The Never-Ending War
By H.J.A. Hofland, 2005
A veteran is someone who ‘fought in the war’. Which war? The First World War, the Second, the East Indies, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, it doesn’t matter. The veteran was there; a veil of secrecy hangs over his past. If he was on the right side, then he will be honoured at regular intervals. Films will be made about his war, in which he will see his brothers-in-arms and himself as heroes. The veterans will gather at the memorial; they will hear how much the country has to thank them for. If they were on the losing side, there will be no official ceremonies, they won’t be thanked and in the films they will play the part of the bad guys.
No-one knows beforehand whether he will have been on the right side. That only becomes clear after the war. But right or wrong, they are all veterans. They were at the front, in other words in that no-man’s-land between life and death. They came back in one piece, or with permanent disfigurement or with a troubled mind. They were young. If there had been peace, they would have been at the beginning of their career, would have studied. The war stole their youth. Because of that, they experienced things that others know nothing about. For the waging of war, there are countless theories, religious, political and legal justifications. Famous thinkers have been writing discourses on the waging of war since ancient times, from Sun Tzu and Cicero to Carl von Clausewitz and Herman Kahn. Yet through the centuries, there has only ever been one group of people who can say what war really is: the veterans. Only they know what that means, to face ‘the enemy’.
The enemy, that is the crew of a bomber which, at an altitude of ten kilometres, hits the wrong target with ‘surgical precision’; the mortar gunner who makes shells explode on people he can’t see, has never seen and will never see; the marksman who shoots a complete stranger on the other side; the anonymous soldier who, in a hand- to-hand fight, ‘takes out’ an equally anonymous adversary so that it doesn’t happen to him. Jean Norton-Cru, veteran of the First World War, writes in his essay Du Témoignage that only the front soldier knows exactly what war is. Not the commander, not the president, not the politician. Only the one who fights, who gets shot at and who shoots back. As the good Private Svejk in the Austrian army undergoes his baptism of fire, his creator, Jaroslav Hasek, makes him cry: ‘Don’t shoot! You might hit someone!’ That ‘someone’ is a human being with everything associated with it. One small movement of the finger on the trigger can end it all. The absurdity of war cannot be expressed more clearly.
Does someone who has been through a week, a month, years of war look any different? Can you see from his face that he is a veteran? After the war, those who are visibly undamaged return to normal, daily life. They adapt, they get used to the routine of peace, they hold their own just as others do, they become ordinary people again. The uniqueness is not in their appearance, but in their head. And it will stay there for the rest of their lives.
Sometimes something small is enough to make it visible again for a moment. A whiff of something burning, a sound, a familiar scene that suddenly, fluidly, becomes detached from its banality and once again forms the backdrop to the war. The memory takes control of the face, the eyes focus no more than a few seconds on infinity and an inaudible voice says: that’s what it was like. Look at the photographs by Martin Roemers. The faces of the veterans who are listening to the voice of their memory.
We are once again in the season of remembrance. The veterans are being honoured, as they should be. They didn’t do it all for nothing. And they talk to their old pals again, the ones who know exactly what they’re talking about. At such a gathering, all others become strangers for the time it takes. A war exists until the last veteran has died. After that, every war takes its place in history. The battlefields of Verdun, the Somme, Stalingrad, the landing beaches of Normandy, Da Nang, Fallujah and the cemeteries that are the result, all tell their own story. Future generations can try to imagine what it must have been like. They can speculate on the reality of the time. But it will always be conjecture. What it was really like then is locked in the memory of those who were there. Now and again, you can see it in their face.
Journalist and Commentator