War as an Inner Experience
A short essay about Ernst Junger and the First World War
This essay is to accompany a discussion I recently had with Josh Barnett about Ernst Junger and his recently-translated book, War as an Inner Experience. The audio version of this essay, as well as the discussion with Josh, will be released as soon as I’m done editing (should be later this afternoon).
I recently watched the new Netflix version of All Quiet on the Western Front, based on the famous novel of the First World War by German author Erich Maria Remarque. It was an excellent, very depressing film that captured the spirit of the book, even if it deviated from a scene-by-scene rendition. The book was an instant international bestseller when it was published in 1928, and perhaps more than any other piece of literature colored our memory of what the Great War was like for those who participated in it: an irredeemably pointless slaughter of naive young men in the name of empty principles invoked by blindly prideful old men. Remarque’s account of an innocent young man swept off to his destruction by historical forces beyond his comprehension provided the blueprint for most Western war literature written in the years since. It’s a perspective easily familiar to us today, partly because our perspective has been shaped by such literature, but also because Remarque was speaking from the liberal humanist perspective that we now take for granted. In a way, Remarque’s side won the First World War even though his country lost it. It took Remarque’s countryman and fellow German soldier Ernst Junger to provide us an account of one who was truly on the losing end.
Reading Ernst Junger is like rummaging through a time capsule, for his consciousness took shape in the old world, before values and ideologies we take for granted had become self-evident. The book for which he’s most famous, Storm of Steel, was based on his war diaries describing life on the front and is unblinking in its style and focus. His straightforward rendering of the battlefield experience wears little embellishment and no sentimentality. If All Quiet on the Western Front is the account of a soldier who recoiled and held at arm’s length the horror of war, Storm of Steel is the account of one who plunged into it headlong. A short time after publishing it, Junger wrote another short book called War as an Inner Experience, a thundering manifesto on the metaphysics of armed combat that has the lyrical style and philosophical speculations Junger was disciplined enough to leave out of Storm of Steel.
It was war that made men and their times what they are… Never before has a generation returned to the light of life by stepping out of a gate as dark and mighty as that of this war. And we cannot deny, as much as some would like to: war, father of all things… has hammered, chiseled, and hardened us to what we are. And always, as long as the spinning wheel of life continues to whirl within us, this war will be its axis. (This father) has educated us to fight, and we will remain fighters as long as we live. It is true that he seems now to be dead, his battlefields abandoned and disreputable, like torture chambers and mounted gallows, but the warrior spirit has moved into his front servants, and he never leaves their side. He is within us, (and is) therefore everywhere, because it is we who shape the world, not the other way around… Do you not hear him roaring in a thousand cities, do you not hear his thunderstorms all around us, as in the days when the battles engulfed us? Do you not see his flame glowing in the eyes of each one of us? Sometimes he sleeps, but (then) the earth trembles, and he bursts forth boiling from the mouth of every volcano…
As sons of an age intoxicated with the material, progress seemed to us perfection. The machine was the key to God-likeness, the telescope and microscope were our organs of perception. But underneath that always polished and shining shell, underneath all the garments that we wore like magicians, we remained naked and raw like the men of the forest and the steppe.
All this became clear when the war tore apart the communities of Europe, when behind flags and symbols about which some had long since smiled in disbelief, we faced each other for an ancient decision. There, the true man compensated himself in a rushing orgy for all he had missed. There, his instincts, too long curbed by society and its laws, became the only sacred thing and the last justification. And everything that had shaped his brain into ever sharper forms over the course of the centuries served only to increase the force of his fist to the utmost degree.
Ernst Junger was born in 1895 and died in 1998 at the age of nearly 103. He was lucid and brilliant, with an intact memory, to the very end of his life. His consciousness had hardened into its final form back when liberal humanism was still a marginal ideology outside the Anglo world that conceived it. Junger’s late interviews might be the closest we can get to taking a time machine back to the turn of the last century to speak with the human type that preceded us.
