Heroes Never Rust #75 by Sean Ironman
None of Us Angels
Garth Ennis loves to write about war. His comics are filled with violence—Preacher, The Punisher, The Boys, etc. A few years back, he created a collection of war stories, two volumes featuring four standalone stories with different artists. The first, War Story: Johann’s Tiger, was drawn by Chris Weston (Ministry of Space). Toward the end of World War II, Johann, a Nazi soldier, leads four men in their Tiger tank. Johann knows the war is lost and makes it his mission to deliver his men to safety. However, Johann doesn’t want to be saved. Throughout the war, he has performed horrors—burning towns to the ground, shooting prisoners. After his men are safe, he will do his best to die in combat. “I cannot imagine it proving difficult. Thousands do it every day. I know I have forfeited my right to live, but I am still too much the coward for suicide.” Of course, his plan fails. His men die in combat, their last act being throwing Johann out of the tank and to safety. In the end, Johann is taken captive.
There needs to be more stories told from the point of view of Nazis, from the losing side of any war. Winston Churchill said, “History is written by the victors.” How many stories from the Americans side can we have? There is, in a way, a bit of propaganda in a story told from the viewpoint of the victors. If Johann was John, an American solider, no matter what horrors he committed during war, the reader could fall back on the idea that America had to enter the war to save lives. Johann’s actions are, in a way, more complicated and interesting because no good came from them.
Interestingly, even though the storyline follows a Nazi soldier who has performed horrors while at war, concentration camps are never mentioned. The Holocaust is never referenced. Johann, as bad as this sounds, could have fought on either side of the war, for any country. Some may say that ignoring the worst of the war is copout, but I prefer it. A lot happened during the war. We should remember all of it.
At one point, Johann asks himself, “Did I believe in Hitler’s War of racial purity? Did I think those people less than human? No, that was the problem: I didn’t think at all. I did whatever I needed to at any given time. No notion of morality constrained me.” That line really hit me. I think when people discuss why others have done such horrible things, people tend to try to figure out how someone thought that the action performed was the right thing to do. But, I don’t think that’s the case most times. I can look at my own life and see the bad that I’ve done, and even when I went through with it, I didn’t think those things were right. I can’t think of anything that I’ve done that I realized later was wrong. I knew it then, and I still did it. To me, that’s worse. We don’t act even for our own sense of morality. We do bad things not because we think they’re good, but because we convince ourselves that we have to do bad. We rationalize.
Just the other day, I told a friend, “Let me be the asshole.” I’ve said that a lot over the years. I find, I believe, some sense of sacrifice in it—to do something bad because I tell myself it’s the only way. The world isn’t perfect and we’re all fucked anyway, so I’ll damn myself to perhaps help someone else. What an awful thought. Johann kills Americans. He killed Russians. He killed innocents. He killed the wounded. But, he will help his men get to safety. His men, soldiers like him, must be helped, for some reason. Who knows the horrors they have done throughout the war? Maybe Johann, even though he doesn’t admit it, feels like one last act of redemption before death might help him out in the afterlife.
Recently, I was telling a woman that instead of fight or flight, I’ll just sit there and take the beating. I truly believe that a person should know how to take a beating. I’m tired. I’m so fucking tired. If I go to the bar tonight and a man wants to fight (not that this has ever happened before), I’ll probably just let him beat me until he tires or I die. I was small growing up, always the smallest boy in class. But I fought when kids tried to pick on me. Running never helps. Running makes you a coward, gives the opponent power over you. They know you are afraid. But, fighting doesn’t do anything either. It’s not like in those sitcoms where the kid stands up to the bully and the bully respects them or some shit. No, you just get the crap beat out of you. I think taking the beating is the way to go. Make it seem like it ain’t no thing. That’s the only power I think you have—it’s the only way to make them seem powerless over you.
War. What the fuck? Let’s say, like Johann, you fight, you kill, you beat, you survive. Let’s say, I stand up to that guy at the bar and I win. I beat the living shit out of him. Years ago, my puppy, Hankelford, ate some comics of mine. Went right to one of my shelves and picked them out one by one. And I hit him. I was angry. Some of those comics were out of print and I still haven’t replaced them all these years later. I hit him and I stood over him, and he looked at me. And I felt worse than I had when I saw my comics torn. To realize that inside you is the power to hurt and kill is a sobering moment. Or it should be at least. I wouldn’t make a good soldier. I guess I’m not manly to many of you.
Maybe I should care. But, I’m just too fucking tired of this world to care. Johann even rationalizes that he doesn’t kill in his tank. The tank is it’s own entity. “Big Max protects us. Kills to save us.” This is what bad men do—take themselves out of the equation. They separate themselves from the action. They create passive language. Right and wrong, good and bad, have nothing to do with it. Just a man choosing the easiest way for himself. But, it builds up. It did for Johann, at least. All that shit. It builds. But, perhaps others have a higher tolerance. Perhaps that’s why war will happen again and again, and comics like War Stories can fit in with any generation. Perhaps that’s why we still tell stories from a war that ended sixty years ago. It’s still relatable today—one of the worst wars in the history of mankind.
Photo by John King
Sean Ironman (Episode 102) earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s Chronicle, Redivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.