I purchased him many years ago. I enjoyed his shielded eyes, his snubbed cigarette, his meaty arms. He seemed to be, for all intents and purposes, a stout fellow.
He looks healthy and swaggering, in a year when the western world was in despair. World War One was no longer a romantic journey, a cleansing of a society whose dreams had been cosseted for too long. The end of 1918 was gray and hungry – the attractive ennui of pre-war Europe had been replaced by the cynicism of hopelessness.
And yet this young man dared to stare into the sun, a masculine, muscular obstacle to its heat. He was either enjoying his basic training, or was trying to avoid it. He was ready. He was, as they say, spoiling for a fight.
However, he only had two months left – the war was a weary beast, and ready to die.
Camp Benning was established in October of 1918 – World War One would end in a month. The American Expeditionary Force had been streaming into France since June of the previous year. The following year, the year this brash American had his photo taken, was the year for fighting. Chateau-Thierry in May. Belleau Wood in June. The Aisne-Marne counter-offensive in July. St. Mihiel in September. The Meuse-Argonne offensive in September.
This soldier, this streetwise Doughboy posturing in front of his canvas tent, could be on his way to the Argonne Forest: to join conscientious objector-turned hero Sargent York. The Battle of Blanc Mont Ridge would last for all of October…perhaps he was on his way to Flanders. In November, Americans would be pushing towards the Meuse-Antwerp line; to the east they would be threatening Metz.
There was much he could still do. He could do what nearly 120,000 other Americans did in less than two years, which was die. Like all the armies of that disenchanted war, the AEF stumbled onto unknown fields, like amiable warriors: ready for a good time at the terrible expense of the enemy. No matter what nationality, every volunteer wanted to be sure they could look up into war’s lowering sky before ‘the fun was over’. It was only supposed to last for six months, after all.
Now, four years later, men were still dying, and men were still eager to fight. Still stamping fear out as this young infantryman would presently stamp out his cigarette.
I do hope he never got the chance to go. It’s impossible to know where he went after the war had ended. Whatever happened to him, he is in a way kept safe – within these words, within the golden frame I keep him in – he continues to live.
Words and images. Every Veteran’s Day these are brought out. Every year poppies are worn; they are laid in bloody splendor at the bases of cenotaphs and grave sites. We remember the victims of conflict. We view the tomb of The Unknown Soldier with reverence and regret. Perhaps with a little anger as well, at this distant – or not so distant – courage and foolishness. And every November 11 we renew our vow to ‘Never Forget’.