The Shadow of Death
As Father Matthews and I walked, I relayed a story that I had previously thought would remain untold forever. During a fierce battle with a particularly stubborn German battalion, we were unexpectedly ordered to retreat to a safer position. This was a rare occurrence, and none of us took to it kindly.
But, we were soldiers, and as such exercised as much autonomous control over our movements as an arm or leg. We retreated as one body, marching in absolute precision and uniformity. When we came to a stop, it was at the base of a hill and it was there that we were ordered to stand against the Germans. It made tactical sense, or at least it did to my limited knowledge. It’s very difficult to outflank an army trapped against a hill. But, of course, it’s also very difficult to escape.
When the dust had settled, the machine of war ground on, its gears greased with the blood of the fallen. I was positioned on the northern side of the line, crouched behind a rifle. Bullets whizzed over my head and around my body. I heard them pass me by like a swarm of angry bees: buzz... buzz... There was a kind of monotony to the chaos: a deep, overwhelming sense of deja vu. My mind was as turbulent as the battlefield, and despite the tremendous force of will I applied to it, I remained incapable of recalling where I had experienced this whole series of events before. But, a part of my mind insisted that I had.
As I was mulling the various inadequacies of the human brain, a foreign face appeared mere feet from my own. We locked eyes for a nanosecond, and that was all that was needed to affirm that what would follow would indeed be a duel to the death. We pledged our lives to each other in that moment, and became as inextricably tied as a bride and groom at their wedding ceremony.
We lunged, bayonets outstretched and clanging off of one another. Our arms intertwined, we fell, tumbling through space, onto the hill behind us, and as our struggle grew more intense, ascended step by desperate step. The German had inflicted an excruciating knife wound to my thigh, which I had repaid with a long cut across the cheek. But it wasn’t until we reached the very top that the predetermined outcome of our melee became disturbingly apparent.
We had been fighting for a good 10 minutes when an incline appeared behind us which dropped off steeply into the ground below. It was painfully clear that to fall off the side would mean certain death. Both of us planted our feet, attempting simultaneously to resist each other’s efforts to go tumbling over the edge and to apply counter-pressure.
Locked together, yin and yang, two halves of an omnipresent whole, our embrace reached across the universe until it became one with the underlying nature of things. Radiant and alive, our totality was more than I ever could have ever fathomed while apart. Life and death, when balanced on a knife edge so fickly and finally were blurred to the point of losing all distinction. If asked at that moment whether or not I had been born into a grave, nothing would have struck me as troubling or strange about the question.
We struggled under the night sky and over the vast oceans of warfare, that sea of flesh tearing at flesh, calling hell up from the depths and simultaneously weighing itself down. Sweat stained my nostrils, whether it was my own or his was a question entirely without meaning, for it presupposed life. I was a corpse, engaging in combat not to preserve its life, but to regain it. Lost amongst the river Hades, my soul had flitted away. Had I not felt my heart skip a beat a moment ago? Was there not a window, however short yet unflinching, during which it could have seeped out of my skin and rejoined the infinite majesty of the universe? Pain! Pain brought the thing crashing about my ears. My attention suddenly focused with a frightful urgency on the tremulous, hair-lined cheekbones of my enemy. The enemy. The enemy the army had taught me to regard without feeling, without compassion, yet here we stood, nearly inseparable.
I struck him a mighty blow to the side of the head, shattering the blissful interconnectedness of our inevitably fatal embrace.
“Aach!” the man bellowed, pushing off the ground with terrific speed: gushing like a gust of wind, as fluid as water and solid as rock. Panicking, I froze for an instant, a fraction of an instant, and then threw myself under him, rolling at the precise and only angle which could have taken my path underneath his.
Falling! He fell, hurtling through time and space, away from the fire and vitality of human life and into the cold, quenching darkness which snuffed his soul into oblivion. Broken and in pieces, the man who was no longer a man became a broken marionette. His strings cut, his skin flayed and the bright flame which had driven him over the edge nowhere to be found.
It struck me then with its full force, a realization not suited to the battlefield or indeed to anywhere at all: the fragility and ephemeral nature of existence itself. The experience of not being was totally alien and yet so universally feared. Why? Had anyone ever feared the possibility of life as a butterfly? Equally foreign, yet never feared. It was the nothingness then, the empty, infinite nothingness that consumed human consciousness even in imagination for it could be given no character by the very agency it did, by its nature, extinguish. The German who was no longer a German was no longer a man either, but one dead thing among Planet Earth’s myriads of dead things.