Junger was truly brilliant, and like many brilliant men he was a bad student. He was eager to fight even before he finished school. When he was 17 years old, he used his only money to buy a revolver, then ran away to join the French Foreign Legion. His father was a prominent man in Germany, and was able to prevail upon the German Foreign Office to help him track down his wayward son in Algeria, and to extract him from the Legion without penalty. But that was in 1913, and within a year he would not be fighting for the French, but against them. Junger made it to the front in January 1915, as the war settled into the form it would hold until Armistice Day. He fought at the Battle of the Somme, where some 60,000 British soldiers were massacred on the very first day, and at Passchendaele, the Third Battle of Ypres, notorious for the mud that mired soldiers up to their necks before sucking them down to their deaths. While fighting at Passchendaele, another soldier informed Junger that his brother had been wounded nearby. Junger had not known his brother was anywhere in the area, but he ordered two men to accompany him with two tent poles and canvas for a stretcher, and under heavy fire he managed to find and rescue his brother minutes before British troops overran the area. For his performance in combat, Junger was awarded the Iron Cross 1st and 2nd Class, the House Order of Hohenzollern (the 2nd highest award in the German Army), and finally the Pour le Mérite, the highest honor achievable for a German military officer. Fully a third of the latter award were given out to Admirals and Generals, and most of the rest were given to ace pilots. By the end of the war, a German fighter pilot had to have recorded some thirty kills of enemy aircraft before even being considered for the Pour le Mérite. It was an incredible achievement for an infantry Lieutenant in the trenches. He was wounded in combat on at least seven separate occasions, suffering at least a dozen bullet and shrapnel wounds. Each time, he was back to the front as soon as he was able, until the final time, when he was shot three times, once in the chest, and the war ended while he was in convalescence.
Junger’s utter lack of moral horror at the spectacle of war is jarring to a modern reader. He opens his book War as an Inner Experience with a rain forest metaphor for the human unconscious that calls to mind Freud’s theme in his later book Civilization and Its Discontents. We are only a handful of generations removed from ancestors who lived cheek to cheek with death. For most of human history, childbirth was an encounter with fate that often cost women their lives. It would not have been terribly uncommon for parents to see one of their children die of a snakebite or be dragged off by a wild animal. Teenage boys marked their transition to manhood by joining the hunt and the war party, armed with axes, spears, and spiked clubs. Combat to the death was an experience widely shared. The savagery of our ancestors lies always just beneath the shiny surface, and our modern sensibilities are a recent innovation to make us fit for urban civilization. Repression does not drain our instincts of their energy, or quiet their demand for expression, and at every moment they threaten to burst the seams of our civilized clothing. Barbarism and refinement exist together, and “the line between good and evil runs through each individual human heart”. In Junger’s 1934 short essay On Pain, he wrote:
These years display a strange mix of barbarity and humanity; they resemble an archipelago where an isle of vegetarians exists right next to an island of cannibals. An extreme pacifism side-by-side with an enormous intensification of war preparations, luxurious prisons next to squalid quarters for the unemployed, the abolition of capital punishment by day whilst the Whites and the Reds cut each other’s throats by night.
I remember several years ago, at a hotel in Bahrain, I turned on CNN International (it was one of just a handful of English-language channels available). The topic of the day was a complaint that had been filed from a Norwegian prison by Anders Breivik, the terrorist who massacred 77 people in 2011. Breivik’s complaint claimed that he was being mistreated by prison authorities. Tortured, actually. He listed his grievances in the report, and among them was the accusation that he was not allowed to have an up-to-date Playstation game console in his dormitory. Apparently, he was forced to suffer through the dated graphics and slow loading times of the original Playstation after the rest of the world had by then moved on not only to the PS2, but the PS3! The CNN International segment was hosted by a nice looking liberal white American lady, and she and her slate of guests were commenting on the relatively cushy conditions of Norwegian prisons, which were entirely geared toward inmate rehabilitation. The prison was on an island, so no fences were required to pen the inmates. Living quarters resembled dorms at a state college more than they did an American cell block. He had ample free time to play his old, crappy Playstation, lounge in his room, read in the library, take classes, and use the gymnasiums or tennis courts. The CNN host and guests were in agreement that this was an entirely inadequate punishment for the worst Norwegian mass murderer since the days of Harald Hardrada, and on top of it he was only sentenced to 21 years, the maximum allowed by Norwegian law. Now, I shared their incredulity at the inadequacy of Norwegian criminal justice to the task of dealing with a criminal of Breivik’s magnitude, but then the nice liberal anchor lady said something that I’ll never forget.
