Readers of Storm of Steel, German philosopher Ernst Junger’s grisly First World War battlefield memoir, are treated to an astounding array of horrors – a harrowing years-long chronicle of horrific battle after battle, of countless comrades torn apart in front of the author’s eyes, of trenches literally built through the mass graves of previously slain combatants.
How did Junger and his fellow survivors of the war process their experiences without going insane?
I think the answer may be that they simply didn’t, because their experience of mechanized warfare was so raw, so new, that it wasn’t until years later that their minds – and humanity’s collective cultural mind – caught up to it and began to comprehend what the war had been.
We are always in our minds stuck in the trenches of of the last conflict- both in literal cases such as the world wars and in other types of trauma – while meanwhile our ongoing experiences sit off to the side, untouched, waiting for their turn to be processed.
It’s probably always been this way to some extent – after all, the unfolding of time is almost infinite in its nuances and complexities, while the process of adapting and evolving our culture in response to its sudden twists and turns is intrinsically slow.
In the case of the First World War, it wasn’t until around a decade after the conflict was over that most of the major memoirs about it were published, and we continue to talk and think about the conflict to this day – perhaps unsurprisingly, given the scope and incomprehensibility of its horror and its continuing impact on the course of history.
The problem is our growing backlog of complex historical traumas to wrestle with, and as the injustices pile up even higher we fall further and further behind the disastrous events that are happening now. This is a wonderful gift to the bad actors of today and tomorrow, who face an ever-increasingly remote possibility of accountability at some far-off future date that may never come.
Of course, we have never been truly caught up with the past – even at the best of times, history gives us more horrors to process than we could possibly handle – but the question is this: can we work to become more nimble and less reactive, to develop systems and techniques to nip more problems in the bud before they metastasize?
We must find a way to get farther ahead of the curve on history’s arc of brutality; otherwise, our ability to process our sorrows may break down entirely.
What happens then may be literally and figuratively unimaginable.