Life is a universal experience. Across time and geography, individuals find themselves in different cultures, under varying economic and political systems, identifying with different creeds and faiths. Despite the external environmental differences which individuals and groups experience, the unchanging human nature which all humans possess provides them with a common experience of life. Life is a sort of interviewer for each human—it asks individuals such questions as what they identify as valuable in life, what meaning, if any at all, they ascribe to life, what value they place on themselves as individuals, and which endeavors they find to be worthwhile. This short list of general questions is certainly not a complete list of the numerous complex questions which individuals face; moreover, many individuals throughout time fail to clearly attempt an honest answering of life’s pressing questions. If many individuals fail to consciously reflect upon life’s demanding questions, it may be because life is a polite interviewer, not an interrogator. Certain experiences within life, though, seem to present themselves as experiences of interrogation; war is such an experience. A soldier on the border of death finds it natural to give thought to life’s pressing questions, for he becomes aware that the prospect of death points out to him that he seems to have many subconscious answers which he hasn’t openly scrutinized. Among the myriad of questions which war focuses on the mind of the soldier, the soldier often find himself chiefly contemplating on his status as an individual and the question of personal responsibility and his attitude towards life and death.
War presents individuals with the question of how they think of themselves as individuals and how they respond to the idea of the responsibility of an individual to his country. While an individual faces these two connected questions in the general course of life, proximity to death makes the soldier painfully aware of his individuality and the implied answer that his presence in war gives to the question of his responsibility to his country. Rousseau’s famous phrase “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”, could be paraphrased to say that man is born as a free individual, yet society tells him that he is a pawn. War makes a man question whether he will assert his individual independence or accept society’s designated status of a pawn. The idea of the soldier as a pawn is expressed by Paul Baumer in All Quiet on the Western Front when he reflects, “We saw that the classical conception of the Fatherland held by our teachers resolved itself here into a renunciation of personality . . .” (23). Baumer understood that the script that society writes for the soldier demands that he renounce his individuality and embrace the cause of his country, regardless of what opinions the individual may have on the necessity or justice of a particular war. Baumer’s fellow comrade in arms, Kat, further comments on this topic:
Just you consider, almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are laborers, workmen, or poor clerks. Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it is merely the rulers. I had never seen a Frenchman before I came here, and it will be just the same with the majority of Frenchmen as regards us. They weren’t asked about it any more than we were (205).
Other soldiers exemplify similar cases of this internal resentment when soldiers realize that they are expected to be mere pawns in the game of war. In the case of the Korean War, both Captain Verity in The Marines of August and Naval reservist pilot Lt. Harry Brubaker in The Bridges at Toko-Ri resent being called up to fight when they both feel that although they did their duty in fighting for their country in WWII, they have been forced to jeopardize everything which they hold dear in a war which both couldn’t care less about. In the case of the Vietnam War, Tim O’Brian in The Things They Carried echoes this attitude of resentment towards war when he states, “I was drafted to fight a war I hated . . . The American war in Vietnam seemed to me wrong. Certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons . . . I did not want to die. Not ever. But certainly . . . not in the wrong war” (40). In commenting about the attitude of the larger society about the war and the soldier’s responsibility to do his duty towards his country, O’Brian continues in an indignant tone, “. . . it was a war to stop Communists, plain and simple, which was how they liked things, and you were a treasonous pussy if you had second thoughts about killing or dying for plain and simple reasons” (45). Political figures and society in general expect the soldier to embrace his status as a pawn, and by doing so, to renounce his individuality. War, though, when it places the soldier on the borders of death, makes him reconsider how worthwhile the cause which he may die for really is.
