The Forgotten Soldier
Contributor: Bryan Hiatt
Review Date: 25 Sep 2005
I came to Guy Sajer's The Forgotten Soldier _clean_, having read none of the criticism as to the accuracy of certain details. I leave this to others here. Having read the book (all 465 pages), I'm no more qualified to judge its authenticity as a historical document. I can say that Sajer's book is good, and even if it is fiction, I wouldn't care. The details, the conversations, the internal musings of a young man in the middle of the Russian campaign (and of a 30-something narrator/author trying to make sense of it all) are apart of a time and place students of the period should study.
If The Forgotten Soldier is indeed a work of non-fiction, it's a striking testament to the friendship among soldiers and of the utter waste and senseless of conflict. No one is spared on the Russian front, and it is a miracle of no short order that Sajer and his friend Hals made it through the campaign together. If indeed it is a work of fiction, then you've just read one of the finer works of post World War II imagination. Judge for yourself. Where else can you read about a crashing Russian fighter meeting a white horse in a field? You can find many similar bits of unlikely happenings among the many hundreds of descriptions of death, among them soldiers crushed by tanks, dead and mutilated German soldiers with severed genitials shoved their in mouths (courtesy of Russian partisians), and of a friend of Sajer's hung by German MPs for having food from a crashed supply truck.
One of the striking details of the book is the frank discussion of fear. There are numerous references to soldiers pissing and shitting themselves in the midst of some battle, a detail that is glossed over in many popular American memoirs. It's a continuing problem as one soldier notes ("I'm tired of shitting myself") and you begin to understand that fear has automatic physical responses that serve to make the experience even more miserable (and not _great_ or _good_ as some popular authors have argued). Sajer is equally tough on himself, too, near the end of the book for failing to act decisively in a battle after a recent promotion. There he sat, in his hole with soldiers looking to him, frozen with fear. It was one his greatest personal regrets of his experience as a soldier. It's a strange admission as well, coming from a man who admitted to engaging in mercy killings at various time during the Army's retreat west.
There is a good deal of introspection in The Forgotten Soldier and at moments it becomes a little tedious. But there are times that this commentary is especially useful. All too often in period memoirs, we read only of comradeship, personal valor, and there is little frank discussion of civilians and their plight. In Sajer's retreat out of Russia to the west, he shared the road with thousands of refugees, all fleeing the Russians to an uncertain future in the west. His descriptions turn ironic when discussion turns to orphan children fending for themselves on the road, consigned now to a life without hope. His question becomes to do you help you crying children who will soon be dead? We often read of heroic soldiers or units, but not often of children without parents, some killed by strafing aircraft, others doomed to a rat-like existence.
American readers may well find Sajer's frequent discussion of heroic German soldiers in battle regrettably short-sided given the history of the German Army in Russia. While there are frequent musings about death and a soldier's gradual coarsening in the field, there is no larger questioning of Germany's reasons for invading Russia, only a single-minded vision of a soldier's duty. And it is broken down into familiar ground: the only way out is getting wounded or killed. Other than this, you do your duty and look to your friends. There is little else. Hitler is mentioned on occasion, but his role as a leader and organizer of this century's greatest tragedy is not discussed in any meaningful detail. We're only left with Sajer's own internal strife of being a Frenchman conscripted into an Army that lost having to justify his actions in the post-war world. Even so, The Forgotten Soldier honors those who suffered. Me, I'd like to believe it's all true as it stands as a firm witness against brutality and organized murder. But that's just me.
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