The iconic “thousand-yard stare”, a far-off, unfocused gaze characteristic of soldiers who had succumbed to the trauma of war by dissociating from it, emerged with its name through the chilling photos of soldiers who were overtaken by these symptoms in the wake of World War II. It’s no surprise that war takes a toll on the psyche of all those affected by it. Given the brutality and scope of World War II, which began only 21 years after World War II (a war that had already ravaged the landscape and people of Europe leaving high estimates of the death toll at 65 million deaths), civilians and soldiers alike were engulfed in total war.
As Hitler and the Nazis’ ideology was based on “A War of Extermination” fueled by a racial ideology that sought for the ethnic cleansing and complete reengineering of the social population of Europe, the massive amount of Soviet soldiers that perished as they were thrown wave after wave in order to slow the Nazi war machine, and the general cruelty that was apparent in this war, soldiers upon soldiers grew appalled by the nature of the war.
As one soldier confesses in The Italian Job, “After three months, it was demoralizing… it was every night, every night everybody was hunting Germans, everybody was out to kill anybody… we was insane… We did become like animals in the end… Yes, just like rats… It was far worse than the desert. You were stuck in the same place. You had nowhere to go. You didn’t get no rest, like in the desert. No sleep… You never expected to see the end of it. You just forgot why you were there” (Addison 208).
Often times, the amount of effort put into it and the lives sacrificed seemed to far outweigh the benefits reaped from both; Gottlob Herbert Bidderman, a German soldier that was present on the Eastern Front reflected on “the insignificance of twelve kilometers: twelve kilometers—in an endless land, where unbroken fields stretched to the horizon before us from sunrise to sunset. I wondered how many more twelve-kilometer battles lay ahead of us during our march away from the setting sun” (Bidderman 23).
However, like anything that people are overexposed to, these men slowly grew accustomed to and desensitized to the trocities and horrors of the war. Human beings are naturally adaptive beings and history has shown time and time again that they do what is needed in order to survive. It would be simplistic to classify each of the nations and their armies as being uniform in their coping with the war – due to the specific nature of some of the problems and solutions that emerged from belonging to that particular nation (such as the Soviets reveling in their loyalty and the cult-like worship of Stalin and the Nazis racial ideology being one that ensured in their mind their victory), but many men, regardless of their affiliation, handled the war similarly.
Some treated the time on these fronts as a long extended workday, disassociating from the acts they committed and the sights they witnessed as simply being a part of a job. Others turned to their families away from home – brothers and sisters, who through their common experiences, pains, and moments of hope, stood together in solidarity. Others turned to the bottom of a bottle to ease the pain; while others turned instead upwards to a higher power, or at the very least began to frequent religious services.
Those who were not willing to look quite so loftily turned to their superiors and leaders for guidance and bravery; while in the case of the Soviet soldiers, glanced fearfully backwards as the higher-ups pushed them forward to their death. Far away from home and under harsh conditions, food and other chanced upon provisions and commodities would often serve as a best to moral. Due to the sheer breadth of stress embodied in being a soldier in any front during WWII, soldiers dealt with the immense strain in varying ways in order to keep intact their humanity, or at the very least, keep their sanity so that they could ensure their survival.
There is a perception held by many idealistic, young men that war is a somewhat akin to a noble crusade. However, there is the reality is much more analogous, to as one German soldier put it “this is ten times worse than hell” (Grossman 151). A scene from the Italian Job details this hell: “some (too many, far too many) were carried in dying, with gross combinations of shattered limbs, protrusions of intestines and brain from great holes in their poor frames torn by 880millimetre shells, mortars and anti-personnel bombs.
Some lay quiet and still, with legs drawn up – penetrating wounds of the abdomen. Some were carried in sitting up on the stretcher, gasping and coughing, shot through the lungs … All were exhausted after being under continuous fire, and after lying in the mud for hours and days” (Addison 208). As a result, as these idealistic notions were lost, many turned to viewing the entire ordeal as a job. Having suffered through the war for some time, one soldier remarked, “You’re fighting for the skin in the line. When I was enlisted I was patriotic as hell. There’s no patriotism in the line.
A boy up there 60 days in the line is in danger every minute. He ain’t fighting for patriotism” (Addison 210). Another soldier enjoyed fighting at dawn as he felt that it was almost as if he was heading off to work at the factory. Rather than consciously thinking of all of the horrors that they were witnessing on a daily basis and focusing on the fact that they could die at any moment, the concept of just doing a job provided a blanket under which these men sought to maintain control of their humanity by separating their psyches from the appalling state of being they were in.
A man in an earlier war who was quoted in Addison’s book stated that “whatever its size a man’s world was his section—at most, his platoon; all that mattered to him was the one little boatload of castaways with whom he was marooned on a desert island making shift to keep off the weather and any sudden attacks by wild beast” (Addison 211). Away from their families and friends, immersed in a bloody war where hundreds upon thousands of people could die in a skirmish or battle, these soldiers could only count on each other to truly understand the situation they were currently in.
