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Friday, August 6, 2010

No Glory--Just Grime (The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer)

Guy Sajer was a unique individual to start with, born and raised in an area contested by France and Germany for many years. He had family ties to both sides and his worldview strikes the modern reader as an idiosyncratic, naive, homogenized nationalism. He was filled with pride, for instance, when the Vichy French joined the Axis--his 2 nations, fighting as 1 (as he saw it).

But putting his convoluted motivations aside, Sajer wrote one of the best war memoirs ever--and about one of the biggest, bloodiest campaigns ever: WWII on the Eastern Front. His experiences as an infantryman should be required reading for every young man who imagines war to be heroic or glorious.

His honesty about what he saw, did and thought is striking. The closest anyone in Sajer's auto bio comes to heroism is a man Sajer often refers to as "the veteran" (Wiener was his name, so Sajer undoubtedly did him a favor by dubbing him with that title). Sajer and the other soldiers came to depend on the veteran, who was a pragmatic survivor, almost never lost his cool, and had a keen grasp of the strategic big picture well beyond his tactical grunt's-eye-view. The men in his squad thought him invincible. "Combat fatigue," "shell shock," "post traumatic stress" or whatever you choose to call it affects every soldier differently, and I found it profoundly sad what happened to the veteran's mind by the end.

The reason for the war on the Eastern Front was that one power-mad dictator wanted territory (Leibensraum) from another. But Sajer's story resonates with the experience of veterans of any war who endured heavy fighting and monumental hardships.

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