Ambrose Bierce and Ernst Junger on the Fascination of Wartime Death

Ambrose Bierce, What I Saw of Shiloh, 1881:

“I obtained leave to go down into the valley of death and gratify a reprehensible curiosity. …

“The fire had swept every superficial foot of [the battlefield], and at every step I sank into ashes to the ankle. … Along a line … lay the bodies, half buried in ashes; some in the unlovely looseness of attitude denoting sudden death by the bullet, but by far the greater number in postures of agony that told of the tormenting flame. Their clothing was half burnt away – their hair and beard entirely; the rain had come too late to save their nails. Some were swollen to double girth; others shriveled to manikins. According to degree of exposure, their faces were bloated and black or yellow and shrunken. The contraction of muscles which had given them claws for hands had cursed each countenance with a hideous grin. Faugh! I cannot catalogue the charms of these gallant gentlemen who had got what they enlisted for.”

Ernst Junger, The Storm of Steel, 1920:

“[I would] like to say a word or two about this first glimpse of horrors. It is a moment so important in the experience of war. The horrible was undoubtedly a part of that irresistible attraction that drew us into the war. A long period of law and order, such as our generation had behind it, produces a real craving for the abnormal … Among other questions that occupied us was this: what does it look like when there are dead lying about? …

“And now at our first glance of horror we had a feeling that is difficult to describe … In the case of something quite unknown the eye alone can make nothing of it. So it was that we had to stare again and again at these things that we had never seen before, without being able to give them any meaning. It was too entirely unfamiliar. We looked at all these dead with dislocated limbs, distorted faces, and the hideous colours of decay, as though we walked in a dream through a garden full of strange plants, and we could not realize at first what we had all round us.”


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