combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 03 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2005

Pass in Review
an inspection of the literature

A book may be as great a thing as a battle.
Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield

Taken together, these three books under review are illustrative of their age and show aspects of combat in the twentieth century. On New Years' Day 1900, the new century was expected to become the most enlightened, progressive epoch in recorded history. People were exuberant and optimistic about the future. But the horrific events that occurred (and are still occurring) exploded the liberal view of man that had existed during the era of the Pax Britannica. True, there had been wars even then, and a disturbing will to power evinced by imperialist competition among the Western States, but the trend seemed hopeful and it was felt that education, technology, a rising standard of living, and a belief in human brotherhood would make most social problems obsolete.

Then came the Great War, the war to end all wars, the First World War. Its mindless slaughter caused deep disillusion and loss of faith in nearly all institutions. People believed that the bottom of Hell had been glimpsed, and yet it was not so ... for at hand was the age of ideology and the dictator, the age of total war, of the atom bomb, of the concentration camp, of the Black Maria, of genocide, of revolutionary convulsions, of ethnic cleansing, of the terrorist, of the suicide bomber.

The cord that connects these books is that they are eyewitness accounts. In Homage to Catalonia the author shows us war by proxy, an ideological struggle of great powers over the prostrate body of Spain, and World War Two is foreshadowed. Prussian Nights presents the specter of Communism triumphant and an outline of a world split apart by the iron curtain. General Aussaresses portrays the rise of contemporary terror as conceived by radical Islam, and gives his personal answer to it.

Whether progress or atavism will define the new century is yet to be determined ....

"The painful warrior famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories, once foiled,
Is from the books of honor razed quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toiled."
by William Shakespeare

Homage to Catalonia
by George Orwell; Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. [232pp, $12.45] (©1938)

Liquidate. Eliminate. Suppress. Purge. They are the great euphemisms of the twentieth century; they mean murder. In a famous essay George Orwell demonstrated how the vocabulary of totalitarianism permeated and debased the English language. In Homage to Catalonia, his memoir of the civil war in Spain, he describes how those concepts intertwined with the military struggle, turned into bloody action, and debased the human race.

Neither side could have been pleased by his account, for it details atrocities committed by both. Though fighting for the anti-fascist Loyalists, Orwell was too honorable to churn out mere propaganda. Indeed if Diogenes the Cynic was alive in 1937 and still scouring the earth for an honest man, his search would have ended with George Orwell, teller of truth.

It is difficult today to grasp the significance the world attached to the Spanish Civil War. The war was a cause célèbre among Western writers and artists, including the likes of John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Capa, Pablo Picasso and Errol Flynn, a religious crusade against the ascendance of Fascism and Nazism which supported the rebels under Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Foreign volunteers flocked to join the International Brigades and aid the Loyalists, supported militarily by the Soviet Union. This support enabled Stalin to infiltrate his Comintern and NKVD agents into the Republican government as well as to control the military effort. A deadly proving ground for modern weapons and tactics, Spain was a crucible of ideological struggle and the overture to the Second World War.

Because the Spanish Republic, established in 1931, had adopted egalitarian policies that ignited social revolution through radical redistribution of land, stripped power from monarchist elements and closed Catholic churches, a revolt of the generals commenced in 1936. Franco, the most prestigious of them, who had been exiled to the Canary Islands, crossed Gibraltar and led his Nationalist Army of Africa against what many considered a godless, Red Republic.

Homage to Catalonia consists essentially of two parts: Orwell’s description of his military service in the Aragon trenches, and the political situation in revolutionary Barcelona, home of the P.O.U.M. militia.

Orwell joined the P.O.U.M. (Party of Marxist Unification) in the province of Catalonia, a hotbed of working-class, anarchist fervor. After a brief period of mostly useless training (recruits, some no older than fifteen, simply strutted about the parade-ground, then sat and guzzled cheap wine), Orwell was sent to the Zaragoza front, a line of hills opposite the Fascist-held town of Huesca.

From the start, there were shortages of equipment and supplies. Soldiers lubricated weapons with olive oil, and troops leaving the line were forced to hand over their rifles, rusty and pitted, to the men coming up to replace them. The weather was rainy and cold, the ground a bed of mud, and a constant stench hung over the lines, the smell of excrement and decaying food.

The enemy was in equally sorry condition; Fascist deserters arrived ragged and filthy after escaping across no man’s land. To the troops of both sides the trenches meant misery, and misery meant lice: “All of us were lousy; I think pacifists might find it helpful to illustrate their pamphlets with enlarged photos of lice. The men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Senlac, at Thermopylae — every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles.”