“A crime against god,” Father Matthews would tell me months later, to explain the human quality of that which used to be human. Did it cease to be so when breath no longer touched its lips? But, that wasn’t the truly terrifying question. Some of these, inquiries into the nature of nature, were dangerous even to formulate.
What stopped me from joining that young man, over the edge and into the void? That morbid curiosity was acutely present as I stood over him, hundreds of feet and a lifetime above. Why was it that his death and my role in it were to be celebrated as patriotic accomplishments? Why, when it could just as easily have been I who had surrendered to the nothingness, hadn’t I?
Those old, almost mocking words which once flowed from that genius hand:
“To be or not to be?” But it wasn’t a fair question. Not to be, to surrender the capacity for experience itself? Who could say whether it was better than to be? It was, necessarily, featureless and as such could no more be compared than it could be felt. And, to be? Who could say that to be was not to drown in the same kind of boundlessness, to drift without direction?
Too many questions; life is not about questions, not about answers, it’s about, as that German lad had so aptly demonstrated, keeping yourself from tumbling over the side of a cliff.
There are blank spaces in war. It’s a strange thing to acknowledge, like calling a cup a hole surrounded by glass. But, it is so. Most of war is waiting for the next battle, and boredom can often feel as trying as the trenches. A much subtler combat, then, rages constantly: one of attrition.
That night, after we had managed to beat the German advance back, we settled in for the wait for reinforcements. Encircled, besieged, we had nothing going for us except a vague promise for aid from an old man hundreds of miles away. We were forced to improvise, as many of our supplies had been captured. An enterprising young lad had cobbled together a makeshift fire, and we were heating our meagre portions of beans.
“Ach! Fuck it all! Fuck it all to hell!” a rather despondent looking man on the other side of the firepit yelled. With a disgusted look which belied the tears welling up in his eyes, he stared forlornly at the pile of ash which had been his dinner.
“What the fuck am I supposed to eat now?”
“I heard from a friend of mine that you can eat shoe leather if ya boil it,” a gruff man to my left chimed in.
“I’m not eating my damn shoe,” the victim of the pyrotechnic mishap responded, indignant.
“Well, then you better start scraping those beans out of the fire.”
A scuffle ensued, during which the second man to have spoken had his nose broken. He walked off into the distance, holding it in a vain attempt to staunch the flow of blood. Nobody went with him. He knew the way to the medic.
Everybody was just returning to the normal rhythm of conversation when a sound from further up the hill called our collective attention to the north-east of our position. The sentry had seen something. By the time I had arrived, the action was over. A mud-caked man, his hands raised in surrender, was being led at the point of a bayonet to camp.
A German scout. He had a ghostly appearance, his visage managing to solidify blank exhaustion and abject terror into a single facial expression.
“Come on, I don’t have all night,” his jailor poked him in the back. But, where he should have turned left to bring him to our makeshift prison, he turned right. Towards the fire. My heart stirred, and a queer electric sensation pulsed momentarily over my skin. Something was wrong. I could feel it.
My feet pummelled the ground as I sprinted back to the camp, not wanting to miss what was to come. There was no way for me to have known. Wasn’t there? I couldn’t possibly have predicted it beforehand: stopped them. So why does the bitterness of guilt saturate the flavor of the memory so strongly?
They surrounded the boy. The boy with the haunted face and the half dead eyes. They tied him to a makeshift wooden pole.
“What the hell’s going on?” a voice among the growing crowd shouted out into the night, to no avail.
It soon became grimly obvious what was going on. When they were done tying the man up, his pole was hoisted into the air and carried over to the roaring fire. I was dumbfounded. It was terrifying, there was no doubt about it, but it was also strangely exhilarating. The gruesome work was at last done, and they were ready to pitch that drawn face, body and all, to its death.
“You wanna see a Kraut get cooked?” one of the men shouted. The mob roared its approval.
With a newfound joy, the small band of executioners dropped their prisoner into the mouth of the flame, allowing it to envelop him. His stoic face immediately contorted into an expression of agony.
The small band of gruesome brothers cheered. One began a sporadic, primal pattern of leaping and swaying. It wasn’t quite dancing, for there was no order, no specificity. What it was undeniably was contagious. The spectators joined him, one by one, jumping and swaying, pointing with their bodies this way and that.
I felt it too. A powerful, primordial drive which I had never known I possessed. Caught up in the agony and exultation of this release of a soul from its body, every soldier present surrendered his individuality. We moved, not as separate entities mimicking a unified being, but as a single organism, with a single brain, a single heart, a single arm. It took a moment for everyone to find his place, but find it he did.
