Monday, July 14, 2014

Killing in war: Does it happen?

Caterpillar Cemetery, Longueval, France

Only yet a few weeks to go and the commemorations of the centennial of the First World War will begin. When one thinks of war, one thinks of at least two opposing parties and one thinks of killing. Both are essential for what one calls war: There is no reason for fighting, if two parties do not disagree, and killing is the ultimate and often not so ultimate means for getting the other on his knees if he doesn’t give way. It is not difficult to find both elements in World War One. The immediate cause was a conflict between two countries (Austria and Serbia) and since both countries had their allies, already at the start the conflict was a war between opposing alliances: the Allies or Entente (France, the UK, Russia etc.) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria and others). Finally more than forty countries were involved. When it ended 8.5 million soldiers had been killed if not more and if one adds the civilian victims, about 15-17 million people died in this war. In several countries almost a whole generation of young people was lost. Who else must have practiced these killings than the fighting soldiers themselves?
I think that it was some fifteen years ago that my interest in the First World War developed. I had heard about the war, of course, but when I travelled in the north of France, the big number of war cemeteries struck me and I wanted to know more about this war. So it started. Since then I have read many books on the World War One and I have visited many war sites, both along the Western Front and elsewhere. I have devoted even a big part of my website to photos made during these travels ( I still photograph every monument and site related to WW I that I see and I still read as many books on this war as is reasonably possible. I have a preference for biographies, novels (many of them have been written by war veterans or are based on reports by war veterans) and other personal documents. So not so long ago in a second hand book shop I came across a publication of First World War letters of the British writer Vera Brittain and four friends who fought (and died) in the war and I didn’t hesitate to buy it. Immediately I started to read it and I can say that it is very interesting. It tells a lot about life in Britain in those days and about life at the front. It says a lot about what people thought about the war and about their feelings (especially when a friend at the front had died). And probably it says a lot more. What I miss, however, is that the letters tell us nothing about the enemy and even more nothing about the killing as such. It’s true, some letters talk about the Germans and that they shoot. Sometimes they tell that a soldier dies. However, if one considers how these events are described, I think that it is possible to defend the thesis that there is no enemy and that there is no killing in the letters, certainly no killing by you or your party. In this sense war is an impersonal affaire that passes like a river that washes your feet when you ford it. And even more, the absence of the enemy and the absence of killing by yourself and your side (especially in a personal sense of a personally doing) is striking in most ego-documents I have read on WW I. Of course, if you want to, here and there you can find passages in these works that seem to refute my thesis. Nevertheless, as a general tendency it is true, I think.
Is this tendency strange? I think it isn’t for despite all rhetoric that says that killing in war is allowed, in fact hardly anybody agrees. So most soldiers (who are people like you and I and not a special human race) do not want to confess they did. They would feel themselves ashamed, or unhappy or how you want to call it. Therefore I think that these war novels, biographies and other personal documents tell us not only much about World War I but also much about who we are as human beings. This gives these documents a wider meaning than being merely a report on a certain passage in history. These writings are not on war and war experiences, but they are on man.

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