Day Forty-One: Revisiting an Old Story, Their Guns Fired Bullets (Revised)
by Tom Noonan
They had marched for months now. It was coming up on a year with only letters from home padding the inside of their jackets, protecting them against the elements. The crushing of leaves created a rhythm matching their hearts, starting the day rapidly only to slow as it wore on. Each man suffered two pairs of socks to prevent blisters. A soldier was only as good as the strength in his feet.
The rain had corroded all color from their uniforms, leaving each one a muddy tint of brown. They could never get them completely clean when undressing and scrubbing at the remnants of the day, filth carried since morning. Sediment from recent landslides polluted the streams they walked beside. Reflections were no longer visible in the water. The men hadn’t seen themselves for months. They probably wouldn’t have recognized their own faces.
The jagged-faced infantry wore smiles not unlike domestic abuse victims wear turtlenecks to hide bruises. The men talked strategy and logistics. Their past was never mentioned. It was all about the task at hand. The present was all they concerned themselves with.
Onlookers took pictures. Thousands would come out to see them march. It was a spectacle, this recreation of the past, and I was part of it. I was assigned to follow them and document the practice. I watched them from a distance, photographing their battles and training. No part of the past months had escaped my view. It became odd to see the world outside of my lens. I had become used to the slightly obscured view, accompanied by constant shutter closings, blocking out everything, and leaving me blind for a split second.
But everything was real. Their uniforms, intensity, and blisters; all of it was real. They had endured the marches. They had fought in battles. They had left a trail of dead in their wake. It was all real, to them. Their guns fired bullets. Their death was imminent.
They were soldiers.
It was only from the outside that the truth about these men, that they were the equivalent of actors, and each leaf-covered trail and gunpowder-stained battlefield their stage, could be understood.
They had generals. There was a whole chain of command, and no one ever broke rank. Teachers gave orders to congressmen. Some said it was beautiful, but only from the outside.
To the men it was war. It was life or death, and one mistake could compromise everything they had marched for. It could be over just like that, a misstep, and they would be forced to return to their real lives. Bankers would be forced to trade in their uniforms for suits. Teachers would turn in their guns for a few sticks of chalk. Death meant facing reality, and none of these men seemed to want that. They all liked these new lives better.
None of them had kept their actual names. Not even the German ones. They all assumed a new persona completely separate from the man they used to be and were doomed to become again. Each of them had new histories, new wives and mothers. The letters they received from their old homes seemed to be from strangers.
They never wrote back.
The men didn’t love the Nazis for their beliefs, but for their military prowess. They were impressed by the strength Nazi soldiers had showed in battle, and this is why they had enlisted to march wearing the uniform of an SS soldier. A replica, of course. One man told me, “If any country can take on the world and almost win, then it’s up to us to recreate how they did it. We have to honor accomplishments like that. It seems dumb to just let something so important in our world’s history die or be forgotten.”
In every picture I’ve developed, however, the swastika on each of their uniforms burns white against a darkened backdrop. A symbol so powerful, it seems, could use some mud covering it. But I guess this is just how it feels from the outside. Some nights I felt like covering them all up, every white swastika, while they slept, but I wasn’t to interfere. I had to let them carry out what they had come all this way to do.
The death of Hans Frick occurred two months into the men’s tour. I use his German name because he would have appreciated that. We sat down after his death on the battlefield, and he told me his assumed name was the same as a Nazi war criminal, the only executed man to express repentance at the Nuremburg Trials. Hans, the more recently deceased Hans, that is, said he picked the name to remind himself of what the men who wore the uniform before him had done. He didn’t want to completely lose himself in it. “To me, it’s all about the history and preserving it. We’re all peaceful men with morals, here,” Hans told me during our last conversation. “All we want is to see what the life of a German soldier was like, how if felt to live in this uniform.” I didn’t point on the inherent problems with this exercise, though. I thought coping with his recent death was enough suffering for one day.
After nine months, the battles had become sluggish. As much as these men wanted to be, they were not soldiers. Their guns had become too heavy, and a lack of sufficient nutrition left them enervated. On one particular day, I found a perch well above the battlefield. I shot pictures of the men as they fell, my camera feeling like a rifle.
The men retreated early that day and fell slightly off schedule. Morale was low in camp. One man was considering leaving early, which amounted to an interesting mix of desertion and suicide.
They marched for two months after that. America had become their own Eastern Europe, and it was almost time for this battalion’s last stand. This march did have an end date, as the men tried to be as historically accurate as possible. They were reaching the battle where the particular group they were reenacting, as well as becoming, met its end. All the faces in camp looked like those of men about to face a death squad. Perhaps, for the first time in months, the real world was finally invading their minds.
The last campsite was a half-mile from the battlefield where the men would be forced to surrender the next day. They unpacked something that had been hidden away for the entire journey. It signified the end of the road, the death of their new lives, and rebirth into the habitual.
They had the white flag with them all along. It was prepared, and packed underneath their supplies, before they even began to march. Their fate had been pre-determined, as their current lives were simply reflections of past ones already expired, already lived. As we walked through walls of morning mist towards the last battle, I began to wonder what exactly these men were learning.
Before their last stand began, I found another perfect perch. The men looked even smaller below me that day. They didn’t even look like men until I raised my lens. I saw them preparing then looked to the other side, the side honoring the Allies. Those men seemed excited and somewhat giddy.
Then, as all battles began, both sides charged and tried to find cover. No shots had been fired. Neither side was ready to die. Then, after a few moments of tense silence, aman rose up from the German side to get at least one kill before his group was inevitably overrun. He must have missed because every British soldier remained standing after his bold attack. Then, with a spark behind a bullet, the history became real. Caught in confusion, protest, or some sort of demented prank, reality had entered the chambers of each man’s gun well before they had stepped onto the battlefield. The exposed German fell to the ground, his body seeming to be freed from carrying an unseen burden.
I zoomed in on the man, a stripe of red beginning to form down the front of his uniform. His face was pale, and I saw the life attempting to free itself from his body. It escaped from two searing holes. An entry and exit wound.
Their guns fired bullets.
Both sides held up their hands. A truce. Each man came out from hiding to witness what he had only pretended to know. None of these men had ever seen the real cost of war, blades of grass matted with steaming, moving blood. I scanned over the crowd through the lens. It would have been impossible to tell the two sides apart if it weren’t for the white swastikas, which reached towards me like spotlights shining from the German side. I didn’t take any pictures, but my lens came to rest on one German who hadn’t lowered his weapon.
I could see his eyes consumed with anger, his own searing hole aimed in the enemy’s direction. The British soldiers had begun to surround the lifeless man. I kept my lens fixed on the armed soldier. I couldn’t warn them.
Then, another spark. He fired.
I pulled back from the lens. A dot fell below me. This led to rapid, chaotic movements on the field and then another dot ceasing to move. Falling.
Soon these dots came to abrupt halts in multiples of twos, threes, and fours. I didn’t take a picture. I couldn’t bring the camera to my eye. The perspective from the mountain was all I could subject myself to. Soon there were only a few dots moving, and a faint glint of white rose up from the right side. The German side. I held the camera out and took a picture of the scene without looking through the lens. A slight calm attempted to seize control of my senses. It passed quickly.
I couldn’t bring myself to face what had happened below, but I knew it was important to bring it with me. It wasn’t something to be left behind and forgotten. I closed my eyes and held the camera out, allowing it to take a few more pictures.