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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Otl Aicher on War

As long as you are a soldier, you have to stay within the framework of your unit or move within the confines of the line of command of an order.

Since we lounged around for days on end ~ I had unbelievable time to read ~ I risked taking a field trip. We were camped on the fringes of a village. All around us, as far as the eye could see, the unplowed fields of stubble. The tracks of the trucks and tanks from the battle for Charkov spread across the fields like a black net.

I was raised on the topic of war. The first World War with its peace of Versailles and the revolution of the soldiers returning home created a climate of thought and conversation that would give no one a break. Someone would say, 'never again war.' Someone else, 'that revolution is a stab in the back to our army.' Even in civvies, most of the years I was in school, students wore a puttee [Ed: a leather legging secured by a strap or catch or by laces], like soldiers in the field wore. Shoulder harnesses and webbing showed up in the uniforms of many parties and organizations.

In the evenings, the men would tell one another about the war, and we children would listen with our mouths wide open. Demonstrations and public announcements always included marching, flags, and military music. In school, the French teacher talked about war, the biology teacher talked about war. Even the religion teacher had to clarify his nationalistic reputation by speaking about chaplains during the war. The poetry textbook for our German literature class was full of poems about war and the deeds of heroes.

And now, I myself was in a war. I was lying on the ground where a battle had just taken place. It was as though this was a point that my life had been leading up to all this time. After all that talk about war, for the first time I could hold it with my hands. It was tangible reality.

I left our camp without telling anyone. I wanted to go to Charkov, to really see the war. Out here where I was stationed, we got only vague hints about it. I almost ran to Charkov, up hill and down. I had a picture in my mind of what a battlefield had to look like, drawn from my father's stories, from newspapers and books, from teachers' reports. I wanted to see it. So I ran for hours till I reached Charkov.

Once I saw a few piles of something or other in the distance, but it turned out not to be dead soldiers. It was only clumps of straw. The network of truck tracks that criss-crossed the land were wider in some places, and in others, narrow. Then I reached a ravine, and for the first time, smelled the stench of war.

I still couldn't see anything, but a penetrating sweet odor kept forcing me to hold my nose. In vain. Suddenly, they were everywhere. Horses, soldiers, parts of vehicles, a few patches of uprooted earth.

I approached the first dead soldier almost cautiously. His face was bloated, yellow-green, yellow-brown. Teeth bared in a snarl. His wool jacket, ripped open, was encrusted with clotted blood. The battle was probably three or four days ago. The burning sun had turned death into putrefaction. The next dead soldier, I was met with a blank stare. His eyes were looking someplace where he could not see, and blood had run from his nose.

Now I understood why we always close the eyes of dead people. But I did not dare. It was as though poison flowed between us. I was breathing suffocating vapors of poisonous gas. I would have liked to have closed his eyes. Death is only peace when our eyes stop looking for something.

One soldier was lying halfway in a fox-hole, head down. His cotton clothing looked like a sofa that has been split wide open.

One soldier was lying on his back on the ground, his chest split in two, a child's chest with no hair. I tiptoed, like the angel of death, slowly from body to body, choking, mouth dry, yet full of curiosity to see what war looked like. A dead man is a dead man.

But these here, they were not dead men. They did not have a body. They were a mix of scraps of clothing, dirt, mud, blood, flesh, and swollen skin. They did not rest in peace. They had died like animals, had been exploded like a grenade.

One soldier was missing a leg. I never could find where it was. The stump had been bound up with a shirt. The blood looked like red cement. Many of their hands were soft and peaceful. All were swollen. Many hands were like those of Matthias Gruenwald, making a tight fist. Some deaths must have been sudden, others slow and painful.

No angel of death had been at work in this place, no unceasing angel of death. No, here had walked a tormentor, a torturer, someone who inflicted pain, a butcher.

This was anything but a sacrificial death. One does not become a hero by dying. One bleeds to death, one wastes away, one witnesses his own death as a public embowelment. Even the one who passed away with his head bound in white, the only thing that is white in this whole tumult of blood and earth, even he lies there still and stutters his pain. Beards and fingernails grow over death, and the faces quickly take on the image of grimaces and ghosts. These are creatures of hell, of the devil.

War does not allow man to end his life as man.

From innenseiten des kriegs, by Otl Aicher. Translation (c) 2001 Ruth Sachs. All rights reserved.

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