It was a horrifically ecstatic display. There was no restraint, not of law or morality, or nature itself. In that place, in front of that funeral pyre, anything was possible. We were an ocean, and I had no doubt (whatever “I” was left to have doubts) that any obstacle that was unfortunate enough to exist in opposition to us in that state would have been as surely drowned and crushed and smashed as if we had been an actual tsunami.
A guttural, inarticulate grunting issued from the first man’s mouth: a rhythmic punctuation which gave us a frightful direction and pace.
“HOO! HAAH!” he shouted.
“HOO! HAAH!” we replied, jumping, and swaying in time.
Meanwhile, the German was still struggling, eking out his final breaths and shrieks,
I felt a release, a strange deflation of my emotional state. Muscles I hadn’t realized were tense suddenly relaxed. My breathing calmed to a near sleep-like pace. There was the sensation, the overwhelming sensation, of a presence, an entity I could neither see nor comprehend. Not divine, more like a new life being born. Like a child, new, but not naive.
A tension replaced the euphoric relaxation, as if we were building energy which could not remain stored forever. As if it was straining against the sides of its container, exercising its only instinct: to seek freedom from constraint.
The last dying embers of the German’s eyes were smoldering, ironically just as the flame really began to take on a tempest-like quality, his being was seeping out, sucked greedily into the flame and the massive totality of the mob.
And, as it was becoming clear that the man’s suffering would soon draw to a close, the soldier who had elected himself our unofficial leader took it upon himself to unscrew the lid from his canteen and toss stifling water onto the entrancing fireball. Everyone around him followed suit, dumping clear streams of water onto the flame, stifling its heat and power piece by piece.
It didn’t take long for the whole thing to go out, and the light of the last embers to fade into nothingness. The body of the German scout, that boy with the hollow face and dead eyes was little more than a pile of ash and bone.
It was not a particularly gruesome sight, something that struck me as strange even in my strange state. Fire has always been used to purify. I was getting a first hand look at the reasons why. Whatever bodily imperfections he had possessed were utterly erased. Fire is a great equalizer in that sense: it cuts us all as low as tree stumps.
There was a confusion as we all returned to whatever passed for normal in the trenches of the war. People passed food around, shared jokes, and generally returned to their normal lives as if nothing had happened.
I, however, felt the need to mark what had just happened in my memory, sear it not just into the ground but my mind as well. When I had stared at what remained of the body for as long as I thought my psyche could handle, I reached out a tentative hand to touch it. It was long since cool, the process greatly accelerated by the water poured on it by my fellow soldiers.
Swirling black dust and nothing more. Nothing special in that scattered corpse. As deaths go it wasn’t a particularly meaningful or useful one. Not that it mattered much to the dead man. It always struck me as a peculiarity of human existence that it was possible to die in the company of people you currently have never heard of. Such an intimate experience would seem to be reachable by your consciousness across time, but we are frequently unable to make even the most cursory of guesses about how we will die.
I thought again of the other German boy who had died at the bottom of that cliff. How I had thought of his death as a reflection of nothing more than a kind of Camusian absurdism. Nothing incongruous about my analysis struck me then, but after speaking with Father Matthews I’m not so sure I would have come to the same conclusion.
It isn’t just absurd to die, or without meaning. Horrific, maybe, but sacrificing yourself in service of a higher good, even one that I might have found repugnant, was undeniably a kind of intelligible meaning. Because in the end, what are we if not what we would choose to fight and die for?
If you’re willing to sacrifice your body and mind for a cause, it would seem to be a serious miscalculation not to consider that a bedrock certainty. What else have we to build ourselves on if not our values? To die defending one’s country is the ultimate service of the ideals that we reach for.
Friedrich Nietzsche believed that most people follow society’s laws because they are afraid of punishment. Such men were trapped in a “herd/slave morality.” The superior among us, the ones who founded their lives on the basis of honor and dignity, these were the practitioners of “master morality.” And to truly make your way in a world where nihilism beckons like the sirens’ song, we must become the Ubermensch, creating our own values and fulfilling the role left vacant by the “Death of God.” My time in the army made me skeptical of such claims. Is service truly a “slave morality?” Must we not subordinate ourselves to something higher? Without subordination, if we attempt to fill that vacancy, how can we set ourselves up with the proper mindset to fulfill any goal? These thoughts were the products of intense study I conducted during my quiet time at the Monastery, but they did not exist back then, and so could give me no comfort. Instead, I felt the shame and the guilt, and the hopelessness that came from living, however briefly, under the shadow of death.
These thoughts were the products of intense study I conducted during my quiet time at the Monastery, but they did not exist back then, and so could give me no comfort. Instead, I felt the shame and the guilt, and the hopelessness that came from living, however briefly, under the shadow of death.