The Last War Hero

Issue 1/1981 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from 30-åriga kriget (‘The Thirty Years’ War’). Introduction by Markku Envall

First he heard the noise.

It was an unfamiliar noise and therefore doubly dangerous. Viktor grabbed his machine-pistol. It was a sputtering noise, like that of a cracked machine-gun. But it came from above. And what came from above could be dangerous, Viktor knew.

Then he saw the helicopter, flying just above the tree-tops. He had never seen a helicopter before. Nor had he ever seen the circular markings carried by the aircraft as a sign of the nationality. More and more nations were getting involved, he had had a visit from an American, for all he knew this might be a plane from Australia. The Russians must be in a tight corner if they had to keep sending their allies into the firing line.

He bitterly regretted having let the American sergeant get away.

Now they were after him in real earnest. It must have been the Yankee who had sent them.

Viktor directed a long burst of fire at the plane, which was now hovering almost motionless in the air, like a bee over a flower. The bullets shattered the roboter blades, splinters flew in all directions, and the helicopter dived at a steep angle and plunged into the lake. Viktor leapt to his feet and shouted “Hurrah!” and proceeded to execute a gleeful victory dance. He had shot down an enemy aircraft.

His pleasure was unalloyed. It was not at all like shooting parachutist, which he had found distasteful. There was nothing unpleasant about killing people one could not see. It was like eating an egg, you got out of killing the hen.

Not that Viktor had any objection to killing what he ate, it was only purposeless killing that he disapproved of. He hated cats because they enjoyed killing, and the wolverine’s blood-lust filled him with horror. Yet the wolverine was a mild creature compared with a human being, who could kill other human beings without rhyme or reason.

Doubtless the crashed helicopter contained a number of useful commodities that Viktor stood in serious need of, but he was prepared to do without them. The aircraft was only half under water and there would have been no great difficulty in wading out to it, but he had no desire to set eyes on the crew. The years of solitude had made him shy of human company.

But Viktor’s victory was not entirely fortunate in its results: victories in war seldom are. Oil leaked out of the crashed helicopter, polluting the water in the little lake. The fish died and the seabirds got oil on their feathers and died a gruesome death. Viktor’s prospects of sustenance suffered a distinct change for the worse.

He even began to consider the possibility of a retreat, but he could not decide in which direction he ought to go, and before he could solve the problem he found himself once more under attack.


In addition to the pilot, the crashed helicopter had been carrying an officer, a doctor, a representative of the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Under-Sheriff of Sevettilä District. They all died. One from a skull injury, the rest by drowning.

The authors of his biography absolve Viktor Käppärä from all blame. They quite rightly point out that he could not possibly have known that the Air Force had substituted blue and white rings for the wartime swastika, and draw attention to the serious dangers attendant on breaking with tradition: this, they remark, is always apt to bring ill-luck in its train.

According to the authors, it was a mistake to believe that the Finnish swastika might be confused with the German one. The Finnish swastika stood fairly and squarely on one of the long sides, whereas the German swastika was balanced precariously on one corner, a clear omen of what was to come.

There was considerable discussion between members of the biographical team as to how the deaths of the five men should be classified. Admittedly it was peace-time, but they had fallen in action and thus fulfilled the conditions for being regarded as war­ heroes. On the other hand they had fallen in an action against the Finnish army, and this made things more complicated. If they were declared war-heroes there might well be a flood of applications for a reassessment of the status of any number of liquidated Red Guards and Forest Guards.

In the end the incident was recorded as a mishap of the type that occurs when a serviceman is blown to pieces or killed as the result of the accidential explosion of a grenade, or when a troop-carrying truck overturns into the ditch, killing all aboard, because the driver has obliged during manoeuvres to carry on for thirty-six hours at a stretch.

Nevertheless, several pages are devoted to warm praise of Käppärä’s courage and efficiency, which had not diminished with age. Nor do the authors discern any sign of defeatist tendencies, and the incident proves, in their opinion, that the Finnish soldier’s sisu and fighting morale can overcome any hardship whatever.

Their conclusions were based largely on a number of scattered notes discovered among the documents left by Viktor.

