The story of the Ice Citadel expresses a basic conflict between what it is to be a soldier and what we are as human beings. Like many other people throughout history, Melchior von Fuchsheim becomes a soldier not because he wants to fight, to kill enemies, or to defend the Fatherland, but because he wants the social prestige attached to being in the army. He enlisted at a time when there was no war and none in the foreseeable future. Even when World War I started, few people foresaw that it would evolve into a protracted conflict, so Melchior was astonished to find himself on the Western Front in a nightmarish situation beyond anything he could have imagined.
War occupies a peculiar place in our cultural imagination: it can be thought of and discussed in abstract terms as conflict, battle, the fray, melee, and so on—terms which don’t conjure up anything much more graphic than a child’s toy soldiers do. But Melchior discovered soon that being a soldier means killing other people, often at close enough range that you can witness the end of another person’s life as a result of your actions, frequently due to bleeding or evisceration, or other forms of mutilation, with screams or signs of great pain and suffering as “the enemy” realizes that he will never see another sunrise. Many soldiers take this in stride or become accustomed to it, temporarily at least. Some do not.
Melchior is a humanist: he not only cares for his comrades but seeks to protect Russian prisoners of war and even spares the life of an Italian who falls through the ice into a tunnel just as the Austrians are about to attack: “Strange to say, we were unarmed except that I still wore my little Reichsrevolver in a holster. Now was a moment for action, and the four other men were in the tunnel behind me, so it would have to be my action. The Italian was bellowing his head off as he drew his bayonet, no doubt alerting the entire outpost, so I simply picked up a shovel and clapped him over the head with it. His soft wool forage cap did nothing to save him, and he slumped over, still clutching his blade.” Instead of shooting the man, Melchior knocks him unconscious, and thus saves his life.
As soldiers, we voluntarily suspend the moral compunction that inhibits us from killing and injuring each other, and society largely accepts this. The difficulty comes when we must distinguish between necessary killing and that which comes from thoughtless habit, or arises from bitterness and hatred which must be satisfied somehow by murdering innocents. Melchior feels compelled to do whatever he can to preserve life, even the lives of “the offal of mankind” as Stutz refers to them, the Russians and the Jews.
We think of war as being psychologically traumatic because of the terrible injuries and deaths that soldiers witness on the battlefield. In fact, witnessing this physical violence is less traumatic than the moral violence that it is the result of, the moral violence we do to ourselves when we decide that killing and injuring people is acceptable—as long as they are “the enemy”. This is because we can suspend our belief that killing is immoral—but only temporarily. Eventually we return to the belief that the act of killing is wrong.
Robie Macauley witnessed some astonishing cruelty when he marched into Germany in early 1945, as the Third Reich was fighting for its life on the banks of the Rhine. He took part in the liberation of Flossenbürg Concentration Camp and knew what the Nazis had done to the Jews and others they considered unworthy to live. But he also saw American soldiers killing and injuring unarmed German civilians just because they, too, were “the enemy”. For him, Melchior must adhere to an overriding moral code that values human life and seeks to preserve it. The point and purpose of the Citadel was not to promote war or to vanquish the foe; rather it was to separate the warring sides with a sheet of ice.
What traumatizes Melchior many years later is the death of his superior, Colonel Buchholz. For Melchior, the Colonel’s death was the consequence of too great a moral burden: that of sending men to die in battle. Even the Ice Citadel could not protect them forever. At the end of the book, Melchior shoots an Italian soldier who has broken into the Citadel—not because he is “the enemy”, but because he has violated the sanctity of the Citadel: “Building the Ice Citadel had taken our minds off our true reason for being here: to kill and be killed.”
As long as there is war, soldiers will repeatedly learn these same lessons. “It was enough to make the angels weep, I thought—the moment that is happening all over the world, the earnest young men in bivouacs who come forth with this remarkable discovery, ‘War and murder have become the same thing!’ And, tomorrow, they will all take their rifles and go dutifully into the lines, prepared to kill.”