunt their dreams and their daydreams. Wounding brought rage and confusion, and doubt and despair and repression and self-pity.

For the wounded carried within their bodies the visible and tangible signs of destruction.

And the wounded carried within their minds a tormented and desperate search for meaning and purpose and identity in a body which was not theirs.

The departure for home – if it happened – was always then a return fraught with complications and complexities.

For home was not necessarily somewhere you could find belonging and acceptance anymore.

And you returned as both you-and-not-you.

sandgrains: last letters XII: letting go

The final word.

What would your final words be if you had to write one last letter to your beloved.

How would you start the letter?

What would you say?

how would you end it?

It all seems so final doesn’t it? Never writing another word. Never seeing them again. Never looking into their eyes again. Never holding them again. The agony of that final separation. Permanent separation.

Our soldier begins his letter by writing the words he never wanted to ever write, “Now I shall write just once more, and then never again. There I said it. For a long time I thought about how I should formulate so fateful a sentence so that it would say everything and still not hurt too much.” 

The reality of his situation is no longer deniable. Hope has disappeared. The end is nigh. And so he resorts to the matter of fact. Never again.

But the pain doesn’t end there, for our soldier takes a moment to think back, to recall to remember the times they had together, the love they shared and the life they built. And in this moment the sense of loss is acute,

” Our whole life together is there for us to see. We have honored and loved each other, and waited for each other now for two years…and time will have to heal the wounds of my not coming back.”

But the poignancy and loss does not end there, for our soldier does not just look back at the love they shared but he looks forward too, and in his imagining he sees a world for his beloved without him, but with someone else. In his love and concern for his partner (who is “beautiful” and still only 28) and their two children (Gertrud and Claus) he exhorts her to find someone else to love and marry after just a few months of his death. This is his dying wish for them

“Children forget quickly, especially at that age. Take a good look at the man of your choice, take note of his eyes and the pressure of his handshake…”

How must it have felt to write those words? To imagine your beloved with someone else? To see in your mind your children with a different father. To know that you will never see any of them again.

Only occasionally does he let slip the heaviness and despair in his heart as he faces his inevitable death. And at the end he exhorts her to tell the children as they grow up that their father was never a coward. That he faced his death with honour and without fear.

This is a letter about letting go. And letting go of the people we love, of the future we hoped for, of the dreams for our shared lives, of the hope that we had of seeing each other again.

Letting go – like waiting  – is probably one of the most profound, most pure, most selfless expressions of love. For in the act of waiting and in the act of letting go, there is nothing self-seeking. When everything seems lost and when there seems to be no hope, love waits. It waits and it waits and it waits. It waits patiently because of the deep longing to see the beloved just once more.

And in letting go, the beloved says to the beloved: go and live and find love and happiness without me.

So, in the midst of this painful, destructive, barbaric war we come across these examples of pure, unrefined, selfless love.

Moments of light in an abyss of darkness

sandgrains: last letters XI: losing faith

Some losses happen quickly.

Some happen slowly.

Losing faith in, well, everything, happened gradually.

And loss of faith was difficult to talk about with your loved ones who so desperately needed to believe in something – anything – that might bring them a tiny shard of hope. Something to hold onto. But for some of the soldiers, the experience of Stalingrad had rendered faith in anything almost impossible.

So it was with Letter XI. Our soldier recounts the letter he has received from his loved one back home, in which she relates how,

“…a human being like you , who loves animals and flowers and does no harm to anyone, who loves and adores his wife and child, will always have God’s protection.”

But how do you respond if that is no longer your reality? No longer how you feel about the world? About faith? About God?

What we are witnessing here is distance at work. And not just the geographical distance and separation of lovers in war. No, this is distance caused by the two different worlds they were now inhabiting. The world of the soldier – one of unimaginable trauma and suffering and pain and violence – and the world of the civilian back home struggling to keep life as normal as possible. The world of war was impossible to understand to those back home. The physical distance was now an emotional and spiritual distance, as a gulf had opened up between them.

 Tragically, they now no longer believed the same things about the world, because he had been changed, and there was no going back now. Both literally and spiritually. Too much had been seen. Too much felt. Too much loss. Too much destruction. It was becoming impossible to make any sense, any meaning out of what had happened to him.

He now knew one thing for sure: he no longer believed,

I am a religious man, you always were a believer, but this will have to change now if we accept the consequences of the conviction which we held up to now because something has happened which has overthrown everything in which we believed…I don’t believe any longer that God can be good, for then he would not permit such great injustice. i don’t believe in it any more, for he would have enlightened the minds of those people who began this war and always talked of peace and the Almighty in three languages. I don’t believe in God anymore, because he betrayed us.”

Betrayal.  Such a strong word, with all it evokes of love and loyalty and the fracturing of trust.

You see, this is what war does. It changes circumstances of course. But it changes people too. It transforms you. makes you different. It strips life back to its very basic elements and causes you to reassess everything you believe. When nothing is certain. When death is your ever-present companion. When you see the very worst and the very best of humanity. When you long and yearn for the simplest things – a hot shower, food, a few hours sleep – yet are denied them. Then you begin to see the world in radically different ways.

He knew he wasn’t going back,

This will be my last letter for a long time, perhaps forever…The situation has become untenable. The Russians are within three kilometers of of our last airfield, and once this is lost, not a mouse will get out, not to mention me. of course hundreds of thousands of others won’t get out either. Bit it is small comfort to have shared your own destruction with others.”

He was trapped.

There was no escape.

No hope at all.

And now no faith.