War as theme in metal and Ernst Jünger’s Storm Of Steel

Storm of steel

Having never received a second of military training in my life, nor having participated in anything resembling armed conflict, I can’t help but cringe at the voyeuristic glee with which so many metal bands and fans treat of war as theme in metal. I understand that gas masks, bullet belts, and spikes serve as powerful visual aids, but far too few bands carry the musical or lyrical heft needed to supplement their posing. War, most hallowed of subjects, deserves to be treated with utmost respect and gravity; though civilian knowledge of war may only be derived from memoirs, historical accounts, movies, and the off chance that they know someone who’s seen action, even so it seems to me that there’s something intensely human about war. Tragic beyond all measure, undoubtedly, but also, if I may dare say so, sacred?

The opinion of those who’ve experienced war first hand, as soldiers, obviously but also as families affected by it, is sacrosanct and final, regardless of whether it agrees with whatever our second-hand, often childishly romantic, notions may be. We look at war through the rose-tinted glasses of retrospective and poetic interpretation, but to those who have experienced its hungry maws in person, it can’t but appear as an insatiable beast that asks for more the more it is fed. The wounds are real, their scars remain, how then can you, as even a remotely conscientious person, deal with this subject as if it were a panel from one of your Commando comics?

War, in many ways, is perhaps the only human endeavour in which a non-combatant can, and should, remain resolutely non-committal, and resist the temptation of assigning to it either positive or negative connotations. In all cases, war is an unfortunate eventuality, but there are times when it is also a necessity; the responsibility that then devolves to non-combatants is to have the sense of mind, and the moral decency, to realize that there is a time to sue for peace through diplomacy, a time precious and to be invested with all of one’s humanity. Once that time has elapsed, however, there is nothing left but to commit fully to the efforts of those who lay down their lives and futures for our safety.

This, in turn, naturally opens up a pandora’s box  related to the legitimacy and honorable conduct of wars. The dynamics of modern warfare have changed beyond recognition through technological advances; parity becomes an alien word on the battle ground when there is such a gulf between the haves and have-nots, but then you think of the result-oriented, kill-or-be-killed environment that is battle and you ask yourself why should one not leverage that technological superiority against one’s enemies? It was so when chlorine and mustard gas were used in the First World War, and it is so today when drones are piloted remotely over destitute lands in the Middle East from air-conditioned control rooms in the Arizona desert.

I suppose the thorn in that argument is that with the advent of technology, the immediate danger to the modern soldier’s person is far more attenuated than it once used to be, so, necessarily, do change the parameters within which honor and courage are framed. In such a light, war loses its intimacy as a battle between wills, and becomes more a means to a political end. And politics, as opposed to actual struggle between life and death, is a subject far more open to debate and dissenting commentary.

As I write this, I am reading Storm Of Steel, Ernst Jünger’s recollections of his experiences in the Great War. Jünger was actively involved in all four years of the war, first as infantryman, then as lieutenant, and finally as commander of his own company in the German advance and retreat across France. His memoirs present one perspective of war, that of the archetypal hero whose journey traces a path from the impetuous eagerness of youth to the self-assuredness of the consummate, grizzled veteran.

Jünger strikes one as the ultimate mensch, a warrior from an age long past; through experiences far beyond the pale of regular imagination, he managed to retain a stolidness and a stoicism, and came to see his role in the war as not only duty but also as an outlet for the heroism latent in man’s nature. That he brooked no sympathy for cowards should not be taken as sign of an unfeeling heart; immensely respected by the men he fought with, Jünger acknowledges the incomprehensible fear that must confront one in the moment of imminent death. But to his thinking, if one is going to die anyway, and soon at that, why not get something useful done before you eat the bullet?

Storm Of Steel is replete with guts, mud, and shrapnel. Technical passages of trench maneuvers and exploits of derring-do in no-man’s land abound page after page, but Jünger is not without wry observations on life and a sense of black humour even in the midst of the mind-numbing chaos of constant shelling. He hints at a mad fatalism – or is it a reconciliation with reality? – that envelopes the experienced foot soldier. In a particularly amusing anecdote, Jünger recounts a night when two of his peers drank a little too much and traipsed onto no-man’s land to retrieve a parachute, which they then draped around their shoulders and pranced around in. They were naturally sniped at from the English trenches, but managed to return to their dugouts unharmed. Jünger quips casually,”Bacchus looks after his own”.

But the overwhelming feeling I get from this, and other similar accounts, is the sheer waste that war promulgates. Jünger lost countless colleagues through those four years, so many in fact as to become little more than a roll call of the deceased. If you consider each of those lives in isolation and the back story which they must have been built on, then that rolling effect becomes magnified and all-encompassing, and reeling to the senses to comprehend; all those narratives wiped out with no sentimentality, in less than the time it takes for a lobbed grenade to describe its parabolic arc against the grey sky. What stands out more than anything else is the frailty of human life and how easily it can be uprooted while doing the most innocuous things, albeit in the most extraordinary of situations.

Heavy metal, precisely because it plays to so many different emotions, and because of the multi-limbed way in which it has evolved – really, when I think of it, you can spend a lifetime hearing this music and not have to explore the world outside of it, i.e. if you are of a particular personality and view on life – is uniquely placed to encapsulate the human experience of war. The travesty then is that so many choose to reduce it to caricature and a fashionable pose, and attack it from some shapeless, poorly-articulated drunken cry of “War!

The late Lemmy Kilmister still has the last words on the subject. War isn’t cool. It can’t be much fun, either. It is brutal, at all events regrettable, but, unfortunately, also a necessary element of our lot on earth. Treat it with the respect it deserves.

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