Morale crisis

Issue 4/2000 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from Sotaromaani (’A war novel’, 1954): the italicised passages denote text omitted from the original edition of Tuntematon sotilas (1954; The Unknown Soldier) and now published for the first time in Sotaromaani (2000). Introduction by Pekka Tarkka

‘Battalion-at-tention!’ The battalion, gathered in a snowy clearing, froze to attention. Major Sarastie produced a sheet of paper and started reading from it. The men listened, a little perplexed. They already knew what had happened. What was the sense of reading to them about it. Two men had been executed because they had refused to return to their sentry posts. After they had heard about the execution, some had tried to chase down the military policemen who had performed it. Luckily, they had not been able to catch up with them; after all, they had been the least culpable parties to this crime.

When the major had finished reading, he went on to say: ‘Well, yes, this sentence has been carried out to show men guilty of insub­ordination that the army can’t afford to treat such matters as a joke. I hope and believe that it won’t be necessary to read such things again to this battalion. But whenever it should prove necessary, martial law will be enforced to the full extent of its severity.’

Only now the men understood the purpose of the reading. They were being threatened. The crisis in military morale at the end of 1941 had forced the high command to consider ways to resolve it. And, as is always the case with such people, the high command tried to blame its own mistakes on crimes committed by others, and to do so by means of court martials and executions. Of course such draconic measures made no sense whatsoever, considering the character of the Finnish army, and this should have been obvious to anyone, even those whom our Lord had not blessed with abundant intelligence.

The crisis was not caused by the men that took the blame, the front line soldiers. The true culprits were ‘the nation’s spiritual and military leaders ‘. They had drafted the men from their homes with idle talk about a three-week Blitzkrieg. They had made the adversary look so utterly insignificant that the continued resistance displayed by that adversary now began to undermine the soldiers’ morale. The result: a crisis of confidence.

From the very beginning, warpropaganda had been so clumsy and mindless that it was hard to believe it was created by grownups. The successful summer campaign did not put much of a dent in in it, but as soon as things got tough, which is when propaganda should prove effective, the command could not come up with anything better than the deployment of executioners, lowbrowed thugs à la Lombroso.

This took care of everything, the stupidity, the toughness of the enemy, the front line soldiers’ poor clothing and deficient rations. It was supposed to compensate for lack of sleep and homesickness, and, what was most ironic, it was also supposed to prove to exhausted men the preciousness of the fatherland’s cause.

The men listened to the threatening proclamation with mixed feelings. The shooting and killing of one of one’s own soldiers, for any reason whatsoever, struck them as worse than any crime. It felt like an insult directed at all of them, and that was exactly what it was. The crisis had not been felt very strongly in this battalion, since it consisted of draftees, among whom a natural sense of obedience was stronger than in the regiments of the Reserve. But it also depressed the spirits of these men. It felt as if the proclamation had been the reading of a death sentence on the purposefulness of their fight. Even the most idealistic soldier, perhaps he more than anyone, understood that there was no ideal left. It had desecrated itself by murder.

Silent and surly they left the event to return to quarters. They were alone. Alone with their souls. The Finnish soldier had lost the last remnants of the respect he had felt toward the authority of his commanders.

But he endured that, too. Even alone, he was able to adjust to the situation. Even though his commanders had completely lost their hold on his soul, that soul still kept the faith in its task. But in order to exact some revenge on the treacherous and mendacious propaganda machine, it resorted to a frame of mind that was perhaps the most offensive to nationalistic propaganda, the ‘we don’t give a damn’ mentality to the old lag.

Gradually, the world’s best forest guerrilla fighter learned the empty stare that helped him endure the debilitating psychic torture of trench warfare, but that was as far as it could take him. In nineteen-forty-four, the Finnish soldier’s soul had been stripped. And it was all due to that ‘our boys’ propaganda whose creators believed that such clownish babble would be an effective remedy for the human soul suffering from exhaustion and fear of death.

On the Syväri front, the Finnish advance had been halted by the enemy’s surprising readiness for action. The supposedly vanquished adversary proved capable of counterattacks, and it was in the defense against these that the crisis of morale appeared.

Sarastie’s battalion had been ordered to counterattack. Its commander read that scrap of paper to strengthen the spirits of his men before sending them on their way.

Translated by Anselm Hollo

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