“You know what the Norwegians should do? Send him over here to one of our prisons, we’ll take good care of him,” she said with a smirk, and her guests agreed enthusiastically with her unsubtle suggestion that Breivik be renditioned to an American institution to be beaten and raped. I realized that this nice lady, who probably considered herself a humanitarian, was actually proud that American prisons are hellholes rife with physical abuse and rape, and that she considered Norway’s rehabilitative criminal justice system uncivilized by comparison!
Today someone sent me a Canadian commercial advertising assisted suicide services:
After watching, I recalled that Canada recently passed a law making people suffering from mental illness eligible for help killing themselves. Americans attend human rights demonstrations by day, and consume torture-porn horror films by night. The FBI calls all hands on deck to go after Proud Boys getting into fistfights with Antifa while we arm jihadist groups and neo-Nazi militias in other countries. The US military imposed Western gender equality standards on remote Afghan villages while ordering our soldiers not to interfere if they encountered child sexual abuse. An isle of vegetarians existing side-by-side with an island of cannibals, indeed.
Junger opens the first chapter of War as an Inner Experience this way:
The human species is a mysterious, twisted primeval forest, whose crowns, slipped over by the breath of free seas, stretch ever higher towards the clear sun out of haze, sultriness, and humidity. The peaks are covered with fragrance, colors, and blossoms, but a confusion of strange plants proliferates in the depths. When the sun burns out, a chain of red parrots descends into calyxes of feathery palms like a flock of royal dreams, but down below, already plunged into night, a repugnant tangle of creeping, crawling creatures emerge, one hears the screeching cries of victims subjected to the insidious attack of greedy, murder-trained teeth and claws, ready to tear them from their sleep, from their lair, from their warm nest, to death…
Just as man is born from the beast and its conditions, he also roots himself in all that his fathers have created in the course of time by fist, brain, and heart… It is true that the wild, brutal, blinding color of the shoots has been smoothed, polished and subdued over the millennia in which society has bridled the impetuous desires and lusts. But though increasing refinement has clarified and ennobled him, the beast continues to sleep at the bottom of his being. There is still much beast in him, a beast who sleeps blissfully on the comfortable inlaid carpets of a polished civilization, filed, woven, without making noise, wrapped in habit and pleasant forms. But when the wave curve of life swings back to the red line of the primitive, the mask falls and, naked as ever, the beast bursts forth.
The era of 18th century limited war in Europe was one of the most civilized and refined periods in military history. Battles were fought between willing professionals, the stakes were limited, civilians were little affected, and defeated enemies were treated with dignity and respect. This era came to an end with the French Revolution, as other countries adapted to Napoleon’s new methods of total mobilization and people’s war. Beginning with the French in 1789, revolutionaries across Europe rejected all civilizing restraint and structure, instead adopting a strategy that relied on extreme emotion and mass enthusiasm. Individually, revolutionaries sacrificed order and structure in their lives (for example, of family) in favor of the orgiastic affair, and collectively, they overthrew the existing order by turning up the emotional intensity until society vibrated with energy and finally blew apart. In war against their enemies, revolutionary regimes from France to Russia rejected all limitations on their violence.
This depiction of a British army’s surrender to the French is fictionalized, and surely idealized, but it was and ideal to which European militaries strived, and they approached the ideal more often than they ignored it:
Compare it to Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s summary account of the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution:
The governor of the Bastille, M. de Launay, an enlightened liberal, had a tiny garrison of Swiss guards and some invalid veterans at his disposal when the mob finally gathered around the building on July 14. He offered only token resistance. The delegates of the Town Hall and two appointees of the mob were received and invited to join the governor at his meal. In the meantime, the drawbridge of the outer court was let down and guns were directed at the inner court. The soldiers, sensing that they had a weak commander, surrendered.
