Excerpts from A Stranger to Myself : The Inhumanity of War: Russia 1941-1944

 by Willy Peter Reese


Nothing could be more antithetical to my nature than to become a soldier, to be anonymous among strangers, a toy at the win of commands and moods, then having to learn the use of weapons with which I would fight one day for review of the world that was repugnant to me, in a war I never wanted and against it people who are not my enemies. Like a condemned man, I hesitated on the steps to the scaffold and felt the sword graze my neck. The judge had broken the staff over me and in my powerlessness I accepted his sentence.

That was my abdication.

I smoked; I wrote a line; I drained a glass of wine. The clock ticked; the light flickered along the spines of my books and on the piano. There were aromatic pine twigs in a vase, and Christ's thorn flowering. Hours dropped into the sea of time the night advanced and I kept my vigil, pondered, and dreamed.

The terror of the Army years ahead left me no rest. I thought back on the last months of my own life. Like a hungry man facing a long period without food, I hastened through books, concerts, plays, and parties, hectic youthful amours, and thoughtful hours in the garden of youth. But that night, music brought me no consolation, comedy no forgetting of self, tragic drama no reconciliation with my own fate. Every instance of beauty served only to heighten the pain of farewell, and even wine sharpened the anguish of my thoughts. I leafed through records, memoirs, and accounts of the previous generations world war, looking for a stance, a way to confront what could not be averted to know what awaited me and to understand the war, to learn my own part in it, and to force conflict, danger, and death into my sense of the world. But my reading was as unavailing as my conversations with myself and as every conversation with others, in the shade of melancholy and laughter. (p. 7,8)

Under this mask, though, a tragedy went over; an inner calamity took its implacable course. I drifted into a spiritual vacuum. The last of my values collapsed; goodness, nobility, beauty perished; my high spirits left me the armor of apathy with which I had covered myself against terror, or, fear, and madness, which is safety from suffering and screaming, crushed any tender stirrings within me, snapped off the green shoots of hope, faith, and love of my fellow men, and turned my heart to stone. I was in decline, and I mocked myself for it

often I was taken by a limitless sadness. I scrabbled through the debris of my youth and felt desperate that I couldn't get the ashes of my existence to burst into flame. I strayed along the front tier, wiped out my memories of CD, music, and poetry, almost forgot my own name, and gave myself over to the shadows, the spectral existence of my mask, the mask of the laughing soldier. The wells were dry for a long time, it was a time of drought, apostasy swallowed up my stars, and I rejected my God. I was shipwrecked by my fate, tossed onto a desert shore, with infinities ahead of me, the broken bridges of the past behind me, and, among a thousand roads, not one to lead me home.

Frost Candide Meadows, woods, and hills didn't speak to me I no longer understood their language. Only occasionally a wild yearning blazed up in me, and I was afraid that these wounds would never be healed not only Paradise but also hell was lost to us never had I felt myself so much of an adventurer in no man's land.

Nothing new occurred. Everything was repetition: danger and death, flight and wandering, fear, suffering, hope, and loneliness, and planes, forests, flogs, and the heat of the sun. I have experienced them all so many, many times before. My life kept spiraling back to the same point. Emptiness and fullness alternated as formerly flood and ebb tide by the sea. At the beginning and ending of every thing was the void.

Nothing meant anything: not the war and not peace either. Freedom would never come, and he return home was just a dream. Mankind would continue to dance around work and bread, and even the ghostly dance of the fallen seemed to revolve around the golden calf. We, though, despise the man who stayed at home and hadn't experienced death, battle and danger as we had, who hadn't put themselves through the worst-which was what made life so precious to us and often so shocking. There was a desperate pride in our position. At the same time I bore in mind that I was fighting men I didn't hate, who were never enemies to me, who in their destiny or more like my brothers; and I was only trying to perform an imposed duty, not unlike a monk serving strange idols yet putting all his devotion and passion into his service in this order. What made us great wasn't what we did but what we suffered. It was God's great game, and we had to be content to be figures in it.

The world was wide. None of it went to waste but the great life that was bred in war remained an illusion, a projection of death

in this way, I wobbled between interpretations, seeing significance and contradiction, always in uncertainty and always in night. (p. 139)