A Time to Love and a Time to Die
How could we have lost this war, they must have asked themselves at home? We have the best soldiers, the best pilots, the best generals. But at the front, where the battle was fought, the gaudy victories gave way to a series of disquieting defeats and then painful retreats. The best army in the world was being destroyed, piece by piece, by an insurgency of peasant soldiers.
A Time to Love and a Time to Die--written 50 years ago--is a love story set amid war. Published in 1954, this lurid, little-known novel examines an ill-conceived occupation from the eyes of a simple soldier, corporal Ernst Graeber. Lurid (for its time) because of the almost pornographic description of warfare--and what war is not pornographic in the truest sense of the word?--the novel is nonetheless sympathetic to the individual soldiers entrapped by a war engineered by others safe at home.
Written by Erich Maria Remarque, author of the more acclaimed, All Quiet on the Western Front, the descriptive prose reminds one of Hemingway at times, poetic and spare: "First came the January dead. They lay highest and came out at the beginning of April, shortly after the snow began to slip . . . . Besides the December dead were found the weapons that had belonged to the January dead. Rifles and hand grenades had sunk deeper than the bodies; sometimes steel helmets too . . . . With all of them, when they lay in the sun, the eyes thawed first. They lost their glassy brilliance and the pupils turned to jelly. The ice in them melted and ran slowly out of the eyes--as if they were weeping."
The soldiers Remarque writes about see what their leaders do not: they are losing and they are doomed. Corporal Graeber is an infantryman with the German army--the Nazis--and the tide has turned. Even those who survived the ferocious battle on the Eastern Front in Russia, circa 1943-1944, and were evacuated to Germany minus arms and legs, were lost souls pondering their individual fates as the empire crumbled.
When corporal Ernst Graeber finally reflects upon his own part in the occupation of Russia, he remains patriotic and yet frankly observes of his countrymen and fellow soldiers: "Betrayed . . . they have been betrayed, betrayed and befouled, their fighting and their dying have been coupled with murder and injustice and lies and might; they have been defrauded, defrauded of everything, even of their miserable, courageous, pitiful and useless deaths."
Almost prophetically, the woman that Graeber falls in love with back home, while on his last furlough before returning to the carnage, asks him: "Did they hate you very much?" Graeber responds: "I don't know. Perhaps. I didn't see much of it. Of course we didn't see it either. We still believed what we had been taught."
We are always taught, from cradle to grave, that we Americans are on the side of "good." But how does an estimated 100,000 dead Iraqis, many of them civilians, equal moral values? The average German citizen of that era was a hard-working, church-going, equally "good" citizen in his own eyes. Graeber is trapped in a moral quandary, aside from his very real military quandary: to return and loyally support his fellow soldiers at the front, and thus the bloody carnage that he no longer believes in, or desert his comrades and his country but not his conscience. Either way, he is trapped.
Sometimes, fools who never fought will blithely send soldiers into battle, like novice players squandering pawns on a chessboard. When enough pawns fall, the knights and bishops usually follow, and eventually the king. But, in real life, the pawns are dead and the foolish king survives to pen his memoirs.
Years from now, when enough soldiers return from the front, monumental books will emerge from this ill-conceived war. In the aftermath of all great wars, a small number of soldiers return, emotionally seared from all the things they carried inside, Hemingway comes to mind, or Remarque or O'Brien. They return with a need to "tell it like it really was," but what they write is an indictment against the architects of unnecessary wars.
Maybe a war is lost because in order to be winnable, everyone must be dead, soldiers and civilians alike. If the objective is occupation, you cannot win while anyone remains. Eradication, often mistakenly called pacification, whether in Russia, Vietnam or Iraq, is the unspoken order. Those old veteran soldiers who vent that armchair commanders back home "prevented" them from winning this or that war, meant that eradication of everyone--men, women, children--was necessary. And, unlike corporal Graeber, they live with the moral decision without much reflection of the consequences.
We may one day "win" the physical war in Iraq but lose the moral one, a Christian nation in name only, a mockery of true Christianity, as was Germany of the Third Reich. I sincerely hope the result is a long-lasting peace rather than another long black wall, but over a thousand US soldiers (and counting) have sacrificed their time to love for a time to die.