[Willem Jacob van Stockum]
A SOLDIER'S CREED By A BOMBER PILOT
Published in Horn Book, Christmas 1944.
I didn't join the war to improve the Universe; in fact, I am sick and tired of the eternal sermons on the better world we are going to build when this war is over. I hate the disloyalty to the past twenty years. Apparently people think that life in those twenty years, which cover most of my conscious existence, was so terrible that no-one can be expected to fight for it. We must attempt to dazzle people with some brilliant schemes leading, probably, to some horrible Utopia, before we can ask them to fight.
I detest that point of view. I hate the idea of people throwing their lives away for slum-clearance projects or forty-hour weeks or security and exchange commissions. It is a grotesque and horrible thought. There are so many better ways of achieving this than diving into enemy guns. Lives are precious things and are of a different order and entail a different scale of values than social systems, political theories, or art.
"Why are we not given a cause?" some people ask. I do not understand this question. It seems so plain to me. There are millions and millions of people who are shot, persecuted and tortured daily in Europe. The assault on so many of our fellow human beings makes some of us tingle with anger and gives us an urge to do something about it. That, and that alone, makes some of us feel strongly about the war. All the rest is vapid rationalization. All this talk about philosophy, the degeneration of art and literature, the poisoning of Nazi youth, which the Nazi system entails, and which we all rightly condemn, is still not the reason why we fight and why we are willing to risk our lives.
Here, let us say, is a soldier. He asks himself, "Why should I die?" You would tell him: "To preserve our civilization." When the soldier replies: "To Hell with your civilization; I never thought it so hot," you take him up wrongly when you sit down and say to yourself: "Well, after all, maybe it wasn't so hot," and then brightly tap him on the shoulder and say: "Well, I've thought of a better idea. I know this civilization wasn't so hot, but you go and die anyway and we'll fix up a really good one after the war." I say you take him up wrong because his remark: "To Hell with your civilization" doesn't really mean that he is not seriously concerned about our civilization. He is simply revolted by the idea of dying for ANY civilization. Civilization simply isn't the kind of thing you ever want to die for. It is something to enjoy and something to help build up because it's fun, and that is that, and that is all.
When a man jumps into the fire to save his wife he doesn't justify himself by saying that his wife was so civilized that it was worth the risk! There is only one reason why a man will throw himself into mortal combat and that is because there is nothing else to do and doing nothing is more intolerable than the fear of death. I could stand idly by and see every painting by Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo thrown into a bonfire and feel no more than a deep regret, but throw one small, insignificant Polish urchin on the same bonfire and, by God, I'd pull him out or else. I fight quite simply for that and I cannot see what other reasons there are. At least, I can see there are reasons, but they are not the reasons that motivate me.
During the first two years of the war when I was an instructor at an American University in close contact with American youth and in close contact with the vital isolationist question in the States, I often felt that there was much insincerity, conscious or unconscious, on our, the Interventionist, side of the argument. We had strong views on the danger of isolationism for the United States. We thought, rightly, that for the sake of self-interest and self-preservation the United States should take every step to ensure the defeat of the Nazi criminals. But however sound our arguments, our own motives and intensity of feeling did not spring from those arguments but from an intense passion for common righteousness and decency.
Suppose it could have been proved to us at that time that the participation of the United States in the stamping out of organized murder, rape and torture in Europe could only take place at great cost to the United States, while not doing so would in no way impair her security. Would we not still have prayed that our country might do something? And would we not have been proud to see her do something?
There is an appalling timidity and false shame among intellectuals. The common man in the last war went to fight quite simply as a crusader. I am not talking about politics now, I am not either asserting or denying that England declared war from purely generous and noble considerations, but I am asserting that the common man went and fought with the rape of Belgium foremost in his mind and saw himself as an avenger of wrong.
After the war the common man went quietly back to his home. The intellectuals, however, upon coming back, ashamed of their one lapse of finding themselves in agreement with every Tom, Dick and Harry, must turn around and deride the things they were ready to give their lives for. As they were the only vocal group, the opinion became firmly established that the last war was a grave mistake and that anyone who got killed in it was a sucker.
And now, in this war, these intellectuals are hoist with their own petard. They lack the nerve and honesty to represent the American doughboy to himself for what he is. They do not give him the one picture in his mind which would stimulate his imagination and which would make him see beyond the fatigues, the mud, the boredom and the fear. The picture is there for anyone to paint who has a gift for words. It is a simple picture and a true picture and no one who has ever sat as a small child and listened with awe to a fairy story can fail to understand. The intellectuals, however, have made fun of the picture and so they won't use It.
But some day an American doughboy in an American tank will come lurching into some small Polish, Czech or French village and it may fall to his lot to shoot the torturers and open the gates of the village jail. And then he will understand.
There is a lot of talk among our intellectuals about our youth. Our youth is supposed to want a change, a new order, a revolution or what not. But it is my conviction that that is emphatically NOT what our youth wants. Have you ever been in a picture house on a Saturday afternoon, when it is filled with children and some old Western movie is ending in a race of time between the hero and the villain? Have you seen the rapt attention, the glowing faces, the clenched fists? What our young men really want is to be able to give that same concentrated attention and emotional participation, this time to reality, and this time as heroes and not as spectators, that they were able to give to unsubstantial shadows, before long words and cliches had killed their imaginations. Killed them so dead that they can no longer see even reality itself imaginatively.
It is up to the intellectuals to rekindle the thing they have tried to destroy. It is as simple as St. George and the Dragon. Why not have the courage to point out that St. George fought the dragon because he wanted to liberate a captive and not because he wanted to lead a better life afterwards? Some day, sometime, my picture of an American doughboy in a Polish village will become true. Wouldn't it be better for him then to have the cross of St. George on his banner than a long rigmarole about a better world?
As long as our intellectuals and leaders do not have the courage to risk being thought sentimental and out-of-date and are not willing to stress that nations as well as individuals are entitled to their acts of heroism and chivalry, they will never be able to give our youth what it needs.
It is true that every fairy story ends with the words: "and they lived happily ever after." How irritating a child would be, though, if it interrupted its mother at every sentence to ask: "But, Mummy, will they live happily ever afterwards?" It simply isn't the point of the fairy story and it isn't the point of this war.
Presumably we won't live happily ever after this war. But just as a fairy story helps to increase a child's awareness and wonder at the world, so this war may make us more aware of one another. Perhaps we shall learn, and perhaps some things will be better organized. I hope so. I believe so. But only if we engage in this war with our hearts as well as our minds.
For goodness' sake let us stop this empty political theorizing according to which a man would have to have a University degree in social science before he could see what he was fighting for. It is all so simple, really, that a child can understand it.
Note added (CGO, 11 November 2005): the context in which this is written is that Dorothy Thompson had stated in a radio broadcast that the allies should be planning for a better world after the war to motivate soldiers to fight. Willem evidently felt that this was absurd, and that fighting the evil of Nazism required no justification beyond the fact that it was the right thing to do. With the victory of the forces of democracy so complete, it is easy to believe now that Willem died in vain. By 1944 there was no shortage of pilots and at 33 his reflexes would certainly have been less good than someone ten years younger. What is more, trained mathematicians were much scarcer than trained pilots and if he had helped the war effort by utilising his mathematical skills, he probably would have achieved more, besides being more likely to survive. I would have greatly appreciated having Willem as my (living) great uncle, especially since I followed his chosen career path of theoretical physics. However, one has to recognise that it would have been very hard for a courageous young man from a nation under occupation not to want to do something tangible to fight the invader, and to this extent, one may sympathise with, if not necessarily be happy with, his chosen course of action.