The soldier that is aware of the horrible prospect of death may question the cause for which he is fighting. As O’Brian states, proximity to death “makes you recognize what’s valuable” (81). An awareness of the value of life on the borders of death makes some soldiers question the legitimacy of their particular war. While some soldiers react with resentment when they question their duty to fight for their countries in wars which they have no interest in as individuals, it is certainly not the case that this is an all-pervasive attitude. More so, the different natures of different types of wars elicits different responses from soldiers contemplating the question of their duty to their country. Two factors which make a big difference on the attitudes of the soldiers on the ground towards a particular war are the motives which lay behind a war and whether nations make use of conscription. O’Brian, although indignant about being drafted to fight a war which he hated, states, “There were occasions, I believed, when a nation was justified in using military force to achieve its ends, to stop a Hitler or some comparable evil, and I told myself that in such circumstances I would’ve marched off to battle” (44). The nature of a war, then, decides whether some soldiers resent their supposed duty to their country or carry on their duty with a certain dignity about their mission. In With the Old Breed, although Sledgehammer resonates the theme of soldiers as pawns when he notes that “we were training to be cannon fodder”, he did not have any resentment about his service for his country because he understood the necessity and the justice of the cause for which he was putting his life on the line for (22). The problem with the questions of individuality and duty to one’s country, as O’Brian puts it, is that “a draft board did not let you choose your war” (44). It is the issue of choice which ties the two questions together. A soldier who freely chooses to fight for his country in a war which he recognizes the value of will often serve with heroism, while a soldier who disagrees fundamentally with the motive or scope of a war will often serve with resentment. Kat alludes to the issue of soldiers having the freedom to choose to fight based on the particulars of a war:
A declaration of war should be a kind of popular festival with entrance-tickets and bands, like a bull fight. Then in the arena the ministers and generals of the two countries, dressed in bathing-drawers and armed with clubs, can have it out among themselves. Whoever survives, his country wins. That would be much simpler than this arrangement, where the wrong people do the fighting (41).
O’Brian echoes the same thought when stating, “There should be a law, I thought. If you support a war, if you think it’s worth the price, that’s fine, but you have to put your own precious fluids on the line” (42). The issue of choice is at the forefront for those soldiers who do contemplate the question of how they are to relate their individuality with their country’s call to war. Many soldiers fail altogether to contemplate this question, simply resigning themselves to the fates of obedient pawns. Such an attitude is evidenced by the example of a Chinese prisoner of war in The Marines of August. According to the private’s service record books, he began fighting under Chiang Kai-shek in 1937, fought the Japanese until the end of WWII, and fought the Communists from 1947 until Kai-shek departed for Formosa, after which he was conscripted into the Communist army (97). Such a is the nature of a soldier who resigns himself to the fate of a pawn—he answers the call to war regardless of the particulars of any conflict.
War influences the attitudes which soldiers have towards life. The experience of war leaves some soldiers disenchanted with life, while for others it serves to remind them of life’s tremendous value. Since soldiers are commonly a society’s youth, the brutal nature of war may shatter the idealistic outlook on life which some youth possess. Baumer comments on this aspect:
The war has ruined us for everything. We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in war (87).
War shatters the idealization of life for some soldiers, leaving them disenchanted with life. The disenchanted soldier is characterized by the possession of the opinion that much of life is a mere façade. Having experienced the worst that life has to offer in war, the soldiers who become disenchanted with life by war are those who are dissatisfied by the whole façade because of one horrible scene, whereas the soldiers who see the beauty of the façade in light of that one horrible scene are those who affirm the value of life after seeing the brutality of war. Baumer again speaks of disenchantment with the whole of life and the common course of societal norms:
How senseless is everything that can be written, done, or thought, when such things [as war produces] are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands (263).
The fact that war is possible within life taints the whole experience of life for the disenchanted soldier. This disenchantment of such soldiers provides them with a new outlook on life, many times one that contrasts sharply to that of their fellow citizens who have not drunk from the bitter cup of war. For one, the disenchanted may no longer accept the values and cultural and intellectual norms of their societies. Norman Bowker in The Things They Carried, relates, “If I could have one wish, anything, I’d wish for my dad to write me a letter and say it’s okay if I don’t win any medals. That’s all my old man talks about, nothing else. How he can’t wait to see my goddamn medals” (36). For Bowker, his father’s placement of value on medals was abhorrent. To think that soldiers lay their lives on the line for their countries, sometimes in useless wars, and then to be compensated with some shiny toys which are supposed to thank them for them getting wounded and killed! Bowker couldn’t care less about his society’s fetish with war medals. All he seems to have wanted was some emotional support in the midst of a war which left him dazed, but his dad was too macho to comfort a terrified son. Such values. Disenchantment with life can even lead the soldier to altered views of the value of life. Baumer notes, “When a man has seen so many dead he cannot understand any longer why there should be so much anguish over a single individual” (181). The fact that humans so often have no qualms with killing each other en masse would suggest to some soldiers that life isn’t so sacred and valuable as our societies say it is. Finally, disenchantment with life can be so powerful as to make a soldier willfully embrace death to escape the pain of life, as in Norman Bowker’s case, who commits suicide. It may be the ultimate tragedy that a soldier or veteran can become so disenchanted with life that he embraces the enemy which he once so fanatically sought to avoid, death.