Orwell presents a stark picture of a P.O.U.M. attack toward Huesca, under heavy fire: “You cannot conceive the horror of the shells till you have seen one burst close to you. The Fascists were firing, our people were firing, and I was very conscious of being in the middle. I pulled the pin out of my third bomb and flung it. The bomb crashed inside the parapet, just by the machine-gun nest. The Fascists were still pouring a heavy fire at us, but from a greater distance. We had driven them back. I even shouted to someone as we staggered along, ‘This is war! Isn’t it bloody?’ I was half sick with fright. The Fascists counterattacked. ‘Run!’ I yelled. I remember the desolate look of everything, the yellow water in the trench-bottoms, men’s exhausted faces, unshaven, streaked with mud and blackened with smoke.”

But even more difficult for Orwell than the front was the political situation in Barcelona, which he encountered when, after several months, he rotated out of the line. The former revolutionary élan of the city, its balconies draped with red and black flags and walls covered with the hammer and sickle, where equality reigned and where everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou’, had vanished, replaced by war-weariness and terror.

By May 1937, after ten months of war, the social revolution Orwell hoped for was already a lost cause. Ironically, it was the Communists who prevented it. “The thing for which the Communists were working,” Orwell says, “was not to postpone the Spanish revolution till a more suitable time, but to make sure it never happened.” For once Stalin had stuck his fingers into the Spanish pie, he had no intention of sharing power with any other parties, be they Marxist, Socialist, or Anarchist. And so mimicking the purges occurring simultaneously in Russia, wherein the upper echelons of the officer corps of the Red Army and the highest-ranking Communist Party officials were being tried and shot, Barcelona swarmed with NKVD assassins, and the city’s cellars filled with political prisoners and with corpses.

The P.O.U.M, the P.C.E., the Anarchists, and every other non-Bolshevik organization was “unmasked,” by the NKVD, declared Trotskyite counterrevolutionaries, and suppressed. The witch hunt was on, and all the familiar methods employed: people snatched off the street, jailed, kept incommunicado, interrogated, tortured, shot. Orwell himself, wounded in street-fighting, became a suspect due to his P.O.U.M. affiliation and was forced into hiding before barely escaping with his wife into France.

Though a Socialist with a deep commitment to helping ordinary, working-class people, (he lived and worked among them and wrote extensively about their plight), Orwell’s eyes were opened in Spain to the reality of Red totalitarianism. The Communists, he saw, were a swindle. They were enemies of the working man, interested only in power, loyal only to the Soviet Union, and posed as grave a danger as Hitler. And they were intellectual frauds. Why, a man needed to be a mental contortionist to follow the Party line; today’s patriot was tomorrow’s traitor. Objective truth did not exist, History itself was malleable and became whatever the Party said it was. This disgusted Orwell, and his novel Animal Farm, a satire on Stalinism, reflects totalitarian reality.

Detesting all forms of what he called ‘newspeak’, cant, hypocrisy, and humbug, Orwell devoted his literary life to truth-seeking, striving constantly to uncover the reality behind the fa‡ade, whether in the slums of England or the trenches of Spain. A master writer, one of the great essayists and fully equal to Dryden, Pope, and Swift, Orwell’s intellectual force and gleaming clarity are perfect antidotes to an age of ideology, terror, and political ‘isms.’

In a way, Homage to Catalonia seems quaint. The cause of the Spanish Republic, along with the movements of the day and odd acronyms like P.O.U.M and P.C.E., belong to a bygone era. This can be said of most history, for History is a living corpse. Which is to say there is nothing deader than the shades of yesterday, but nothing more alive than human memory.

From all his experiences, what remained important for Orwell were the freedom of England and the decency of its people. On his return from bleeding Spain, he wrote lovingly of the countryside and the silly sweet insularity of the English people to what was transpiring in the wider world: “And England — probably the sleekest landscape in the world. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday. It was still the England I had known in my childhood: the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens, the familiar streets, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen — all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England. I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.”

George Orwell’s courage and honesty impelled him to record unpleasant facts instead of propaganda. When the smoke of his time cleared, only the man and the truth were left. Are left. Diogenes would have applauded.

      For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest M. Hemingway; Scribners (©1940):
      The greatest of his novels, this story of an American dynamiter with a guerrilla band in civil war Spain contains unforgettable characterizations and depictions of locales, down to the very smells.

