I met him one night at a dining facility, or DFAC, at a base in Kabul in 2009. He was young, energetic, sharp, and eager to fight terrorists and the Taliban. The officer was impressive. Two days later, he was seriously wounded in a suicide bombing and medevacked out of the country.
I met him again, quite by chance, four years later back in the States. I recognized him immediately. I introduced myself, acknowledging he probably would not remember me, given what had happened to him shortly after we had met. In oddly slow, carefully formed words, he admitted that he didn’t recognize me. He told me about the shell fragments doctors had extracted from his skull. He didn’t say that he had brain damage, but I assumed as much.
For many people like myself, that was the war zone experience. You met many people who were both admirable and capable. But the impersonal forces of war cared little for one’s professional capabilities, personality, interests, or family history. Neither do 107mm rockets, the 7.62mm rounds fired by the ubiquitous AK-47, or IEDs. The brutal machinery of battle does not discriminate, as evidenced by the thousands of casualties in the global war on terrorism since 2001—not only war fighters, but contractors, aid workers, journalists, and civilians.
Storm of Steel—a mesmerizing memoir by German World War I veteran and author Ernst Jünger—describes the arbitrary, senseless, and terrible qualities of large-scale industrial warfare and offers a helpful, if disturbing, corollary to our consideration of the global war on terror. Like many young men raised on stories of valor and victory on the battlefield, Jünger was anxious to reach the melee when his unit arrived in the trenches of the Western Front in spring 1915. “Grown up in an age of security, we shared a yearning for danger, for the experience of the extraordinary. We were enraptured by war,” he writes. Americans felt that same pugnaciously defiant attitude—epitomized in Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue”—following 9/11.
Yet it does not take long for the reality of combat to sink in. A shell burst over the entrance to a building kills 13 people, including Gebhard the music master, whom Jünger remembered well from earlier promenade concerts in Hanover. “Talking to my comrades, I saw that the incident had rather blunted their enthusiasm for war.” That is only the beginning.
During his first battle, Les Éparges (April 1915), Jünger sees corpses everywhere, both German and French, left unburied for fear of attracting enemy fire. He witnesses fellow soldiers with all manner of wounds, some emitting high-pitched screams, others quietly resigned to their fate. He himself is wounded and taken to the rear, where he observes a fellow wounded soldier appeal to his comrades to finish him off with the ambulance man’s pistol hanging on a wagon. “This was the home of the great god Pain, and for the first time I looked through a devilish chink into the depths of his realm.” At this point Jünger hasn’t even seen a living enemy soldier yet.
Our soldiers have seen their fair share of bloodshed and desolation in conflicts across Africa and Asia over the last twenty years—such as my high-school classmate and friend Craig Grossi, who received the purple heart during his service in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. But that is only one form of the terror inflicted by modern war on soldiers and civilians. According to the National Institutes for Health, as many as half-a-million U.S. soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because of their experiences in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
When Jünger returns to the trenches, he comments on the randomness of death in war. “Round about us in the mounds of earth rested the bodies of dead comrades, every foot of ground had witnessed some sort of drama, behind every traverse lurked catastrophe, ready day and night to pluck its next chance victim.” He recounts a story of one soldier who climbs onto a mound of dirt behind the trench to shovel soil over the defenses. “No sooner had he got up there than a bullet fired from the sap went right through his head, and dropped him dead in the trench. He was a married man with four children.” One of the soldiers killed at the airport in Kabul was an expectant father.
It is not just the soldiers who suffer. Temporarily quartered in the French village of Douchy, Jünger comments on the French population remorselessly evicted “from the places where they had spent entire lifetimes.” He must suppress “sad thoughts” and empathy towards those “who only recently led their lives in tranquility.” During the beginning of the Battle of the Somme (September 1916), a shell fell in the garden of his lodgings, killing a little girl “who had been digging around for rubbish in a pit.” At Guillemont, a village bombed during the same battle, Jünger notices another casualty. “On one doorstep lay a little girl, stretched out in a lake of crimson.” In short order, “the village of Guillemont seemed to have disappeared without a trace.”
More than a quarter-million civilians have been killed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq since the beginning of the global war on terror. The recent U.S. retaliatory airstrike against ISIS-K reportedly killed ten Afghan civilians, including eight children. In 2015, a U.S. AC-130 gunship accidentally destroyed a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing more than 40 civilians. Our forces in Iraq reportedly killed more than 1,000 Iraqi children. War inevitably claims innocents such as these.
At the Somme, Jünger’s regiment replaces another on the front lines. Observing the destructive chaos, he notes: “One company after another, pressed together in the drumfire, had been mown down, then the bodies had been buried under showers of earth sent up by the shells, and then the relief company had taken their predecessor’s place. And now it was our turn.” He is again wounded, this time by shrapnel in the leg. For Jünger, it is a providential wound, given that his entire troop was massacred shortly after his medical evacuation.
On this the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I can’t help but draw parallels between two decades of U.S. military action in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and what Ernst Jünger saw more than a hundred years ago in northeast France. Young, healthy, virtuous, and intelligent soldiers lives are cut short. Innocent children grow up—and often die—knowing little besides war, what Jünger summarized as “blood, filth, and work.” People try to discern some higher purpose beyond the seemingly mindless deaths of beautiful men, women, and children and the senseless destruction of ancient communities like Iraq’s Christians.
One night during the Battle of the Somme, a sergeant in the platoon to the immediate left of Jünger’s discharges the wrong flare, erroneously signaling to German artillery in their rear to start firing. “One shell after another came yowling down out of the sky and showered the field ahead of us in a fountain of shards and sparks on impact.” Eventually this “orgy of destruction” diminishes and dissipates. “One man’s slip of the hand had got the whole titanic machinery of war rolling.”
Men, driven by passion more than reason, or perhaps simply stumbling through some careless error, trigger events that result in the deaths of hundreds, thousands, and even millions of people. In an era of industrial war defined by air strikes and improvised explosive devices, the results are both deadly and random. How many such “slips” have there been during twenty years of global war on terror? Was the global war on terror itself such a slip? Surely we can all hope, and pray, that looking to the future, America’s leadership will do their best to limit, if not prevent, the kind of evils that Jünger and so many of our own servicemen have seen on the battlefield from Afghanistan to Yemen.
Casey Chalk writes about religion and culture issues for The American Conservative and is a contributing editor for the New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.