After atrocious torture, the governor, imploring the monsters to finish him off, was finally given the coup de grace. A young cook “who knew how to handle meat” cut off his head with a small kitchen knife, and it was carried around in triumph into the late evening hours. Three officers were also murdered fiendishly, two of the invalids who had once fought heroically for France were hanged by the howling mob, and, their blood lust unassuaged, the hands of a Swiss guard were chopped off.
The surprise came when the “victors” found only seven prisoners. Four were forgers who quickly decamped, two were insane (they were there for observation), and one was a dissolute young man of noble descent who considered himself the real hero of the day for having harangues the people with revolutionary phrases (this was the infamous Marquis de Sade). All in all, a nauseating and disgraceful performance…
Napoleon’s defeat, and the overwhelming power of the British Empire, limited the number of intra-European wars in the 19th century, so that by 1914 it was possible for Europe’s ruling powers to believe that they still lived in an age of heroism and chivalry. That illusion was of course shattered in the first weeks of World War 1.
The European experience of World War 1 was unrelated to that of the modern soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan, or even Vietnam or Korea. War was not something you “went to” or participated in as a contained experience, it was a reality that engulfed and overcame you like a storm, and you were in it until you were dead or the war was over. Even still, consider the cultural and political effects of the Vietnam War on the United States. Though less than 10% of the eligible male population fought in Vietnam, the experience pushed our society to the breaking point, and left wounds that still hobble us 50 years later. Now compare that to the French experience in World War 1, in which 44% of the male population was mobilized, and nearly one in three military-aged males was killed or wounded. One in four of the male cohort born in 1894 were killed in the war. For many years after the war, several Olympic sports went extinct in France for lack of men to participate in them. These numbers were approached Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Great Britain, and the Russian Empire. Millions of boys under the age of 18 were fed into the meat grinder. A greater percentage of young men went down into the trenches in 1914-1918 than go to college today in the United States, and they spent the same amount of time there (if they survived that long).
The misery of life in the trench cannot be compared to the experience of modern, high-tech maneuver warfare. Men lived in the mud, covered in fleas and lice, fighting off hordes of vermin as the tension of imminent, random death hung over them every moment. Death and killing became routine. When battle was intense, the dead and wounded could not be evacuated, and had to be stepped over and slept next to in the muddy trench. The corpses of friends lay piled in a corner, and one stood watch to chase away the hungry rats. Men awoke and fell asleep to the smell of decomposition. Junger writes:
The decay. Many a man perished, without cross or hilly burial, in the rain, sun and wind. Flies buzzed in thick clouds around his solitude, a damp mist hovering around him. The smell of a decaying man was unmistakable, intense, sweetish, and as revolting as mush. After great battles, it brooded so heavily over the fields that even the hungriest forgot to eat.
Often, a squadron of brazen comrades held on endlessly for days in the clouds of battle, stuck in some unknown piece of trench or a row of craters, like shipwrecked men in a hurricane clinging to a shattered mast. Death had thrust his scythe into the ground: Fields of corpses before them, mowed down by their bullets; beside and between them the corpses of comrades, death itself in eyes which lay strangely fixed in sunken faces… that recalled the gruesome realism of old crucifixion images. Almost languishing, they crouched in the decay that became unbearable when one of the iron storms stirred up the congealed (corpses)... and hurled the destroyed bodies into the air.
What was the point of covering the new dead with sand and lime, or spreading sheets over them, to escape the constant sight of those black, swollen faces? There were too many of them: the spade was always met with another buried body. All the mysteries of the trench lay in the sunlight, a hideousness before which the wildest nightmares pale. Hair fell in clumps from skulls like foliage from trees in autumn. The flesh of some corpses turned greenish, like that of a fish, and glowed at night among the tattered uniforms. If stepped on, boots left phosphorescent footprints. Others were dried into chalky, slowly-decaying mummies. And others, the flesh would peel from the bones like reddish-brown jelly. On the sultriest of nights, the bloated corpses would awaken like spirits, the gasses escaping from their wounds, hissing and foaming. Most terrible of all, however, was the swarming that emerged from (burst) corpses consisting (inside) of nothing more than a mass of worms.
