Two boys, barely even men, were drafted into their separate armies.
Two boys, barely even men, got onto the train.
One going from Pittsburg to New York.
The other going from Kiel to Berlin.
War was here. For the Americans, for Europe. The Great War, they called it. The war to end all wars. Matthew Hunter looked around the section of the trench he was assigned to, along the Western Front, near the Belgian province of Ypres, and shook his head, feeling the vast distance between here and his small hometown outside of Pittsburg.
President Wilson had finally told his country that the United States would be joining the Allied side in the Great War after the Zimmerman telegraph from Germany had provoked the nation. And so, all eligible men, ages twenty-one to thirty-one, were required to sign up for the US army. Matthew had only agreed to go to the draft with a positive attitude, because his father, too old to fight, wanted his son’s name emblazoned across history.
Matthew privately thought the only thing of his emblazoned across history would be his acute embarrassment. But, as all dutiful sons did, he made his way to the Pittsburg Drafting Office, filled out the enlistment form, and got all the tests done. Two months later, he received his orders to ship out to New York, where he would get on a boat that would take him across the Atlantic to fight some German dogs out in Europe. How uplifting.
“Grenade!” A soldier, a little further down the trench bellowed in fear, as a small pineapple-shaped object clinked down the trench walls. Everyone stared at it for a split-second, before it detonated, exploding Matthew’s entire section of the trench, shrapnel shredding through soft flesh as easily as if it were paper.
Oskar Müller knew it was going to be a bad day. Not only did General Karl von Bülow give the orders to advance down No Man’s Land, which was an obvious suicide mission for the drafted soldiers, but he also gave the order to advance down to Ypres, and push the Western Front back toward the coast of France. Completely and absolutely absurd. The General should have just killed all of the soldiers under his command with a grenade and been done with it.
Oskar didn’t even want to fight. He was an artist, for goodness sake. He was a painter, used to the brush in his hand, their paints in their pans, and the canvas upon which anything was possible. But now, there was a gun in his hands, bullets in the pans, and the bleak and desolate plain of No Man’s Land, upon which death was possible.
But the Führer had demanded all able-bodied German men to fight against the enemies of the Motherland, and so Oskar had no choice. The draft had increased tenfold once the General’s had realized that America was joining the war, and Oskar was shipped out to the Front almost immediately after he had signed up for the draft in his hometown of Kiel. He hadn’t even had enough time to say goodbye to his mother and father before he boarded the train. Probably was for the best, anyway. They didn’t want him to waste his life as a painter. A soldier was no better.
“Mach es Jetzt,” A soldier next to Oskar grunted softly, pressing the small grooved object into Oskar’s gloved hands. "Granate." He added, seeing Oskar's confusion. Bile rose in his throat, but he quickly pressed it down, not wanting his fellow soldier to see the disgust on his face. He pulled out the pin and gently chucked it under the barbed wire and into the American’s trench.
Oskar heard an American soldier cry out, before the grenade exploded, sending shrapnel and terror exploding into the night.
Two boys, barely even men, were sent from the trenches to Paris.
Two boys, barely even men, were sent to protect leaders of their opposite sides.
One was sent due to his visible injuries.
The other was sent due to his mind.
Matthew was no longer going to play baseball. No longer going to be able to throw a fastball at the batter. No longer going to be able to use his right arm. He had been facing away from the grenade when it had exploded, so he hadn’t taken the full impact, unlike several of his fellow soldiers, but his right arm had been ruined beyond repair.
They’d had to amputate it.
And now, Matthew was a one-armed wonder. No longer fit for soldier work, but not going to be discharged either. He was, apparently, too important to send home. Instead, going to Paris. The City of Love, and the City of Lights. Also, the city the Germans took over. Filthy pigs. They knew how much Paris symbolized to France, to the world, and they seized the city.
