The surrealism of war

Posted in European, Reading, Russian by Alex L. on April 9, 2010

“Anything can happen in war”, writes Evgeni Bessonov in his memoir, Tank Rider: Into the Third Reich with the Red Army. This translation of a Russian soldier’s experiences fighting the Germans during World War II has been my recent reading staple. What does Bessonov mean when he writes that anything can happen in war?

What comes to mind for me when a veteran says something like that is something horrible about war: hand-to-hand combat, grenades blowing off limbs, losing friends in battle. But reading Bessonov’s memoir (and most other personal accounts of war) the reader encounters other stories which are equally surrealistic but not as gruesome.

Bessonov describes one instance when the Germans surprised his unit by attacking at night during a thunderstorm. His platoon retreated as they fought the enemy, but it was so dark that no soldier could tell whether the people around him were Russians or Germans. As rain poured over the forest, the darkness confused everyone and was only brilliantly interrupted by flashes of lightning, which clarified for the soldiers whether the man running next to him was a friend or an enemy. Both Russians and Germans ran through the woods in a kind of “cross country race” until they ran out of the forest and the Germans paused their assault (144-145).

In another encounter, Bessonov, who was a junior officer and only 21 years old at the time, describes getting an order from his superior officer to advance his platoon and attack the enemy. It was an altogether different day, sunny and warm, but Bessonov was exhausted from the night marches and daylight battles.

The sun started to warm us; it was quiet, one could hear only birds singing from the nearest forest, which was not yet occupied by our troops. I replied to the runner that I was about to start the attack; he left, and I again fell asleep. The runner from the company commander ran up again, with the same order and with threats from the company commander. I again replied that we would commence the attack any time soon and fell asleep again – such things had never happened to me before. The runner woke me up and again reminded me of the attack – this time, the company commander ordered him not to leave me before I started the attack. I slept under a bush on soft grass (I did not dig a trench), I had been dreaming about something peaceful and I really did not feel like dying in that quiet hour. . . I tried to think of death as little as possible, but at that moment I was merely overwhelmed by exhaustion and quietness and I really wanted to sleep. (139)

The poet Robert Frost famously likened death to sleep in his poem “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening“: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep / But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” For Evgeni Bessonov in late August of 1944, the woods in front of his platoon where the enemy waited meant death. And sleep  for him then was not an embrace of death, but the flight from it.