Why should I spare your nerves? Didn’t we ourselves once, for four whole days, lie in a trench surrounded by corpses? Weren’t we all, dead and alive, covered with a dense carpet of bluish-black flies? Could it get any worse? Yes: for among the dead lay people with whom we had shared a few night watches, a few bottles of wine, and a few loaves of bread…
Once, during an endless night vigil in the dark corner of a trench, together with an old warrior, I asked him in a whisper to tell me a story, a true one, about his most ghastly experience. In short pauses, his cigarette glowing under his steel helmet and casting his gaunt face in a reddish aura, here’s what he told me:
At the beginning of the war, we stormed a house that had been an inn. We forced our way into the barricaded cellar and fought in the dark, animated by an animalistic bitterness, while above us the building was already burning. Suddenly, probably triggered by the heat of the fire, a mechanical orchestrion lit up and started playing (music). I’ll never forget the carefree raucousness of that dance music, mixed with the screams of the soldiers and the gasps of the dying.
Do not preach liberal humanism to Europeans who experienced *that*. An entire generation of European men spent years living the nightmare Junger just described, and it is absolutely necessary to remember that if we’re to have any understanding of what the Bolsheviks, the NSDAP, the street militias of the 1920s and the mobilized millions of World War 2 got up to in the years that followed. One of the lessons of World War 1, a lesson drilled deep into young, developing minds by propaganda and personal experience, was that unmitigated savagery was sometimes necessary and justified to achieve a desirable social or political result. The individual human life was incredibly cheap, and counted for nothing when measured against larger ethical or political principles. What is a beating or a murder, a bullet or a bomb, in the face of what these men had just been ordered to do in the name of all that was good and holy?
The utter irrelevance of the individual was the overwhelming fact of the First World War. Compare it to an ancient battle, when enemy armies met on a battlefield and a winner was decided in a matter of hours. Tactics mattered, but more often than not the tactics employed by each side were similar, and the skill, discipline, strength, and courage of men could determine the course of a battle. In World War 1, “battles” like Verdun or the Somme lasted for months, and involved millions of men. The goal was not to rout the enemy, but to pressure and lean on him until something gave way. These were not contests of skill or strength, but of organization and control, of which society could organize itself to most efficiently and sustainably throw men and materiel at the enemy until one side’s social, political, and economic sinews broke down and fell from exhaustion. In Blueprint for Armageddon, Dan Carlin quotes the American journalist Richard Harding Davis, who witnessed the entrance of the German army into Brussels three weeks into the First World War:
The entrance of the German army into Brussels has lost the human quality. It was lost as soon as the three soldiers who led the army bicycled into the Boulevard du Régent and asked the way to the Gare du Nord. When they passed, the human note passed with them. What came after them, and twenty-four hours later is still coming, is not men marching, but a force of nature like a tidal wave, an avalanche or a river flooding its banks…
At the sight of the first few regiments of the enemy we were thrilled with interest. After they had passed for three hours in one unbroken steel-gray column, we were bored. But when hour after hour passed and there was no halt, no breathing time, no open spaces in the ranks, the thing became uncanny, inhuman. You returned to watch it, fascinated. It held the mystery and menace of fog rolling toward you across the sea…
Yesterday Major General von Jarotsky, the German Military Governor of Brussels, assured Burgomaster Max that the German army would not occupy the city, but would pass through it. It is still passing. I have followed in campaigns six armies, but… I have not seen one so thoroughly equipped. I am not speaking of the fighting qualities of any army, only of the equipment and organization. The German army moved into this city as smoothly and compactly as an Empire State Express. There were no halts, no open places, no stragglers.
This army has been on active service for three weeks, and so far there is not apparently a chin-strap or a horseshoe missing. It came in with the smoke pouring from cookstoves on wheels, and in an hour had set up post office wagons, from which mounted messengers galloped along the line of columns distributing letters and at which soldiers posted picture postcards.
