This overall character of Storm of Steel commonly draws comparison with that All Quiet on the Western Front, which weaves a clearly anti-war narrative out of similar material. Some (on the Left, it is said) go so far as to call Storm of Steel a glorification of war, but I don’t really see how. Perhaps Jünger’s lack of coherence and overview is emblematic of the war itself, marked as it was by the blinkered vision from the trenches and the constant play of chance. Or perhaps Jünger’s aim is to simply gather facts from his war diaries much as he had collected beetles during his free time in the trenches, to present them to us, as it were, like a detached entymology of war, its specimens long having ceased to wriggle, letting us make of it what we will.
This last possibility is in a way similar to one my reader Eliah made in response to my entry on Big Red Son, David Foster Wallace’s report of his visit to the AVN awards in Las Vegas. Perhaps, Eliah speculates, Wallace avoids mention of his own moral evaluation in order to "march scenes and facts past the reader which make moral reflection unavoidable". Now to my thinking, this might not be possible. Specifically, any close description of porn is itself an act of porn. It peddles in the same prurient fascination as its subject, obscuring objectivity. And so it is different than, say, a weather report: the description of a hailstorm does not itself pelt the reader with ice.
If there is a valid Left-leaning reaction to Jünger, I imagine it would have to be along these lines: does a story of lost limbs and lives that withholds moral evaluation, e.g. outrage, disgust, etc., not ipso facto promote that sort of barbarism? I am tempted to say: only to the extent that such a description tends to excite interest doing the same. But why assume that throwing in that evaluation helps matters? As it was recently put in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
The reader of these [Remarque, Sassoon, etc.] might also reflect on whether the cause of peace today is best served by recycling myths about war. For one thing seems clear: cloaking the Great War in a mystique of incomprehensible horror has not made war any less likely, or any more humane. Like all such auras, the anti-war myth may even exercise a dark fascination. As François Truffaut is supposed to have said, there is no such thing as an anti-war film, since the action of warfare, however barbarous, cannot fail to excite.
from Rest in Peace: World War I and Living Memory
This makes me reconsider the nature of martial virtue and its relation to virtue in general. Our modern concept of virtue reaches back to the Greek arete, which in Homeric times specifically described excellence in war, ares (hence “arete"). This is perplexing, considering what all has come to fall under the category of “virtue” since then. As early as Aristotle, virtue included not only courage, but temperance, wit, humility, generosity, practical understanding and contemplation. Today what virtues there are, if they are recognized as such, have even displaced martial virtue, effecting a complete mutation of the term. For the pacifist-minded, excellence in battle translates to carnage and perhaps even the perpetuation of battle and thus more carnage. On this understanding, virtues like coolheadedness and diplomacy are the antithesis, even antidote, to Homer’s arete.
But listening to Jünger I have come to wonder whether there is a common thread running through virtue in its original and later senses. Granted, it would be naive to assume there to be an essence lurking behind every polysemous term. But it would be similarly naive to assume there isn't. So I suggest the following: virtue is the willingness to put something other than the self first. For Jünger, this “something other” is most immediately the comrades whose fate lies in his own hands: when he puts them first, risking life and limb, he does so in the most credible possible way. Jünger clearly cares about his platoon in a way that would be difficult to ascribe to self-interest. And he knows when he's been outdone in this regard:
Every time afterwards that I heard prejudice and depreciation on the lips of the mob I thought of these men who saw it out to the bitter end with so little parade and so fine an ardor. But after all what is the
mob? It sees in everything nothing but the reflection of its own manners. It is quite clear to me that these men were our best. However cleverly people may talk and write, there is nothing to set against
self-sacrifice that is not pale, insipid and miserable.
Storm of Steel, chapter 19
Weak natures are prone to the atavistic impulse to destroy. And it takes hold of the trench fighter in his desolate existence when anyone appears above ground. I have felt it myself only too often.
C.S. Lewis made a similar observation in Mere Christianity:
Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards to what people you ought to be unselfish to—whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first.
Naturally, you wouldn't have to find, or "find", any deeper harmony between moral systems to defend moral objectivity. To say that the observed lack of moral consensus suggests we shouldn't try for one is plain fallacious, even self-defeating. But it certainly would be tidier if we could show that the underlying drive to morality is holds cross-culturally, whatever the variety in its regional expression.
After that, it would only remain for us to expose the hollowness of the "selfish gene" argument in matters of human deliberation. And I don't expect that would be too difficult...