Vergismeinnicht – keeping secrets in a war

I remember in Upper School English classes, reading Birdsong, reading All Quiet on The Western Front, reading soldier poetry, and me seriously riling a group of girls. I found it extremely frustrating reading the female accounts of war. The ‘anguish’ and ‘suffering’ of staying at home and working in munitions factories etc. And yes, it would have been totally rubbish. I never ever disputed that. The problem I had was that I had spent a good deal of my teens morbidly obsessing over how utterly terrifying it would be if I was forced into the position of a soldier on a beach in Normandy or in a trench in Ypres using bodies to reinforce my walls.

The conclusion I reached was that whilst being back home suffering from rationing and an all-round upside-down world would make the anguish of being separated from your partner all the more unbearable, being knee deep in mud with rotting shoes, no food and a constant fear of standing upright was another thing altogether. I felt that the thought of your ‘girl’ back home was quite frequently the only semblance of sanity a soldier would have ever had and likely the only truly wholesome idea worth clinging to amidst the bullets and the rotting corpses and the futility.

I notice I’m talking in the past tense. I think this is just a defense mechanism. I still see the scornful looks I got, not least of all from my teacher. I guess I still believe it. When i think of war I think of a puddle, a man in that puddle and a picture in his hand. But this is a little beside the point.

The point I’m trying to make is that whilst I’ve now had a good 12 years of imagining the horrors of hiding in a mortar crater to stay alive I have only just began to think about the secrets the soldiers must have chosen to hide. You hear stories of shell shock and nightmares for years to come and I think about the utter impossibility of coming remotely close to a comprehension of what they must have endured. Thinking about me being at war is like thinking about me playing Halo or Lazer Quest. It’s like drink driving. It ‘won’t happen to me’. Because, and yeah I’m not going to trawl out my philosophy degree here, but it’s not really possible to imagine being dead. It’s an abstraction.

So, back to my point.

If someone is simply incapable of comprehending the events you have endured, and that someone is everyone who hasn’t experienced the siege of Bastogne or the like, then you can’t talk to them. Further to that, and my history is flaky, but didn’t people tend to keep ‘unseemly’ things to themselves in the 40s anyway? Was it not considered inappropriate to discuss things such as looting a corpse of his water bottle? And so, inappropriateness, and a desire not to discuss; but isn’t there also the feeling that to talk about it might make it real again? To discuss it would be to burden someone you loved with something so utterly incomprehensibly awful that you would likely vow never to open your mouth again?

This has been brought on by my having just finished watching The Pacific. Whether I liked it or not is a different post but what struck me was the closing credits. Photos of the real marines that the characters are based on are shown and, watching it just now, for the first time I felt like ‘windows to the souls’ was an appropriate, and not irritatingly twee, way of talking about the eyes. Most of them, those whose photos were taken after service, have a look that I can’t comprehend and that I’ve only seen on the news.

How do people live without talking about it? I find the idea impossible – because I’ve never experienced something so awful I would want to keep it from someone, and because I’ve grown up running my mouth off at anyone and everyone within earshot. I’ve also been born in a time where it’s totally cool to discuss everything with everyone and I always make the most of that.

It’s something I can’t get into and if I had the ability to observe it I’d almost certainly not be the same person that’s contemplating it now so, gah, I’m thinking about it yet I CAN’T think about it. It’s impossible.

My favourite poem, Vergissmeinnicht (Forget me not):

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that's hard and good when he's decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.
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