Mark Collins – “Storm of Steel”, or, Ernst Jünger: German World War I “Born Warrior” (with Canadian angle)

Excerpts from a piece at the NY Review of Books:

The Born Soldier
Karl Marlantes

Ernst Jünger experienced combat for the first time at the age of nineteen, in late December of 1914; he was twenty-three when the war ended. This is common: when I was a Marine infantry officer serving during the Vietnam War, the vast majority of Marines in my company were under twenty. What is uncommon is to write the raw material of a classic memoir at this age and then have it published at the age of twenty-five, just two years after the war’s end.

It should surprise no one that Jünger’s Storm of Steel contains almost no political, moral, or philosophical commentary: young men gener­ally don’t think deeply or philosophize about most things. But the lack of such commentary is not just because of the author’s age; it is also because Storm of Steel was written by the type of person I call a “born warrior.” Born warriors are interested in war and fighting, not philosophy or politics…

It is too often assumed that if someone is at home in war and likes to fight, then that makes him somehow cruel or lacking in compas­sion or even sociopathic. The born warriors I lived with wept when their friends died, were often frightened, struggled with issues of when to kill and when not to kill, missed their girlfriends, and appreciated the song of a bird or a beautiful jungle stream just like the rest of us. They, however, experienced war not as something to endure but as something meaningful to them, something they wanted to engage in more than anything else. Think about a born musician who gets clinically depressed if she is unable to play her instrument, or how differently she experiences a string quartet from the rest of us.

One of the many born warriors I knew was George Jmaeff, a young Canadian who came south and joined the US Marines to fight in Vietnam. He was about six foot three, looked like Errol Flynn, and carried a sawed-off M-60 machine gun—normally a crew- served weapon, but he had modified it so he could wield it alone. He always walked point. He always volunteered for the dangerous jobs. “Canada,” as everyone called him, was iconic, known and talked about all over the regiment. Yet he wasn’t crazy or stupidly aggressive. He was levelheaded, cool under fire, and a born leader who did not expose his fellow Marines to unnecessary risk. In short, he was good at war…

Storm of Steel, while widely acclaimed, has been criticized for glorifying war. I don’t read it this way. Jünger’s descriptions of carnage and filth are unadorned, neither lamented nor romanti­cized. What Jünger thought or felt at the time is largely absent in the narrative and hence unknown from this source. He offers no commentary on why Germany was fighting or why he was fight­ing for Germany. I think there are three reasons why he might have recorded his experiences in the way he did.

…warriors, indeed most soldiers, are focused on staying alive and keeping their friends alive. They don’t think or talk about whether war is moral. They don’t ponder why they are fighting for their country or whether their country was right to put them in battle. They don’t think about foreign policy—and they certainly don’t make it. I once asked my father and one of my uncles, both veterans of World War II, if they thought about beating fascism and saving democracy when they were fighting in Europe. They both laughed out loud. My uncle said: “We just wanted to get it over with and come home in one piece. That’s all we thought about.” Jünger was different in his attitude about wanting to get it over with and go home…

Adapted from Karl Marlantes’s new foreword to Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, translated with an introduction by Michael Hofmann, to be published by Penguin Classics on May 31. Foreword copyright 2016 by Karl Marlantes.

Plus from an earlier post:

The Appeal of Hitler–and of ISIS (via George Orwell)

….As for the appeal of combat, see Ernst Jünger’s World War I memoir Storm of Steel. I have read; it is powerful. “A chicken in every pot” and inclusive good governance on the other hand are not exactly rallying calls for a lot of young males (and some females), especially if they have been alienated one way or another…

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds


One thought on “Mark Collins – “Storm of Steel”, or, Ernst Jünger: German World War I “Born Warrior” (with Canadian angle)”

  1. A friend with extensive knowledge of military history observes:

    “I’ve read both the English and German versions of “Storm of Steel”; its a good read but went through many progressively less blood-thirsty versions as the years went by. Jünger was no mindless militarist. He was a well educated and sensitive man who got on well with the local population and spent his spare time in the trenches collecting insects! There is a street named after him in the village his company defended on the Somme.

    While his writings certainly struck a chord with a Nazis, the Nazis did not strike a chord with him. He came under Gestapo surveillance and was lucky that he was only cashiered after 20 July 1944 (he spent most of WW II on a staff job in Paris hob-nobbing with the French intelligentsia). Despite many wounds during his service in WWI he survived to the age of 102!”

    Quite a life.

    Mark Collins

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