The infantry came in in files of five, two hundred men to each company; the lancers in columns of four, with not a pennant missing. The quick-firing guns and field pieces were one hour at a time in passing, each gun with its caisson and ammunition wagon taking twenty seconds in which to pass.
The men of the infantry sang "Fatherland, My Fatherland." Between each line of song they took three steps. At times two thousand men were singing together in absolute rhythm and beat. When the melody gave way the silence was broken only by the stamp of ironshod boots, and then again the song rose. When the singing ceased the bands played marches. They were followed by the rumbles of siege guns, the creaking of wheels and of chains clanking against the cobble-stones and the sharp bell-like voices of the bugles.
For seven hours the army passed in such a solid column that not once might a taxicab or trolley car pass through the city. Like a river of steel it flowed, gray and ghostlike. Then, as dusk came and thousands of horses' hoofs and thousands of iron boots continued to tramp forward, they struck tiny sparks from the stones, but the horses and men who beat out the sparks were invisible.
At midnight pack wagons and siege guns were still passing. At seven this morning I was awakened by the tramp of men and bands playing jauntily. Whether they marched all day or not I do not know; but for twenty six hours the gray army rumbled in with the mystery of fog and the pertinacity of a steam roller.
That passage only describes the bleeding edge of the German war machine, and only obliquely refers to the unseen engine supporting the economic, logistical, and training requirements to keep a force like that in the field for years. What value could Achilles himself have in such a war? The most courageous heroes were downed by random, anonymous gunfire, and ground into the mud by horses’ hooves and tank treads.
In the past, war was crowned by days when dying was a joy, rising above the times as gleaming monuments of manly courage. The trench, on the other hand, has turned war into a craft and warriors into day laborers of death, ground down by bloody, everyday life.
Everything in this new army, from the drab uniforms to the shaved heads in boot camp, reinforced the meaninglessness of the individual. For Ernst Junger, it was utterly vain to impose false meaning on it, as All Quiet on the Western Front tried to do, by sentimentally focusing on one anguished soul among tens of millions of casualties. Under such circumstances, the individual was given meaning precisely by embracing his own irrelevance and through total submission to the higher ideal of which the great war machine was the physical manifestation.
Junger had contempt for the values of bourgeois individualism, according to which nothing is more sacred than one’s own person, and the avoidance, at all cost, of risk, pain, and especially death is the highest value. His friend and correspondent, the political theorist Carl Schmitt, wrote in The Concept of the Political that Hegel described the bourgeois as:
…an individual who does not want to leave the apolitical, riskless private sphere. He rests in the possession of his private property, and, under the justification of his progressive individualism, he acts as an individual against the totality. He is a man who finds his compensation for his political nullity in the fruits of freedom and enrichment and above all “in the total security of its use.” Consequently he wants to be spared courage [Tapferkeit] and exempted from the danger of violent death.
Junger believed that the age of total mobilization and technological war meant that the bourgeois individual was bound to go extinct. Natural selection would favor states that could most fully and efficiently organize and mobilize for competition with other states. Organization meant subordinating the individual to needs and will of the larger whole, the manifestation of which was the state. Liberal humanism places the individual at the center, and sees the purpose of politics and state institutions as protecting individual life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For Junger, this ideology was a hothouse plant that took root in the controlled environment of the 19th century, but would prove unsustainable as states would either organize themselves, or else be overcome and organized by someone else. Survival required a different value system, one which subordinated the individual to the goals and needs of the larger social organism.
This idea was a foundational justification for British colonialism, German lebensraum, and American Manifest Destiny. Territory and people that were not organized for economic exploitation and material development had no right to persist in that condition. The term “wasteland” originated in Britain not as a description of dead and desolate land, but simply for land that was not organized for economic exploitation: the Garden of Eden would have properly been classified as a wasteland.