Prussian Nights, a Narrative Poem
by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, tr by Robert Conquest; Farrar, Straus and Giroux [112pp, $18.95] (©1997)

During the winter of 1945, six massive Soviet armies, attacking westward, invaded eastern Europe and Germany proper, wreaking vengeance with fire and sword for years of Russian suffering under Nazi occupation. One of those armies, Second Byelorussian Front, advancing into East Prussia, had in its ranks a twenty-eight year old artillery captain destined to become the greatest moral and literary force of the twentieth century, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a man who would shake the foundations of the Soviet state and help propel it along its road to disintegration.

Prussian Nights is Solzhenitsyn’s reminiscence in poetic form of the exuberant march of a victorious army and a record of the wholesale rape of a civilian population toward the end of the Nazi-Soviet war.

For sheer scale and sustained ferocity, no other war compares. On June 22, 1941, the German Wehrmacht, three million men organized into three army groups, began Operation Barbarossa, a surprise attack along a 1200-mile front stretching from Leningrad to the Ukraine. Hitler’s object was to destroy the Russian army in one huge blow and conquer the Soviet Union in five months’ time, turning that country into a German colony. For Nazi ideology held that the Russian people were an inferior species, part of the untermenschen or subhuman class, that Communism was a Jewish disease infecting the world, and that the country must be purified by the superior Nordic race. S.S. Death’s Head units and extermination camps erected throughout Russia and Poland were the vehicles for this “purification.”

Although twenty million Russians died as a result of World War Two, the Red Army, far superior to the Wehrmacht in manpower and amount of equipment, turned the tide of battle in the meatgrinder that was the fight for Stalingrad in 1942, and from that point assumed the offensive, never again to relinquish it.

In January of ’45, the Germans were retreating faster than the Russians could advance. Comprised mostly of peasants and poor industrial workers, the Red Army was astonished by the material prosperity of Germany, by its architecture, by its concrete highways so unlike the rutted dirt roads of Russia, by its cars, furniture, perfumes, baked goods, radios, sewing machines, paintings, clocks, silverware, the accumulations of countless lifetimes. Solzhenitsyn describes the feeling:

“It’s quite astounding from up close:
A land beyond our understanding,
Nothing’s like what it is with us!
It’s not like Poland is, or home is —
Their roofs aren’t thatched, their barns are firm as
Mansions cut from solid timbers.
An unknowable new planet.”

But awe was quickly replaced by envy, and, encouraged by their superiors, a carnival of plundering soon commenced, an orgy of looting and burning. It was of a type reaching back in history to other armies: Sparta’s ravaging of Thessaly, Rome’s razing of Carthage, the sack of Rome itself by Goths and Teutons, the pillaging of populations by Tamerlane. It was a debauch springing from the collective unconscious, an irruption of man’s darkest impulses. The Soviet troops were a legion of demons frolicking in the red, demented firelight:

“Here, there, everywhere, look — scores
of smoky-red, dark-gleaming fires!
Well, now we’re getting our revenge, lads.
Everything’s aflame.
Some swig schnapp s from the bottle. Some
Grab dinner jackets to send home.
What can you do with soldiery?
They’re scattered about to feast and loot.
Their faces shine and burn in the heat.
Feasting and power! Exultant chaos!
There’s nothing we’ll have regrets about.”

But, being a man with a conscience, Solzhenitsyn will have regrets:

“Well, land industrious and proud,
Blaze and smoke and flame away.
In my heart no vengeance calls.
I’ll not fire one stick of kindling,
Yet I’ll not quench your flaming halls.
Untouched I’ll leave you. I’ll be off
Like Pilate when he washed his hands.”

Perhaps inevitably, all of this was but prologue to the primary scene, one of the most notorious of the entire war: the rape of 150,000 German women. Here was a European equivalent to the Rape of Nanking, only on a far greater scale.

Abandoned by the German Army, East Prussia lay wide open to the Russians, and Soviet savagery is seared into the German memory. Hundreds of women committed suicide rather than submit to the Red Army. Incredibly, this became a twentieth century reversion to a 2500-year old Greek tragedy, The Trojan Women, written by Euripides, being a tale of the aftermath of the destruction of Troy when the victorious Greeks seized the women of Troy as slaves and concubines, as spoils of war. “Count no one happy till he is dead,” says Hecuba, widow of King Priam, who kills herself, and her lament was taken up by the Prussian women.

Solzhenitsyn faces the truth squarely; he shrinks from nothing and admits everything, capturing the pathos and misery of war for all time:

“A moaning, by the walls half muffled:
The mother’s wounded, still alive.
The little daughter’s on the mattress,
Dead. How many have been on it?
A platoon, a company perhaps?
A girl’s been turned into a woman,
A woman turned into a corpse.
The mother begs, ‘Kill me, Soldier!’”

