"The industrial way of life leads to the industrial way of death. From Shiloh to Dachau, from Antietam to Stalingrad, from Hiroshima to Vietnam and Afghanistan, the great specialty of industry and technology has been the mass production of human corpses." — Edward Abbey
We have always been told that the deepest depths of hell burned hot, and that within its pits, languished the souls of the wicked. They were half-right. Hell is a lot colder than one might think. And it cares not to choose among the good or the wicked from which to torment. I should know.
Amidst the smoke that billowed against the cold winter nightsky, the smell of burning flesh and shit permeated the air. We soldiers dig in,clinging to our weapons closer than we would our wives in longing embrace. We await the orders to move, slowly as we cover ourselves in the dust of what was once a city, shattered to pieces by the consequence of war. Like a specter in the night, she consumes men. Her apetite is not slaked by the blood that flows freely from the fount. Ultimately, we are but mere fodder for her eternal hunger, as damned men are before the abyss. In the dark we can hear the wailing of women and children and the dying groans of broken men, whose bodies litter the streets. One cannot tell who the enemy is from fallen friends, for in the final death rattles, all men are ultimately made equal. I hold my rifle, my grip digging against metal and wood as my heart beats quicken in each step I take. Around us, the dogs flee from the ruins, no doubt desperately finding their way into the river Volga, to take their chances and perhaps live another day on the other bank.
We began this war with a dream: to create a world where each German can live in freedom from want and deprivation. We did not always approve of the methods used to achieve this condition, but we believed in the cause which brought about the victory of our people, once shamed by the defeat of an unjust war. Now we fight a new war that has paved for us the road to our ultimate destiny. And so we fight ceaselessly, district by district, street by street, room by room.
We are ordered to attack the Red October Factory. We have already once captured this heap of strewn metal and brick a week before. Now we are made to take it again, for after we have put down the fire here and taken our march elsewhere to do likewise, the enemy springs from nowhere and takes it back from us again. We are playing a game of cat and mouse. Yet it has now become clear to me that no one can be completely sure who plays the cat and who plays the mouse.
The cold bites against my skin. We were never prepared to fight in the cold. Yet we trudge on, as soldiers would, for there can be no respite until we have achieved our objective. We begin our assault by calling in artillery support, to clear the path before us of any enemies that await our move. And as the shells began to fall, machine gun fire opens up against our left flank. Bodies begin to fall on our side, and the assault has truly begun in earnest. I hide behind what I suppose to be a part of a brick wall. I put my back against it, and I can feel the bullets that hit the other side thump and shake my ribs. Our captain shouts orders as we begin to open up our own machine guns against the enemy positions.
The Russians are skilled in skirmishes such as this, where we find ourselves so close to them that there is left little room to maneuver. My comrades fight hard, as experience and discipline has shown them the consequences of indecision and cowardice. And yet each one of us has fear. Each one of us carries in our shoulders the lives not merely of ourselves, but those of others, and we carry them with utmost care. We share the same privations, the same sufferings, and in the now seemingly rare occassions, celebrate the same small victories. We fight for our lives more than anything else.
I try to find an angle where I can perhaps do any good, but as soon as an inch of my head comes up from where I sit, I can hear the whizzing and tapping of each bullet that flies by me. I'm more or less pinned to where I sit. I begin to hear a rumble and clanking of metal; the smell of burning fuel now mingling with the toxic air. And from the corner of my eye I could see one of our panzers begin to move forward; it's main gun menacing and it's broad steel armor seemingly invincible. I thank whatever god resides above me for these monstrosities on our side, preserving our lives a little longer each minute of everyday. It fires a shell against the walls of the Northern building which oversees our position, where the enemy had taken a sufficiently effective suppressing fire against us. A cry from our officer finally beckons us to go forward, and I run.
I take a position right by a stack of sheet metal. Looking over to my right, I could see the snowy white field uniforms of the Russian soldiers. They run away trying to find cover, but as they do so, they fire at us wantonly, hitting some of their own in the process. I fire my rifle at them, counting two, three, four, and then five of them dead. I take cover as I change my clip while my comrades take their forward positions.
