The Born Soldier

Canadian troops entering combat in World War I
Bettmann/Getty Images
Canadian troops entering combat in World War I

Ernst Jünger experienced combat for the first time at the age of nineteen, in late December of 1914; he was twenty-three when the war ended. This is common: when I was a Marine infantry officer serving during the Vietnam War, the vast majority of Marines in my company were under twenty. What is uncommon is to write the raw material of a classic memoir at this age and then have it published at the age of twenty-five, just two years after the war’s end.

It should surprise no one that Jünger’s Storm of Steel contains almost no political, moral, or philosophical commentary: young men gener­ally don’t think deeply or philosophize about most things. But the lack of such commentary is not just because of the author’s age; it is also because Storm of Steel was written by the type of person I call a “born warrior.” Born warriors are interested in war and fighting, not philosophy or politics.

During my own war, I had the privilege of living in close prox­imity to born warriors. The Marine Corps has a lot of them. I am not one of them. I would consider myself a citizen soldier, and most of the young men I served with were citizen soldiers as well. We became warriors, through either volunteering or being drafted, for the time that we were needed by our country. As soon as we could, we left the military and returned home. Born warriors are different. For them, war is home. They like to fight.

It is too often assumed that if someone is at home in war and likes to fight, then that makes him somehow cruel or lacking in compas­sion or even sociopathic. The born warriors I lived with wept when their friends died, were often frightened, struggled with issues of when to kill and when not to kill, missed their girlfriends, and appreciated the song of a bird or a beautiful jungle stream just like the rest of us. They, however, experienced war not as something to endure but as something meaningful to them, something they wanted to engage in more than anything else. Think about a born musician who gets clinically depressed if she is unable to play her instrument, or how differently she experiences a string quartet from the rest of us.

One of the many born warriors I knew was George Jmaeff, a young Canadian who came south and joined the US Marines to fight in Vietnam. He was about six foot three, looked like Errol Flynn, and carried a sawed-off M-60 machine gun—normally a crew- served weapon, but he had modified it so he could wield it alone. He always walked point. He always volunteered for the dangerous jobs. “Canada,” as everyone called him, was iconic, known and talked about all over the regiment. Yet he wasn’t crazy or stupidly aggressive. He was levelheaded, cool under fire, and a born leader who did not expose his fellow Marines to unnecessary risk. In short, he was good at war.

One night I asked him what he was going to do when the war was over. He said, “Sir, I’d go crazy in the peacetime Marine Corps, but I don’t think I’ll go home. I was just born in the wrong country at the wrong time. I think I’ll probably go to Biafra. I hear they’re looking for mercenaries there.” I didn’t ask him which side he wanted to fight on, and I strongly suspect that he didn’t particularly care, knowing as well as I did that both sides thought they were right and that it’s exceedingly rare when one side has clear claim to any moral high ground. If Canada had been born in China, he would have come south to join the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).

Warriors choose sides. This is why they are very different from police, who must be on the side of the law. I am quite sure that Jünger was on Germany’s side for no other reason than that he was German, much as Robert E. Lee chose to fight for Virginia, without regard for Virginia’s position on slavery, because he was a Virginian. Had I been born in Germany in 1920, I would have joined the Wehrmacht. Samurai—archetypal warriors—commit ritual suicide when they disagree with their lord rather than desert him or switch sides. We don’t choose, as Heidegger puts it, how we are “thrown into the world.” We choose how we conduct ourselves.

Ernst Jünger in his war uniform
Klett-Cotta Verlag
Ernst Jünger in his war uniform

Jünger ran away from home in 1913 to join the French Foreign Legion and trained briefly in North Africa before returning to Germany. Over the course of the war, he was wounded fourteen times. He held an Iron Cross First Class and was the youngest per­son ever to be awarded Germany’s highest medal for valor, the Pour le Merite, also known as the Blue Max. He could easily have found a safer billet or even managed on many occasions to get honorably invalided out of duty. Instead he chose to return, again and again. Toward the war’s end, he was part of a new kind of infantry unit, Sturmtruppen, or storm troopers, who were specialists trained to at­tack in a method that successfully overcame the stalemate of trench warfare and whose tactics are now standard for all infantry units. When Germany entered World War II, Jünger volunteered to serve again, and he did, although he was too old for combat.

Storm of Steel, while widely acclaimed, has been criticized for glorifying war. I don’t read it this way. Jünger’s descriptions of carnage and filth are unadorned, neither lamented nor romanti­cized. What Jünger thought or felt at the time is largely absent in the narrative and hence unknown from this source. He offers no commentary on why Germany was fighting or why he was fight­ing for Germany. I think there are three reasons why he might have recorded his experiences in the way he did.

