Perhaps the most memorable character from the First World War is “The Red Baron.”
Manfred Von Richthofen died about 11 AM on Sunday, the 21st of April in 1918. There is almost nothing about his death that is not disputed, the exact time, the manner of death, even who shot him. But there is one thing certain.
He was 25. His 26th birthday would have been on the second of May.
Von Richthofen is a romantic character. And I say ‘romantic’, and I say ‘character’, because, in the popular imagination, there is little of the real person that survives. Snoopy has been shot down by him several dozen times. There is a pizza named after him. His red triplane is emblematic of the romance of aerial combat and, indeed, The War To End All Wars. When I enter “Red Baron”, my computer’s search engine brings up 2,900,000+ entires, three out of the first five being the beagle, the pizza and racing bikes.
What survives is a caricature. The red Fokker triplane. The long scarf around the neck. The rattle of machine guns. The noble last salute between victor and vanquished.
All of which, in this time of war, is exactly what I am the least interested in. I am interested in that kid, that sad kid who died so many years before his time.
The myth of the Red Baron has obliterated the fact that that actual man, Manfred Von Richthofen, lived a rather narrow life. He entered military school when he was eleven, and spent the rest of his life in uniform. He like hunting. He liked riding. He seems to have had no intellectual interests. He was an indifferent student. He never traveled. He only spoke German. When I see photographs of his rooms, there are hunting trophies but no books. While he had the social graces of his class, there is little indication of enduring friendships. Rumor of a brief war-time liaison notwithstanding, he seems to have shown little sexual interest in women or, for that matter, men. My point is not that I find any of this remarkable. My point is that I find it young. The guy died before he had time to do much beyond go to school and kill people.
Not everyone who dies in war is young. But most are. So it is curious that, when we read about World War I, many of the histories dwell on the youth of the technology rather than the youth of the soldier. Powered airplanes were barely a decade old. Machine guns were a relatively new technology. Putting machine guns on airplanes, then crafting aerial tactics, all this was new. Yet, when I read about Richthofen’s most famous dogfight, against British Major Lanoe Hawker, V. C., I sadly note that no one else notes that Hawker died at age 26. The man who killed Richthofen, Canadian Captain Roy Brown, was 25.
Not long ago, when I was watching “The Newshour” on P. B. S., I once again paused for that moment when, in silence, they show names and pictures of those who recently died in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have grown accustomed to those usually stern pictures of young folks in uniforms. But sometimes, when the military photo is not available, there is a picture of this kid at a ball game or a party or some such.
But nothing quite prepared me for one photo. A Private First Class in her wedding dress. I seem to recall that the linguistic root that gives us infantry also gives us the word infant.
Life never gave Manfred Von Richthofen much of a chance. But then neither do we. We want to see him as The Knight Of The Air. The Red Baron. Or a pizza. A cartoon. It’s easier to see him as a cartoon. Why? Because if we see him as a kid, if we know him as sad, lonely, traumatized, maybe, just maybe, we would see him as someone just like us. But we can’t. We don’t dare. Why? Because it’s easier to kill a cartoon.
Thus the greatest lie of any war, regardless of what side you are on – that the people we kill are remarkably different. That because they have a different language, a different religion, different race, that they are nothing like us. That the enemy is never just a kid. That the enemy is never sad, lonely, traumatized. That the enemy never wears a wedding dress.