sandgrains: last letters IX: the impossibility of a beautiful death

Stalingrad evoked a massive spectrum of responses to the dire hopeless situation. Some clung forlornly to the hope of escape. Some traded in their hope for despair very early on and awaited their fate. Some lost faith; some found it. For our soldier today, the situation brought anger, resentment and bitterness.

He had been a reluctant fighter right from the outset. he refused to describe himself as a soldier, merely a “man in uniform”. This is an interesting distinction. So often when we write about war we assume this blanket generalized identity for soldiers. Yet soldiers are people, humans like you and me, with foibles, and failing and hopes and dreams and prejudices. All different, yet we view them as this homogeneous mass. Re-humanizing armies might be the a most important task for all of us.

He alludes to his pre-war life as an actor, and of playing a walk-on part in the folly of this war, or the madness incarnate as he describes it. And in the midst of his recollecting he feels the gap between acting out a death on stage – noble, heroic, clean and poignant – with the mundane horror of the soldier’s death in battle.

For the reality of battle was death. And the reality of death was everything but noble, heroic and inspiring. More painfully still, this was not a sacrifice for a great cause anymore. This was not just folly you see. It was meaningless folly. And this was the final step towards resentment, bitterness, rage and anger.

The propaganda of war always says that dying for your country will be noble, beautiful, meaningful, inspiring and purposeful. It will confer immortality upon you. But it never has been and never will be any of those things.  It’s the old lie – as Wilfred Owen tells us – dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (how sweet and wonderful it is to die for one’s country).

As our man in uniform says,

But what is death in reality here? Here they croak, starve to death, freeze to death – its nothing but a biological fact like eating and drinking. They drop like flies; nobody cares and nobody buries them. Without arms or legs and without eyes, with bellies torn open, they lie around everywhere. one should make a movie of it; it would make “the most beautiful death in the world” impossible once and for all. It is a death fit for beasts; later they will ennoble it on granite friezes showing dying warriors with their heads or arms in bandages.

He then concludes with a tantalising statement…”I have no desire to rot in a mass grave..because I have decided to take my fate into my own hands..”

I wonder: what did he do?

What might you have done in that situation?

And while you are reflecting, think carefully about why we continue to talk of dying for one’s country as a beautiful, noble thing. And why we so often glorify war as the highest expression of human sacrifice.

For war means death: suffering, pain, grief, separation and loss.


sandgrains: last letters VIII: don’t be afraid for us

Sometimes we just ache for the humdrum of normality – a routine, predictability, the slow rhythm of everyday life – to return.

War always disrupts one type of normality and creates another for those wrenched from their families. But while one normality – the old normality – is a  constant lure for the soldier, the everyday reality of the soldier is unknown and unimaginable for the people back home.

Soldiers tried many ways to reassure their loved ones, to minimise the dangers, to distract them, to prevent them worrying. And letter #8 brings both these things to the fore: the longing for the old life, and the attempt to downplay the dangers and to reassure them that the old familiar life – the life before the war – will soon be restored.

But this was a lie of course.

Because they were not getting out and probably would not survive either the last battle or the incarceration.

So letter 8 talks of buying presents for grandma, of seeking out some coffee from someone who might be able to find some, of snow on the ground and of coming home in 4 weeks time.

And the line “don’t be afraid for us.”

Fear was the omnipresent shadow in war. And fear was the great enemy of peace of mind. For fear gnaws at the sense of well-being, unravels the mind, and becomes the all-powerful lens through which everything is seen. Fear invaded every day, every hour, every minute. “Do not be afraid for us” because they had enough fear of their own to go around.

How to fight a rising tide of constant fear?

And so this letter attempts to allay those fears, while keeping up the (false) hope of a return to normality.

But of course nothing would ever be the same again. The war had seen to that.

The reality of life in Stalingrad was danger, fear, suffering, grief, loss, cold, hunger, dirt, snow, thirst, friendship, resignation, hate, loss of faith, uncertainty, despair.

No wonder normal life seemed so compelling.