Danish-born author Sven Hassel is an enigma. Little seems to be known for sure about his origin. He has written a number of books about World War II. He purports to have been a member of the Wehrmacht, once sentenced to prison in Germany for desertion, and ultimately assigned to a Penal Batallion as a member of a tank crew. As such, he is thrown to the front of every battle. In his story The Legion Of The Damned, he tells of his experiences during the war in most graphic detail. Did these things happen in reality? Were they battle stories gleaned from interviews with German soldiers after the war? Purgative or potboiler? I don't know and I don't care.
As I tried to digest the book after finishing it, I found I had many conflicted feelings. Many of these are feelings that have never been resolved since early childhood. I am 60 years old, a child born of a veteran of World War II in the Pacific. My uncles were veterans also, one of the European Theater and other was involved in the island war in the Pacific. Myself, I am a veteran of the Vietnam era.
As a boy, I had a small collection of baseball cards. My heroes were people like Ernie Banks and Al Kaline. My father had a different kind of collection. As a machinist mate aboard a small supply ship in the Navy, he was stationed in the Aleutians in 1944. The Japanese, having invaded the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska in June of 1942, had evacuated them in July of 1943. He never saw war. His collection, though, was a number of photographs he had kept as souvenirs, pictures of the mutilated bodies of Japanese soldiers and the egregious abuse of these dead by American servicemen. There was no effort to hide these photos; they were kept in the same shoe box that held the memories of birthdays and holidays. He seemed to take perverse delight in my reaction to them, yet never understood why I grew up to become a pacifist. I have often wondered about the source of these horrible photographs. Were they things he had found amongst the possessions abandoned by Japanese soldiers on the islands – given to them by their superiors as proof of the animal-like nature of the American enemy? Or were they someone else's sick idea of trading cards – mass produced and passed around to dehumanize the Japanese enemy in the minds of our servicemen? I don't know and am not sure that I care.
Hassel wrote “War is a bad way of experiencing the heights of life; it leaves you disappointed, and when you come back from it you discover that you have not had any sensible purpose and have lost contact with that to which you have returned; you have become restless, as it is called, and your nerve has gone. That is true both for the victors and the vanquished. Perhaps the tragedy is greater for the victor. He has been victorious, but whom has he vanquished and for what has he conquered? He cannot make heads or tails of it. It was so different when he set out, for then he believed in a simple truth; but that proved to be hopelessly involved once it was stripped of the proud words in which it had been presented to him.” In The Legion Of The Damned, Hassel paints a picture of the hideous nature of war and its' effects on the minds, hearts, and souls of those caught up in it, whether military or civilian.
The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. Since the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, there has not been a declared war in which Americans have fought. Yet, we have lost tens of thousands of Americans in more than a dozen different conflicts and operations. How many more have come back wounded and broken? As I sit here trying to review this book, thoughts of those pictures, the “proud words” that have been spoken to convince people of the rightness of war, and the seemingly endless conflicts swirl in my mind. I think of brave men and women who answer their country's call; still I can't help but wonder whether our leaders have been honest with us. It bothers me that veterans returning from war often do not receive the things or care they need to find healing, to rebuild their lives, or to ensure that they will find the care they need, now and in the years to come. It bothers me when shattered minds are dismissed as pre-existing situations. Is it even possible to return from war unchanged in some way? I don't know, but The Legion Of The Damned reminds us of the reasons we all should care.