I died on October 17, 1916 at the River Somme, blown apart by German artillery.
Have you ever been in such intense pain that you don’t even recognize the feeling anymore? Just imagine you’re experiencing a pain of such magnitude that any other sensation—sight, taste, smell—is rendered imperceptible in the face of it.
But then imagine, for just a moment, your mind manages to break away from the miasma of pain and you become conscious of your surroundings—conscious just long enough to see all the blood and gore, all the misplaced bits and pieces. It is at this moment another kind of pain sets in: the pain of knowing what you have lost.
And just as you’re beginning to grapple with this new agony, the physical pain returns with a vengeance. Now, imagine those two disparate miseries, the physical and emotional turmoil, merge into a kind of perfect agony— a transcendent suffering.
Transcendent suffering. Does that sound profound? Does that sound poetic in any way? I’m asking this question earnestly. I don’t know. I’ve been sitting in the dirt for 99 years thinking about my death, trying to extract some kind of profundity from it, and that’s the best I could come up with. I just thought war was going to be different, you know? It’s not like I thought it would be sunshine and rainbows.
I knew there would be death and suffering, but I expected that suffering to come with context, some redeeming quality. Yes, I would die, but I would die a hero fighting for king and country. But when I was actually dying, there was no context, no thought of king or country. Only pain. And even so long after my death, the suffering is the only thing that stands out to me. Why?
I was a patriot.
I marched toward the front knowing full well it would probably not be a round trip. I died in service to my country. I died a hero, so why do I feel like a lemming? Maybe it’s because I didn’t do anything particularly heroic. I sat in a ditch for three months surviving, nothing more. But when the officer called my name and the time came for action, I just marched into the killing field and was blasted to pieces before I could fire a single shot. What’s heroic about that? What’s poetic about that? I had no stoic last stand. I did not go out in a blaze of glory, taking as many of the enemy with me as possible.
I just died.
But I can’t give up looking for that meaningful, poetic death. I died in the fall; maybe there’s something to that. Yes, like a leaf in autumn, I was stained red and torn from the tree of life. No, that’s trite, not poetic. And besides being trite, all that analogy does is reemphasize the pain and meaningless of it all. A single autumn leaf has no meaning; it is just one of millions of casualties. And a leaf has no choice in its death. Its death is an inevitability.
Every single year, without fail, autumn comes and the trees of the world offer up their leaves as some kind of sacrifice to the season. But to what end? Yes, new leaves will come to take the old ones’ place, but autumn is never appeased; it will come again the next year and demand even more. The life and death of a leaf is a meaningless one.
I’m a leaf, aren’t I?
I’m god-damn leaf!
I didn’t fight for king and country; I was a sacrifice for king and country. But a sacrifice for what? A war to end all wars? What a crock. Nearly a hundred years later and nothing has changed—the guns are just bigger. Listen, I’m no bleeding heart. War is a part of the human condition. I’m not going to cry over spilt blood—I won’t even cry over my own spilt blood. But, you know what? At the very least I’d like that blood to mean something.
I lived, I loved and I fought with a passion in my heart. But for all intents and purposes, I was nothing more than a leaf. Just a holding pattern until the next batch of leaves came along.
I’m a leaf. Does that sound profound? Does that sound poetic in anyway? I’m not asking that question earnestly.
I already know the answer.
Class of 2018