Simultaneously repulsed and attracted by all he has seen, the author finally gives in to his own sexual urges, to the thrill of absolute power over the helpless populace. He sends a sergeant to fetch him a woman who has caught his eye:

“In her meek glance was the same
Expression of gentle anguish.
She turned. Perhaps understood. She came
— Made her way into my ambush.
I gestured to her, ‘Komm!’
It wasn’t passion, or the firm
Pleasure in the muscles ringing ...
With my back to the mean bed, I
Shortly heard that she — was ready.”

And then he ends his somber epic of a poem thusly:

“I said to her — too late — ‘How base!’
Anne, that moment, with her face
Sunk in the pillow, in an unsteady
Voice that she could not control,
Begged, ‘Just don’t shoot me!’
Have no fear .... For — Oh! — already
Another’s soul is on my soul ....”

A literary genius in the grand Russian tradition of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn composed Prussian Nights without benefit of pen and paper, entirely in his head, while a prisoner in a Soviet slave labor camp where writing tools were forbidden and where he served eight years for the crime of criticizing Joseph Stalin. His prison term became for him a life-enhancing experience and, when released during Nikita Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin campaign of the 1950s, he published the novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a gritty expose of the camps that catapulted him to world fame.

Author of over twenty magnificent literary works, novels, histories, poems and plays, his The Gulag Archipelago is the monumental chronicle of Communist crimes from the revolution of 1917 through the 1960s, a time during which the regime murdered 66 million people. It is one of the seminal documents of the human spirit’s eternal quest for freedom and dignity. Finally, after many battles with the authorities, Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1973 and immigrated to America. He returned to Russia in 1994.

Written in ballad meter with an irregular rhyme scheme, colloquial, spare and simple, Prussian Nights poses questions for today. What standards of conduct should a soldier uphold in a time of total war when civilians become the front? By any reckoning Germany deserved the full measure of Russian vengeance. But did Frau Schiller, say, who had lived in Allenstein all her life and harmed no one, deserve to be raped and shot? Perhaps, if one believes in total war, ideological war. Then, no quarter can be given, not to infants in cradles, for the ideological enemy must not merely be defeated but obliterated, his seed extinguished.

This is the legacy of the two great totalitarian systems of the age, the Red and the Brown, opposite sides of a nihilistic coin. Their monstrous offspring roam among us.

      Stalingrad to Berlin, the German Defeat in the East by Earl F. Ziemke, PhD; U.S. Army Center of Military History (©1968):
      A major study with vast documentation, including captured German archives, by a former Marine.

The Battle of the Casbah, Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in Algeria, 1955-57
by General Paul Aussaresses; Enigma Books [180pp, $25.00] (©2002)

In the novel The Butcher and the Calf, a tale about the hunt for an Islamic terrorist operating in America, there is a flashback story told by an old Algerian intelligence officer regarding the battle of Algiers that contains this passage: “‘Since the 3rd RPC was responsible for the Casbah, the main Arab section of Algiers, smelling always of saffron oil and charcoal and garlic and perfume, comprised of rundown apartments, bazaars, cafes, whorehouses and opium dens, with its serpentine alleys so narrow that a man can hop the rooftops, I sent in Arab undercover agents, began house-to-house searches, and hauled in suspects for interrogation.’”

The fictional intelligence officer eerily resembles then-Major Aussaresses, and his story is told for the same reason: the French-Algerian war of 1954-1962 is the archetype of the terrorism now afflicting the West, and as such should be studied carefully.

Waged by outnumbered FLN (national liberation front) fellaghas, the anti-colonial war for independence was a war of terror, of atrocity, designed to so horrify the French that they would be forced to take brutal countermeasures, rendering any rapprochement between people of good will on either side impossible. This would fuel Muslim hatred and bring recruits flocking to the FLN cause. In the event, the strategy succeeded brilliantly.

All the elements of terror that Americans have come to know were in place here: assassination of officials, hostage-taking, bombing of crowded restaurants and buses, mutilations. Massacres in the city of Philippeville in 1955 set the stage, though the worst outrages were saved for the suburb of El-Halia. Coming in secret while the men were at work, FLN fellaghas passed from house to house disemboweling European women and bashing in the heads of children and hacking them into pieces. Philippeville was the place where the author made his bones in Algeria.

Inspecting the carnage, Aussaresses was asked by a subordinate what he should do with the sixty or so FLN prisoners they had captured.

“What a question! Get rid of them, naturally!”

And he said to one of the El-Halia killers: “Since you’ve murdered innocent people, you must also die. It’s the rule of the paratroopers.” Then, “I was totally indifferent.”