For many soldiers, the experience of war serves to affirm the value of life rather than to destroy their zeal for living. Although Sledgehammer relates that he “had tasted the bitterest essence of war”, he did not become embittered with life, but rather put the harsh experience of war behind him and settled down again in civilized society (66). Sledgehammer’s experience points out that many soldiers see the horrors of war as something to be discarded in their past and that they must continue on with life away from the battlefield. For these soldiers who take this attitude, experiencing war makes life even sweeter many times. As O’Brian shares, “Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead. You recognize what’s valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what’s best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost” (81). Captain Verity is a good example of how war makes a soldier realize what he values most in life when the author writes, “If he died, Kate would be alone . . . and for the first time in his life he was frightened of death. Not for himself, but for her” (37). Similarly, many of the WWII and Vietnam veterans who spoke in class shared that war made them realize that the value they placed on their lives along with the lives of their comrades and their loved ones back home spurred them to fight for survival, not for patriotism or ideology. O’Brian exhibits this attitude of fighting for survival when he comments about how he killed a Vietnamese soldier, “There were no thoughts about killing. The grenade was to make him go away” (133). The enemy for O’Brian was an obstacle to his having the opportunity to go back to live the life he loved, and that’s why the enemy had to be eliminated when it presented itself to him.
War naturally makes a man think of and question his attitude towards death. For many soldiers death is terror, an enemy to be avoided at all costs. For some, death is simply stoically accepted or even welcomed as an escape into the abyss of nothingness or an afterlife. These contrasting attitudes are evident in the two soldiers sentenced to execution by court martial in Paths of Glory. One of the soldiers is terrified of death and desperately seeks consolation in religion in his final moments, while the other simply resigns himself to the inevitability of death. The common attitude of fear of death is mentioned by O’Brian when he writes, “They were afraid of dying but they were even more afraid to show it” and “They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die” (20-21). For some soldiers the natural attitude of fear of death may turn into utter terror. Baumer speaks of this aspect when he relates, “Fear we do not know much about—terror of death, yes” (139). Some who see death as terror may exhibit a painful realization of what the philosophers call the threat of nonexistence. When a soldier realizes just how insignificant he is and how meaningless his life appears to be in the face of the inevitability of death, rage may follow at the prospect of his eventual nonexistence. Baumer poignantly expresses this attitude, “We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation” (113). This rage need not be loud or visible, for it may exhibit itself as the quiet weeping of a disillusioned and disenchanted soldier, as when Baumer watches Kemmerich die on his hospital bed:
I sit tensely and watch his every movement in case he may perhaps say something. What if he were to open his mouth and cry out! But he only weeps, his head turned aside. He does not speak of his mother or his brothers and sisters. He says nothing; all that lies behind him; he is entirely alone now with his little life of nineteen years, and cries because it leaves him (31).
For some soldiers the possibility that all that death has to offer them is an unwanted transition into nothingness makes them consider the possibility of an afterlife or seek solace in religion. Captain Verity and Izzo both are examples of this occurrence, as Verity confesses that he sometimes wishes he had a religion he believed in because it seemed to comfort the men who did and Izzo attends religious services regularly, regardless of sect or theology, seemingly as a sort of “fire insurance” for the afterlife. For a minority of soldiers, war may lead them to “sometimes thinking death would have been preferable” to the conditions of warfare and continued living, as in Sledgehammer’s case (273). For these soldiers, a proximity to death may take way its fear, presenting it as a somewhat favorable option in light of the horror of war. In all the different ways soldiers cope with the prospect of death, it is certain that war forces the soldier to consider his attitude towards death.
War is a unique, albeit horrible, experience within life. Despite the grotesque nature of war, the experience of war commonly awakens many soldiers to considering the big questions which life presents its inhabitants. The individual who lives the mundane life commonly fails to contemplate these questions, but by being placed on the borders of war, one is made painfully aware of the important questions of life. A few of the most important questions which many soldiers find themselves led to consider are the question of the relationship between personal autonomy and an individual’s duty to one’s country and the attitude which the soldier has towards life and death.