One of these reads as follows: “Mamma, my pen is writing more and more faintly, I can no longer read what I have written.” Scribbled on another: ”Why do I find it so hard to breathe when I walk a little faster? I don’t think I shall have the strength to go home from here, they will have to send a horse and cart to fetch me.” And later: “It hurts when I pee.”

And: “I don’t dream about women any more. That’s nice.”

As his sight deteriorates, Viktor’s notes become increasingly brief and difficult to interpret; they are just short, despairing cries, not intended for the eyes of any living being. It is evident that it is not the end of the war, but another end, that is occupying his thoughts. This, however, is not admitted by his biographers, who describe him as living and striving exclusively for victory.

Hence they regard it as a blessing that the soldier who sacrificed more for victory than any other should never had lived to learn that it was all a waste of effort.

But in war, as in sport, there is something that is more important than victory, and that is to play one’s part and never to give up, even if one is seven laps behind the rest. If there is such a thing as a spearhead victory, there is also a heroism of the rearguard, and who has shed upon it more glory and honour than Viktor Käppärä?


Operation Käppärä was, it had to be admitted, a fiasco. The Minister of Home Affairs blamed the incompetence of the Frontier Guards, and the Armed Forces blamed the Minister for Home Affairs who had given them inaccurate or inadequate information as to the nature of the task required of them. (This is what happens when civilians interfere in military matters.)

If it had been known that it was a question of approaching a fighting unit, clearly quiet different measures would have been given that this was merely to be an ambulance operation.

The episode caused a government crisis. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, who did not belong to the same party as the Minister for Home Affairs, considered himself slighted because he had not been informed that the armed forces of the country were still at war with the Soviet Union. The Defence Minister, who belonged to yet another party, was also disgruntled: Käppärä, he considered, came directly under him.

The Minister of Health and Social Welfare, who belonged to a fourth party, thought thar he should have been the first to be informed that there was a person in Finland who had neither residence nor employment, who possessed no sickness benefit number and had none of the requisite documents and permits, such as a permit to remain alive after having been declared dead. Government crises were every day occurrences and this crisis was no more remarkable than previous ones. The President dissolved the government and installed a new one in which the same ministers had different portfolios.

Meanwhile Viktor Käppärä sat on his dog-out and defended the fatherland. (This is no empty phrase, for as Käppärä´s biographers point out frequently in their book, no sacrifice has ever been unnecessary, no contribution was red, no vigilance uncalled for, no attack unjustified, no defence meaningless, no danger imaginary and no solution ever better than the one and only tried and proved solution, the military one. This being so, who knows, what would have happened if Käpäärä had not stayed at his post?)

But now it was time to get him away. This was one point upon the ministers in the new cabinet were agreed. (The ex-Home Affairs Minister was now Minister for Social Welfare, the Foreign Minister was Home Minister, the Minister of Defence was Minister for Agriculture and so on.) The task was now entristed to the Commander of the Armed Forces, whose Commander-in-Chief (The President) sat and wondered hiow he was going to explain the affair to the boys in the Kremlin.

The Commander of the Armed Forces entrusted the task to a captain called Matalamäki. He was to retrieve the dead from the helicopter and the living from the bunker, and both were to be handed over in the state in which they were found, i.e. the dead dead and the living alive, and not vice versa. The order was clear and concise, leaving no room for misunderstanding.

A reconnaissance plane had photographed the wreckage, but this could not be retrieved because it was within range of Käppärä’s machine pistol and there was a general reluctance to sacrifice lives by exposing the crew to ‘hostile fire’. (It seemed necessary in this context to speak of hostile ‘fire’, because ‘friendly fire’ had a paradoxical ring and ‘comradely fire’ had too strong a suggestion of Marxist Ideology.) It would therefore be necessary for the Captain at the head of a platoon of jaegers, first of all to render Käppärä harmless (the phrase was perhaps unfortunate but no better one suggested itself) and only then to transfer his attention to the dead. The various phases of this operation have been recorded in detail, but for the reader unversed in the finer points of military procedure the most interesting part will be the conversation which took place between Viktor and Captain Matalamäki.