But now, Matthew was in Paris, something he’d never thought would happen. If only his mother could see him now. She’d be so proud. And the best part was, he didn’t have to fight. Not that he could, being an amputee and all that, but the feeling of no longer having a gun in his hands-hand was indescribable. All he had to do was protect and guard Attorney Avery D. Andrews. A simple enough job, the man was kind and didn’t seem outwardly affected by the war, but Matt knew all too well the internal injuries war could wreak on a man.
The nightmares wouldn’t stop. They keep coming, no matter how tired Oskar thought he was, they kept coming. Four words that kept circling in his brain. What was war? A three-lettered word that could obliterate everything. War tore people apart, even those who were once close as brothers. Victims of war were constantly drowned in tidal waves of guilt, regret, and pain. Pain isn’t simple; it’s physical, emotional, and mental; all victims of war feel all three types. In war, nowhere is safe. Nowhere. And Oskar knew it.
Knew it when the grenade exploded in the American trench.
Knew it when men died because of his actions.
Knew it when he was shipped to Paris because of his mental instability within his trench.
Knew it when the nightmares started.
He didn’t want to look down at his hands for fear that they would be stained in blood, the blood of innocent men that he had killed.
But he had to keep going. For his family, at least. They wouldn’t be proud of a son who died from his mental injuries. However, a son who was responsible for guarding a general, particularly, General Dietrich von Choltitz? Now, that’s a son to be proud of. Oskar’s job wasn’t the hardest thing he had had to do in his life, just making sure the General was safe when he left his rooms. The hard part? Looking at him and not remembering the innocents Oskar had killed on the General’s orders.
Two boys, barely even men, were wandering the Belgian wilderness.
Two boys, barely even men, were abandoned by their armies.
One tried to catch up, but couldn’t make it.
The other found him struggling to survive.
“Move out!” General John J. Pershing called to his troops. Matthew blearily looked around at the army packing up. They had camped in Belgium after heading out from Paris, and Matt had been called back from guarding Andrews. He didn’t know why. He was just extra weight for the army. He couldn’t even shoot. Matt struggled to his feet and started clumsily packing up his bedroll one-armed. “Not you, Hunter. You’re staying behind.” A hand clapped onto his shoulder and he looked into the General’s eyes.
“E-excuse me, sir?” Matt said, looking warily from the General to the packing troops.
“You heard me, soldier. We appreciate your efforts, but we can’t afford disabled soldiers in the army.” And with that, the General squeezed Matt’s shoulder one last time before heading out with the rest of Matt’s fellow Americans.
Matt’s amputated shoulder twinged, and he winced, feeling fresh blood trickle down the bandage. He’d caught the limb on a tree branch last night, and it had been hurting ever since. But now, there was no army to help him. No medicine to heal him. As he shoved his bedroll into his pack, an army doctor walked by, pressing a tin of salve into Matt’s hand.
“For your arm,” he whispered, before quickly walking away. Well, he still had no army to help him, but at least he had medicine to help heal him.
So Matt walked. He walked across the Belgian countryside, marveling at the scars within the land, and dreaming of a world where war didn’t happen. And as the daylight waned, he stopped for the night. Matt leaned against a tree, setting his pack down, and blowing out a breath at the pain throbbing from his arm. Gingerly he unwrapped the bandage and winced at the black streaks making their way up to his shoulder. He didn’t have to be a doctor to know what that meant. Blood poisoning. Scooping a little bit of the salve the nurse had pressed into his hand, he carefully smeared it across the stub of his arm, making sure to avoid the seeping wound. He pulled a clean bandage out from his pack and wrapped it back up.
Matt was about to close his eyes when a man crashed out from the bush across from where he was sitting. A German soldier. Matt was dead.
“Hände Hoch!” Oskar yelled, immediately pointing his gun at the American. He hoped his arms weren’t trembling, showing off his dread at killing another innocent. The man held up his left arm, looking warily from the gun to Oskar and back again.