The panzer moves gingerly, perhaps having spotted an enemy tank on the east side. It fires a shell towards where my eyes can see only the spindly towers of broken metal and fallen chimneys of the factory, and a massive explosion indicates a kill. Beside me, a comrade has taken cover with his Schmeisser, firing at intervals of five then taking cover each time. As he tries to take another shot, he is hit by a rifle round, and he falls to my knees, his eyes lifeless and blood protruding from a hole on his face. I am covered in his blood. I could feel my insides churn as if I were to vomit. But I held myself together as I heard the order for advance once more. Against the night sky one can see clearly the color of the tracer rounds that fly from one side to the other. Ours are a distinct green, while the enemy's are of a hot flash of red. Our men bravely move forward, seeming to take no account of the fallen ones that litter our rear. We can do no right by the dead other than to live and fight in their stead.
The office building next to the factory was our next objective. It lies at the far western side of the complex, overlooking a vast open area. We could not risk a direct assault, and so the panzer moves forward again while we trail behind it. A single shell hits the second floor, and from it pieces of human flesh and paper spray out of the windows amid the dust. My comrades have gathered next to an open window, lobbing heaps of explosives inside. As they scurry away, a massive explosion destroys part of the building, and we rush inside, spraying fire against the bodies of our enemies, dead or alive.
It is difficult to describe the carnage of war. Words fail helplessly amid the torrent of destruction. All one can do is move forward. As we take the building, we situate our machine guns to the upper floor, overlooking most of the entire factory. Immediately our machine guns open fire on the enemy, and I could clearly see them fall to the ground, reddening the white snow with their blood.
As we consolidated our positions, the order for the final push comes in. We ready ourselves for this last thrust. It has been over an hour since the assault had begun. Dawn was beginning to break, and once more, the pale light of day would reveal to us further what has become of this desolate land.
I take my rifle once more and exit through a hole in the wall. Before me is a trench line and I take cover in it. I look to my left and my comrades have taken positions with me. I look to my right and I could see more of them doing likewise. We each exchange words of encouragement, urging ourselves to see each other relatively unscathed by late morning. It brings me comfort to know I fight with these men, for each day that passes between us seems a lifetime of little happiness amid the chaos of eternal damnation.
The panzer moves forward once more, firing its machine guns at would-be enemy positions. It fires a shell into the adjacent building, and we could hear screams of enemy soldiers, as they crawl out of the space, their bodies obliterated as they gasp for their final breaths. As the panzer re-positions itself, another shot is heard, and for a single moment, as if dumbstruck in its treads, the panzer explodes. It has taken a hit from an enemy tank. It immediately takes on fire, and from the top of its turret, the commander lunges out and screams as he burns alive, his legs blown apart almost from their joints.
The scream is horrible. like an unearthly scream of despair from the very pits, and we could do nothing in turn. We look helplessly at his writhing in pain before a comrade takes the initiative and puts him out of his misery. The enemy tank begins its crawl towards us, and panic starts to ensue. We have nothing in our arsenal to take it out. The captain beckons us to find cover, as he calls through the radio for support. Another explosion and behind us our machine gun position is decimated. We cannot lose heart now, but it seems a surety that we will end up retreating from the engagement. The enemy has taken courage once more, and as if from the depths of the underworld, we could hear their cries, like wolves baying for our blood against the twilight: URA!.
Desperately, our captain orders us to fall back to secondary positions and wait for support. We do so. I take my rifle up and run across towards the office building for cover. But before I could get there, one of my comrades falls to the ground. He is hit. He cries for help, and out of nature I fall down on my knees next to him to see what has happened. Blood sprouts from his leg, and I apply pressure to it, crying for a medic that I could not be sure would be able to hear us. With nothing left to do, I drag him across towards the building. He tells me to leave him behind and not risk my life for him. I tell him to shut up. Bullets fly past me like fireflies in the night, missing me by mere inches. I could see my other comrades calling my name out, urging me to get to cover. Suddenly all I could hear was a strange whistling sound, climbing from a low pitch and up into a loud screeching noise. At the last moment, I could see a blinding flash and everywhere around me begins to shatter to a million pieces.
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, said old Horatius. I believed in it once. But in the face of death, I have found a kind of clarity, where nothing seems to matter. Life, for all its splendor, becomes a trifle. Like specks of dust we are blown away by the winds of war, uncaring for the lives consumed by its hellfire. We never mattered. What few memories of the past that I held in me, where love, happiness and the comforts of home reigned in solace, slowly ebb away. I reach out to them like a fool, even as it begins to dawn on me the uselessness of it all. And as I stare up at the twilit sky, where the sun and the moon meet for a moment upon the heavens, I see only the fading of the light. And upon my face is a quiet smile, as I finally realize the tragic comedy of human life.
This is what history is made of.