The platoon approached Viktor’s strong point from the north-east, which was rather stupid thing to do considering that this was the direction from which an enemy attack would have come, if there had been one. (To this very day the Finnish armed forces are prepared to defend the country against any attack, whether it be from the north-east or from the south-west.) Viktor surveyed the men, who were making no attempt to camouflage their approach. They wanted him to see that they were his own people and not enemies.

Viktor saw them (though not so clearly as he would have done twenty years earlier), aimed his weapon and waited for them to come close enough for him to be sure of hitting them; he could no longer afford to waste ammunition, especially now that the enemy as showing increased signs of activity. Their appearance puzzled him and he could not be sure of their nationality, but their uniforms and steel helmets suggested that they might be Americans. Brought there, of course, by that wretched scoundrel whom Viktor had so foolishly refrained from shooting.

Once again Viktor discovered how right Sergeant Hurmalainen had been to warn him against parachutists who might pretend to be Finns. Viktor had seen the plane circling over the area and sure enough, the leader of the group now began to address him in Finnish.

“Hullo there,” he shouted. “This is Captain Matalamäki speaking. I order you to lay down your arms and come over here.”

Just like the last time. That’s what they always say.

Viktor replied with a short burst of fire. No good relying on surprise when they knew where he was anyway.

The enemy sprang into life and dived hastily for cover.

“Are you crazy, firing on your own people?” yelled Captain Matalamäki.

“My own people don’t lie in the bushes and shout at me to lay down my arms,” Viktor shouted back. “Why don’t you come and fetch the guns if you want them? Anyway, you might as well give yourselves up. You are surrounded by the Yellow Brigade. I advise you to lay down your arms and come forward with your hands over your heads. It’s your only chance.”

Viktor thought it might be worth trying to bluff a bit. If they had just jumped out of an aeroplane probably weren’t very well­ informed about the situation on this particular sector.

“My dear good fellow,” shouted the Captain, who was beginning to lose patience. “We are not at war with anybody, so you will now kindly cease fire.”

“If you aren’t at war with anyone, all the more reason for you to throw down your weapons and give yourselves up,” said Viktor. The Captain could not deny the logic of Viktor’s words, but he had never heard, or read in any manual that a military unit could give up its weapons except when capitulating to an enemy. And Käppärä was certainly not an enemy. Besides, it was not logically possible to capitulate in peace-time.

This unexpected development rather clouded the crystal clarity of the orders given to the captain. It just wasn’t possible to go and fetch Private Käppärä and then hand him over to the General Staff “in the condition in which found”. It just couldn’t be one. The Captain wondered whether the fault lay in him or in his orders. But he immediately realised that it would never do to rebel against an order – order being, after all, the origin of all things. “In the beginning was the Order.”

He decided after all to rely on the power of the order. “Damn you, man” he shouted, “can’t you obey orders?”

“That’s just what I am doing,” Viktor replied.                                  .

“But I’m giving you fresh orders,” screamed the captain. “I take no orders from anyone except Field Marshal Mannerheim or Sergeant Hurmalainen,” said Viktor. “Mannerheim is dead,” said the captain.

“Did he fall in battle?” Viktor asked.                                  .

“No he died in Switzerland thirty years ago, as President.”

“Ah, well, it might have been wiser if you we’d gone to Switzerland in the first place, instead of Russia. Russia is so big that it’ll take a hell of a long time to Finlandise it,” said Viktor.

The Captain thought Käppärä was poking fun at him, since he could not conceive that the same term could have come into being both in Bonn and in Sevettilä’s virgin forest. But it was not his job to talk politics to a man who had been holding out ever since the 40s in a hole in the ground. The captain realised that what had happened in the last thirty years sounded pretty incredible even to people who had seen it happen, but to tell Käppärä the whole truth would be to create for him a future so unbelievable and impossible that he would certainly never be prevailed upon the emerge from his hole.

The Captain made a last desperate effort.

“If you do not instantly obey orders, all your leave will be cancelled till the end of the war,” he yelled; and as soon as he had said the words he could have bitten his tongue off.

Viktor replied with a salvo.

“Then the sooner I bring the war to an end the better. It won’t ever end if nobody does any fighting, will it?”

The platoon lay shivering till twilight, and when the evening mist came sweeping in from the lake Captain Matalamäki and his men withdrew, their mission unaccomplished.

Translated by David Barrett

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