Ernst Jünger: The Modern War Story
-- “The character of battle … is slaughter.” – Carl von Clausewitz
Cover, Storm of Steel, published by Penguin, 2016
Much of the modern literature of war, which was birthed in the trenches of the First World War, has been arrayed into the following moral arc: a naïve, idealistic youth goes to war; he witnesses the horrors and waste; he returns home haunted, or even destroyed by what he’s seen; hence war is evil. Obviously there are many variations on this theme—sardonic novels like Catch-22, or narratives that only obliquely reference war such as The Sun Also Rises—but much of literature adheres to this basic framework and its moralism. And why shouldn’t it? What could be redeeming about the slaughter Clausewitz references? Yet it took the unprecedented bloodletting of the trenches, with their poison gas and futile advances into machinegun fire, to codify this conclusion in art. But is there room for another narrative in literature?
Iconic American writers, such as Tim O'Brien think not. In his seminal book on Vietnam, The Things They Carried, he wrote, “… you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.” However, one of the most significant works of literature to emerge from The First World War came to a very different conclusion about the nature of war. In the final pages of Storm of Steel, it’s author, German veteran Ernst Jünger writes, “Hardened as scarcely another generation ever was in fire and flame, we could go into life as though from the anvil; into friendship, love, politics, professions, into all that destiny had in store. It is not every generation that is so favoured.” Few would characterize the lost generation, which perished in the millions among the muck of trench warfare as favored, but Jünger does. (Image right, Jünger as a soldier).
An infantry officer and Sturmtruppen (storm troop) commander, who fought for the wars entirety from 1914-1918, Jünger was wounded as many as seven times and received the Pour le Mérite, the highest military decoration of the German Empire. Two years after the war, he self-published Storm of Steel, a memoir of his time in the trenches, to widespread acclaim and went on to have a rich and varied literary career, producing over fifty books before dying at the age of one-hundred and two. Throughout his life, Jünger’s views on war proved controversial. Many criticized him for glorifying war, yet Storm of Steel rarely, if ever, veers into the polemical. Jünger’s descriptions of battle are straightforward, unsentimental reckonings with violence. If at times he marvels at the spectacular, it is often, frankly, because war is spectacular, and to deny this is not to speak truly of war. Or, as the photographer, Timothy Page, said of war, “you can’t take the glamour out of that. It’s like trying to take the glamour out of sex, trying to take the glamour out of the Rolling Stones.” (Image, right. Jünger as a centenarian wearing the Pour le Mérite award)
Jünger’s belief in the redeeming nature of violence, as illustrated in these lines, “We stood with our feet in mud and blood, yet our faces were turned to things of exalted worth,” would be easier to dismiss if they were uttered by a chicken hawk. Elsewhere in the First World War’s literature we meet many such figures who exalt war while knowing nothing of it, none of whom is as notorious as Kantorek, the school master in Erich Maria Remarque's seminal All Quiet on the Western Front, who encourages his students into the trenches while remaining safely at home. Remarque is critical of Kantorek because he behaved, “in a way that cost [him] nothing.” Perhaps this is why Jünger’s views, which seem closer to Kantorek’s than to Remarque’s anti-war protagonist Paul Bäumer, cannot be so easily dismissed—Jünger’s view’s cost him a great deal.
With the approaching centennial of the Armistice, revisiting the work of Ernst Jünger takes on a particular import as our fractious world continues to teeter from one crisis to the next. His writings, though out of step with the development of contemporary war literature, are perhaps all the more essential because of their frank—and rare—perspective on the mystical allure of violence. For a nation entering its seventeenth year of war, staring down that allure might be the best way to escape its clutches. (Image right, characters Kantorek and Bäumer in film production of All Quiet on the Western Front).
Elliot Ackerman is the critically-acclaimed author of the novels Dark at the Crossing and Green on Blue. He is based out of Istanbul, where he has covered the Syrian Civil War since 2013. His writings have appeared in The New Yorker,The Atlantic, New Republic, and The New York Times Magazine, among other publications, and his stories have been included in The Best American Short Stories. He is both a former White House Fellow and a Marine, and has served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart.