Combat in War Is Like Nothing Else

August 18, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris.--The youngest of the four veterans of the U.S. 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment who jumped over southern France Monday, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the wartime landings there, is 71 years old. The oldest is 80. That is pretty impressive.

The French authorities would not let them jump over land because erratic summer winds and the sun-baked earth make it too dangerous.

The American airborne veterans who jumped in Normandy in June were landing on rain-soaked ground, but one of them nonetheless was injured. So Monday's jump was into the Mediterranean Sea, where frogmen and boats were waiting.

But why would men who by now ought to be in rocking chairs choose instead to leap out of an aircraft? The veterans said it was to honor dead comrades from the 509th. But certainly there was in it a strong motive of doing it just for the hell of it.

However, there is more. For most people, war is the most important thing that ever happens to them. They never entirely get over it.

For those who actually see combat, it is probably the most terrible experience of their life. But in an equally terrible way, it is the most exhilarating and liberating experience they ever have.

There is testimony to this not only among professional soldiers but in units of the military reserve, made up of civilian volunteers, and particularly those of parachute or commando-type forces.

Certainly in the 1950s, when I had brief acquaintance with the matter, these were likely to be composed more or less equally of older men who had actually seen action in previous wars, and had not got over it, and young men who thought going to war would be romantic.

The older men mostly were doing deeply uninteresting jobs in civilian life. In the Army Reserve they were clinging to a time when they had, in a profound or even primitive way, felt themselves fully men.

I knew one old Ranger who had scaled the Pointe du Hoc in Normandy on D-Day. Life had seemed pointless to him ever after.

Among the young, the motivation was not that different, except that they were aspirants to manhood. There was, even to the amateur psychologist's eye, an evident incidence of sexual insecurity or ambiguousness, and there was a disproportionate representation of blacks and Hispanics. Everybody, old or young, had something they needed to prove.

All in some way were trying to be what they were not. J. Glen Gray, a professional philosopher who served as an infantryman in Europe during World War II, writes of a French woman active in the Resistance who said to him: ''I do not love war or want it to return. But at least it made me feel alive, as I have not felt alive before or since.''

Glenn Gray's two books of reflections on combat -- ''The Warriors,'' published in 1959, and ''On Understanding Violence Philosophically and Other Essays,'' which came out in 1970 -- have assured him a place among the very small number of people who deserve to be called military philosophers.

War, he says, is an intensification of life and, at the same time, an escape from life. All else goes into suspension while what otherwise is forbidden becomes the purpose of existence.

Mr. Gray writes of ''the delight in destruction'' that battle provides, the sheer spectacle of it and the satisfaction it produces, an ''evil'' satisfaction, he says, that ''appears to surpass mere human malice and to demand explanation in cosmological and religious terms.''

L Contemplating Yugoslavia and Rwanda, who will say otherwise?

It is also the negation of life, which is an element in the sensation of intensified existence it produces. The Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima wrote -- with satisfaction, as he was a masochist -- that in war, ''the death impulse was 100 percent liberated,'' adding that ''the way of the Samurai is death.''

The 19th-century French military philosopher, Alfred de Vigny, describes the gratuitousness of the soldier's existence as simultaneously victim and executioner. That is his servitude. Obedience to what society demands of him is his grandeur.

It was Robert E. Lee, of course, who said that, ''It is well that war is so terrible. We would grow too fond of it.'' That would be an incomprehensible remark if what Gray says about the pleasures of war were not true.

It is the deepest reason why the casual resort to war, to the violent solution, is so reckless. War opens the door to a dark room; nobody knows what will be found there, as Hitler himself remarked.

This is a considerable burden of reflection to heap upon the splendid feat of four septuagenarian paratroopers. It is inspired by the significance of their act, as a wholly gratuitous assertion of life -- against the death not only of comrades past, but against remembered death itself.

In their jump lay grandeur, even though the four would probably not put that word to it.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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