This idea was also the rationalization of Stalin for the violent collectivization of peasant farms and the forced settlement of nomadic populations. The Bolshevik state had come under military attack at its inception and it was only a matter of time, Stalin believed, before the capitalist world returned to finish the job. Russia, like Germany, had been a battleground for centuries, invaded from the east by steppe hordes and from the west by the rest of Europe. The Soviet economy had to be industrialized as rapidly as possible, at any cost, because no cost would be greater than losing the inevitably approaching battle for existence.
Junger’s translator of On Pain wrote:
In the exacting age of total mobilization, the courageous warrior is replaced by the obedient laborer of sacrifice and death. The worker no longer tries to anesthetize pain but instead seeks to master pain and organize life so that he is armed against it at every turn. With remarkable perspicuity, Junger anticipates the rise of a new breed of men who become one with new, terrorizing machines of death and destruction.
Years before the Second World War introduced the kamikaze to the world, Junger praised the concept as a supreme example of his ideal:
Recently, a story circulated in the newspapers about a new torpedo that the Japanese navy is apparently developing. This weapon has an astounding feature. It is no longer guided mechanically but by a human device - to be precise, by a human being at the helm, who is locked into a tiny compartment and regarded as a technical component of the torpedo as well as its actual intelligence.
The idea behind this peculiar organic construction drives the logic of the technical world a small step forward by transforming man in an unprecedented way into one of its component parts. If one enlarges upon this thought, one soon realizes that it is no longer considered a curiosity once achieved on a larger social scale, i.e., when one disposes over a breed of resolute men obedient to authority. Manned planes can then be constructed as airborne missiles, which from great heights can dive down to strike with lethal accuracy the nerve centers of enemy resistance. The result is a breed of men that can be sent off to war as cannon fodder… Here, all potential for good luck is eliminated with mathematical certainty, presupposing of course that one does not have an entirely different conception of luck. We confront this entirely different conception of luck, however, when we hear that General Nogi, one of the few figures of our times… worthy of being called a “hero,” received “with deep satisfaction” the news that his son had fallen in battle.
Freedom, for Junger, was not “liberty” as conceived in the liberal Anglophone world. Freedom was being able to stand on a battlefield without delusion and face the imminent possibility of death with a total lack of fear. In Junger’s view, the “death of God” and the breakdown of all meaning systems provided an opportunity to exercise this new kind of freedom: if one’s individual existence is irrelevant then there is nothing to lose, nothing to fear. Junger was a disciple of the German philosopher of history, Oswald Spengler, who wrote in Man and Technics:
There is only one worldview that is worthy of us, and which has already been discussed as the Choice of Achilles - better a short life, full of deeds and glory, than a long life without substance. The danger is so great, for every individual, every class, every people, that to cherish any illusion whatsoever is deplorable. Time cannot be stopped; there is no possibility for prudent retreat or wise renunciation. Only dreamers believe there is a way out. Optimism is cowardice. We are born into this time and must courageously follow the path to the end as destiny demands. There is no other way. Our duty is to hold onto the lost post, without hope, without rescue, like the Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. That is greatness… The honorable end is the one thing that cannot be taken from a man.
Junger’s pessimism was common to many continental thinkers. His historical thesis made sense coming from a German (or a Russian), but missed a certain point about the French and British Empires, and especially the United States. The empires did not have to mobilize or subordinate the individual so fully to the machine in order to remain competitive because they could pull men and resources from their far-flung colonies to make up the difference. This is related to Lenin’s theory that imperialism had given the capitalist powers a temporary extension on life. The United States was far from existential danger, and was so blessed with native resources that it was able to tip the balance in a war of attrition without meaningfully subordinating the bourgeois individual at all. No level of superior German organization was sufficient to overcome the sheer weight of the empires arrayed against it. That Britain and the United States played such a major role in winning the world wars is the reason liberal humanism became dominant in the West. If they had sat out, and the French and Russians had managed to beat the Germans themselves, the outcome and subsequent history would have been incalculably different. More likely, of course, is that the Germans would have come out on top, and today the alien perspective expressed by a man like Ernst Junger would be an equal-footed competitor with liberal humanism in the world.