First, his memoir was taken from his diary, which was written immediately after the incidents occurred. In combat, humans are typically numb from the horror of it; this is what gets them through.

When I was in combat, I felt very little about carnage and death; I was terribly busy trying to get the job done and survive. Years later, I felt a great deal. Storm of Steel was published just two years after Jünger stopped fighting. There was no “years later” for him.

The second reason is that I think it was against Jünger’s warrior code of honor to write about his experiences in other than a factual, nonjudgmental, noneditorialized way. I get the feeling that Jünger would have been dismayed, maybe even disgusted, at the way we emote about our experiences today. His warrior code of honor is evident throughout his memoir.

The third reason is that warriors, indeed most soldiers, are focused on staying alive and keeping their friends alive. They don’t think or talk about whether war is moral. They don’t ponder why they are fighting for their country or whether their country was right to put them in battle. They don’t think about foreign policy—and they certainly don’t make it. I once asked my father and one of my uncles, both veterans of World War II, if they thought about beating fascism and saving democracy when they were fighting in Europe. They both laughed out loud. My uncle said: “We just wanted to get it over with and come home in one piece. That’s all we thought about.” Jünger was different in his attitude about wanting to get it over with and go home. After returning to the fighting in Flanders from a month’s rest in Cambrai, he is subjected to intense artillery fire for days:

In the evening, the shelling waxed to a demented fury. Ahead of us, coloured flares went up in a continual stream. Dust-covered runners reported that the enemy was attacking. After weeks of drumming [being shelled], the infantry battle was about to begin; we had come at the right time.

I would have said we had come at the wrong time.

But like Jünger, who observed the stream of colored flares, I can appreciate that, borrowing a phrase from Yeats, there is a terrible beauty about war, even though I’m not a born warrior. I remember watching enemy tracers seeming to float into the night sky over Laos, seeking to down one of our airplanes, in much the same way I’d watch fireworks. I remember even being enthralled, late in my tour when I’d been transferred to an air ob­server squadron, by green tracers flying by both windows of our OV-10 as we dived firing, head to head with an NVA antiaircraft gun. Jünger sees the beauty—it’s everywhere in his memoir—and perhaps you will see it too. This doesn’t need to change how you judge war; coral snakes and tsunamis are beautiful too.

Jünger writes about many things other than combat, but all take us into the trenches as he saw them. He writes about fear and panic. He writes about nature—about having to live outside, just like a wild animal, in all of nature’s cruelty and beauty. He writes about the code of honor and manliness that engenders mutual respect be­tween soldiers on opposite sides of the battle, as when he encoun­tered a young British officer just before Christmas during a poignant temporary truce that unfortunately went bad:

We did, though, say much to one another that betokened an almost sportsmanlike admiration for the other, and I’m sure we should have liked to exchange mementoes.

At another point he writes:

Throughout the war, it was always my endeavour to view my opponent without animus, and to form an opinion of him as a man on the basis of the courage he showed.

And he writes about the understated and often gallows humor that goes hand in hand with the code of honor and manliness. I remember in Vietnam a kid waiting to be medevaced, gasping for air because he’d taken a bullet through one lung, saying, “You know, sir, it ruined my whole day.” Jünger often uses such humor:

We suffered many casualties from the over-familiarity engendered by daily encounters with gunpowder.
My dugout was somewhat changed as well . . . the British had fumigated it with a few hand-grenades.
We were so abundantly graced with trench mortars . . .

In another scene, Jünger describes a fierce skirmish with Indi­an soldiers from the First Hariana Lancers:

With only twenty men we had seen off a detachment several times larger, and attacking us from more than one side, and in spite of the fact that we had orders to withdraw if we were outnumbered. It was precisely an engagement like this that I’d been dreaming of during the longueurs of positional warfare.

I’d have been dreaming of my high school girlfriends.

“These short expeditions,” Jünger writes, “where a man takes his life in his hands, were a good means of testing our mettle and interrupting the monotony of trench life. There’s nothing worse for a soldier than boredom.” I would say homesickness, hunger, hypothermia, getting gassed, gangrene, and trench foot, not to mention getting killed or maimed, would all be worse than boredom. But Jünger was different.


Adapted from Karl Marlantes’s new foreword to Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, translated with an introduction by Michael Hofmann, to be published by Penguin Classics on May 31. Foreword copyright 2016 by Karl Marlantes.