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 Withdrawn.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.
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?