Beaten and battered together, having lost many of the same friends, triumphed momentarily, or retreated hastily, this mutual understanding gave way to a support group – a family who soldiers could lean upon and secure their well being. Of this, Bidermann wrote, “Our thoughts were constantly occupied by the tenuous if not hopeless situation in which we found ourselves. We received solace only in our numbers and in being with comrades with whom we had shared so many experiences over the weeks, months, and years” (Bidermann 266).
Repeatedly throughout the 3 readings, there is mention of men, whether they in the heat of battle or “relaxing” with company, being drunk. It’s no surprise as alcohol has been a means by which men have coped with their problems for thousands of years. If the problems won’t go away, the solution for some has been to drink until those problems do not register as problems anymore. As such, Holmes noted “headaches were almost universal in a theatre of war where wine and brandy were readily available” (Addison 212). Grossman ctually talks about how his battalion commander Kozlov, in the midst of battle, “withstood an attack of tanks.
He was on great form and completely drunk. The tanks were thrown back in a dashing fashion” (Grossman 103). As religion has functioned as a form of comfort since the inception of civilization and the birth of religion, it was only natural for men living in depravity to come to it to relieve them of some of their burden. Subsequently, the men of the clergy were often instrumental to moral and aid. Furthermore, due to the looming possibility of death in war, the mortality of some became that much more apparent.
In Bidermann’s account, he talks of a divisional chaplain named Satzger who had several times risked his life to recover wounded men. Resulting from men of the cloth like Satzger and with death looming, “many of the soldiers who had not been so inclined began to attend religious services … For far too many [the chaplain] would offer the last voice of reassurance and the last vestige of comfort before they, too, succumbed to mortal wounds” (Bidermann 25). Another Catholic priest was dubbed “the rucksack priest” as he carried a field pack from which he provided troops on the front lines with simple food items that had in war become luxuries.
While it may have been a spiritual solace that many received at the hands of these men of God, others attended for the sake of having a comforting and helping hand. It’s been told that leaders are supposed to lead by example. Caught in chaotic times, superior officers often functioned as beacons to rally around. In times past, great leaders such as George Washington, Alexander the Great, and Genghis Khan immersed themselves in battles, showing that the best commanders do not directing them from the rear, but rather leading them in the front.
A commanding officer by the name of “Captain Kendall, turned a shaky company into a passably good one by public displays of sheer guts. ‘Look at me,’ he said quietly, walking from man to man under fire. ‘They can’t hit me. Look at me’” (Addison 210). Examples like this provided moral boosts to dreary men who needed something positive to cling to. Conversely, rather than inspiring by a guiding light of bravery and courage, the Soviets were incentivized onwards by the ever-present detachments behind the troops that would shoot deserters.
Grossman describes this in further detail: “Stalin’s Order No. 27 – ‘Not One Step Back’ – included the instruction to each army command to organise ‘three to five well-armed [blocking] detachments (up to two hundred men each)’ to form a second line to ‘combat cowardices’ by shooti ng down any soldier who tried to run away” (Grossman 141). As many Soviet soldiers understood the likelihood of their death in squaring off against the Nazis, the desire to flee was understandable. Stalin believed that the presence of the troops would force the Soviet troops to fight even harder. Pushed forwards, the stark realization of soldiers was expressed by Grossman: “Once you are here, there is no way out.
Either you will lose your head or your legs… Everyone knows that those who turn and run would be shot on the spot. This was more terrifying than the Germans” (Grossman 146). Under the constant strain of needing to ration supplies and consistently cut off from supply lines, soldiers had to make do with their limited resources. Given the treacherous nature of the constant advancement and lack of luxuries, whenever there was time to enjoy the comfort brought by certain goods that had faded away from recent recollection to distant memories, the time was relished and the goods provided relief to the men.
In fact, Bidermann specifically noted several instances where his regiment and he would partake in “luxuries” that were not available to them by enjoying the spoils of war. “Two August was marked by a break in the monotonous field rations, when we boiled freshly dug potatoes in an unnamed Ukrainian village. Obserschutze Fehr had already plucked a chicken, and together with the boiled hen and potatoes we ate peeled cucumbers” (Bidermann 24). In another instance, his crew discovered a still-intact collective farm and was able to enjoy hot coffee, schmalzbrot, and sleep in small thatched-roof huts.
Though seemingly commonplace to us, moments such as these provided brief relief and respite from the horrors of daily life across the theatres, and allowed soldiers to momentarily reflect on how life used to be. Constantly under an onslaught of forces that, if mishandled, could cause a man to lose his mind, soldiers used some, if not all, of the aforementioned forms to provide relief or inspiration in persevering in their struggle. Under pressure, these men had to find whatever means by which to motivate themselves to return safely home, and more so than that, return home as much themselves as before.
Courtney from Study Moose
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