A career officer and retired General, Paul Aussaresses, now 83, is a veteran of WWII and Indochina. He worked for the SDECE, the French equivalent of the CIA, and became an intelligence officer in Special Services before undertaking his mission in Algeria, which remained secret until publication of this memoir. That mission was to uproot and annihilate the FLN by any means necessary. This leads to the heart of the story. And to the heart of darkness.

By January of 1957, the situation in Algeria was deteriorating as the FLN, aided by Egypt’s Nasser as well as the Communist bloc (and intellectuals in France and elsewhere), had grown in strength. Dozens of attacks were occurring daily, and bombings in the European sections of the city of Algiers were causing normal life to grind to a halt. After gruesome attacks, European mobs, in ratonnade or backlash, would swarm the streets and murder Muslims on sight. The cercle infernale was indeed complete. Since the city police could not cope with a rebellion let alone civil war, the 10th Paratroop Division, commanded by General Jacques Massu, was called in to restore order and break the back of the terrorists operating from the autonomous zone, controlled by one Ben M’hidi and located in the Casbah.

Aussaresses was dragooned by Massu to head the secret, as opposed to the public, war against the FLN in Algiers.

He knew this would be a thankless task. “The interested parties,” he says, “could only look forward to being disowned by their own leadership and promised general opprobrium.” Because, as Massu told him, “It’s going to be very hard, and we’ll have to be implacable.” Implacability being code for torture and summary executions.

Responsible for suspects throughout the country, Aussaresses was clearly the right man for the job. As bombs rained on the city, he vowed to retake control of the night from the terrorists. Finding the bomb factories, concealed beyond secret passages and behind false walls that had been constructed in Fortress Casbah, was accomplished in six months. In that period, 24,000 arrests and 3,000 summary executions took place.

Aussaresses scourged Algiers like a Tartar, wringing out information on the bombers through beatings, water torture, i.e., ramming a hose down a suspect’s throat and pumping him full, and by use of the infamous gegene, electric shocks applied by electrodes attached to the head and genitals. Prisoners captured during firefights were interrogated and tortured in the field, then shot with submachine guns and buried in “remote locations.”

Naturally, such work could not be kept wholly secret, though the French government claims that this was not its policy. Certain details leaked, and a massive outcry arose in France, not unlike the outcry in the U.S. today over Abu Ghraib, although the two situations are in no way comparable. Big FLN fish like Ben M’hidi and Boumendjel were killed after capture and interrogation. Aussaresses hanged the former and shoved the latter out a sixth floor window, declaring them suicides. He planned to kill Ben Bella, the FLN boss, by arranging the “accident” of a gas explosion, but never got the opportunity.

These methods, ruthlessly effective in winning the battle of Algiers, are clearly repugnant. But they raise crucial questions about today’s war on terror, and this is the chief value of The Battle of the Casbah. Are torture and extra-judicial reprisals ever justified? Can ends justify means if civilian lives are in danger? Western sensibilities are shocked and repelled by such savagery, we consider ourselves morally superior to an Al-Qaeda that mutilates and slaughters innocents in order to break our will and our hearts.

Yet Al-Qaeda believes its strategy will achieve victory, and if Algeria is a model then it is correct. In the end, French morale cracked under the strain of Muslim terror and guilt over their own actions.

Although written in a clear and concise style befitting a soldier, the book is flawed in several respects. It assumes knowledge of the war on the reader’s part, and events sometimes become confusing. It scarcely touches on key Casbah terrorists like Ali la Pointe and Saadi Yacef who played prominent roles in the battle of Algiers. But the main flaw is that no conclusions are offered as to the meaning of the Algerian war. An educated man, did Aussaresses believe in Algerie Francaise? Did he commit barbarous acts simply to follow orders? What does he think of French colonial administration? Certainly he had no compunction about torture and executions; yet, has his thinking not changed at all over the past forty years? What debt do today’s terrorists owe the FLN? None of this is discussed.

Still, the book is worthwhile, both for the fascinating history it recounts and the moral questions it raises. Aussaresses believed, finally, in destroying the destroyers, in killing until the reason for it is gone. There are some hard lessons here. As the intelligence officer says in The Butcher and the Calf, “For me the only question is, can good men defeat terrorism without becoming terrorists? Without damning their souls?”

This is a question yet to be answered.

      A Savage War of Peace, Algeria 1954-1962 by Alistair Horne; Viking Press (©1977):
      The definitive work on the subject by the famed British historian.

contributed by Christopher S. Baldwin