“I said hands in the air!” Oskar said sharply, in English. The American’s face contorted in pain, and he twisted his body to show that he had no other arm.
"I don’t have hands anymore, man. I only have one left.” Oskar blew out a breath that he didn’t even realize he was holding and lowered the gun.
“Are you going to kill yourself so that you can kill me?” He asked skeptically. The American huffed a laugh.
“I’m dying anyway, man. I don’t need to kill myself.” He motioned with his hand to the stub of his other arm, and Oskar realized the white bandage was already scarlet with blood. The American’s face was pale and drawn, and Oskar realized he was no threat to him. He slung the gun around his shoulder and knelt by the other man.
“I can help you,” Oskar said softly, holding his hands out in a peace gesture. The American warily looked at him.
“Why?” he said, gasping in pain as he shifted and the stub of his arm scraped against the bark. Oskar thought about it. Why did he want to help the American, his enemy?
Negative actions create negative chaos, and negative chaos is destructive. Positive actions create positive chaos, and positive chaos is constructive. And when one looks at the history of war and peace they see these simple truths at the heart of the matter.
Helping the American wasn’t helping the enemy. It was helping a fellow man, a man who was just as caught up in the war as he was. A man who was just like him.
Two men, no longer boys, were sent to fight for their countries.
Two men, no longer boys, who had seen the worst humanity had to offer.
One was clinging on to the wavering threads of life.
The other was hoping his newfound brother would make it.
War rages on, soldiers fight. They pray for the safety of their loved ones, their only photos shattered into a million tear-stained fragments. They sing melancholy songs for the nightingales who swoop through the sky carrying their whispers of encouragement up, up, up to heaven, where their lost ones frolic in a land unlike the one below, so consumed with rage, hatred, and greed. They wish they were up there, a happy family all together not a grieving family torn apart by the selfish deeds of men who seek happiness for themselves and themselves only, for they, to them, are lesser men, servants considered with cold utility rather than love.
The German soldier was proof that man could change. Was proof that even during humanity’s worst moments, people could come together and heal one another.
Matt studied the other man as he deftly unwrapped the bandage around his right arm, and smeared another salve around it. Matt hissed in relief as it immediately numbed his stub, and he could see the blood gushing from the open wound ebb a little bit.
“Thank you,” Matt said softly, as the German rocked back on his heels, satisfied, “My name is Matt. Matthew Hunter.” He added, not wanting to call him the German anymore, but by his name. Because no matter what country they hail from, no matter what country they fight for, they are all one species.
“Oskar Müller,” Oskar replied, smiling at Matt.
“Some war, huh?” Matt said quietly into the approaching dawn. After Oskar had helped him with his wound, he had shared his meager portions of food that he’d stored in his pack after the General had dismissed him. They had talked well into the night, about the war, about their lives, and their futures. The war had brought them together, soldiers from opposite sides, but the war had also left them closer than anything. The war had left these two men, brought together by the worst global war the world had seen, family. Brothers.
“Some war,” Oskar agreed, staring at the rays of sunlight from behind the hills. He smiled, leaning back against the tree, Matt’s rattling breath in his ear. He looked out over the Belgian landscape, warming with the coming of dawn. He knew he could never go back to fighting, never go back to killing innocents. Not after he met Matt.
For it is when we love our enemy that they become our friends, our brothers, and this is the death of war itself. When we see their future children in their eyes and feel the yearning to put food in their bellies and hear their laughter ring, infusing with the laughter of our future children, we make a lasting bond, a pact with love itself. This is when the truth comes, and the silence is all the words we will ever need, for this is the intelligence of the heart, the language of the universe.
*Nainika’s Note* As you could probably tell, Oskar and Matthew were fictional, but I tried to keep everything else as real as possible - from the general’s names to the names of the different battles. If I got anything wrong, please don’t get offended! Let me know, and I will fix it - this was not an attempt at poking fun at the over twenty million lives lost. This was just my way of reading the prompt and my way of writing a story from it.