(Continued from Part 7)
8. Witt and fear in the face of the other
When Witt is in the brig after having been returned from his life among the Melanesians, Welsh tells him, “Normally you’d be court-martialed. But I worked a deal for you … I’m sending you to a disciplinary unit. You’ll be a stretcher-bearer. You’ll be taking care of the wounded.” Since Witt is devoted in responsive concern for and service to others, being assigned to a stretcher-bearer unit does not strike him as any actual punishment. Motivated as he is to make effective the responsibility he has for others (a transcendent relationship he has with those others), it is likely that Witt is not even in the least embarrassed that others in Charlie Company will think of him as having been disciplined.
Witt realizes his responsibility in responding to the wounded. He does not just transport fallen soldiers; he reaches out to the wounded, trying to give comfort and assurance. He gives one man a sip of water from a canteen and then pours a little water over the man’s head and rubs the man’s head. Witt pours a little more water on the man’s neck to help cool him down, and he rubs the man’s neck. The man says something, and Witt nods an acknowledgment with a slight smile seemingly meant to assure the man that he will be alright.
The stretcher-bearing duty provides contexts in which Witt can be responsive to persons and attend to their needs, but such situations are not of the sort which Witt feels most need that responsibility which he is dedicated to effecting. He would much prefer to be in the midst of the battle, because that is where fear will be most rampant, and Witt senses that his primary responsibility is to do what he can to dispel particular occasions of fear. That is why, when he encounters Welsh and Staros during the battle, Witt asks Staros to let him rejoin Charlie Company.
From that time on, Witt is always taking part in the most forward fighting. That is where he will encounter others from whom Witt thinks it is of the utmost importance that fear be removed.
Witt knows what it is like to be restricted, confined, constricted by fear. It was fear which impeded his vision, his awareness of the transcendent. By his own reckoning, he must place himself in the sorts of situations where there might be opportunity for him to effect his responsibility to dispel the type of fear which confines a person to his own self and prevents that person from seeing and moving beyond himself – the type of fear which, in effect, assigns the transcendent to unreality.
Witt is present when Sgt. Keck reaches for a hand grenade but, instead of grabbing the grenade, mistakenly pulls the pin. Aware of what he has done, Keck flings himself against an embankment to shield the other soldiers from the blast of the grenade. Keck does not die immediately, and he remains conscious for awhile. Witt looks on as one soldier whispers something in Keck’s ear. Another soldier tries to comfort Keck by telling him that he is not going to die, but that only angers Keck who is as well aware as are the others that the injuries will very soon prove fatal. Witt grabs a hold of Keck’s shirt, pulls him up, and says, “You’re gonna be alright … Even if you die … You didn’t let your brother down. If you hadn’t thrown yourself against that embankment we’d have all been killed.” Keck shivers and says, “I’m cold … I’m freezing,” and Witt lets him back down gently so that he can rearrange Keck’s shirt to make him a little warmer. Keck begins to agitate, and Witt holds him down until Keck relaxes and becomes calm. Witt then puts one of his hands on Keck’s shoulder and briefly brushes the side of Keck’s face before Keck dies. Witt smiles faintly, pleased that Keck was able to meet death with calm and possibly also glad with the thought that he had helped Keck attain that calm.
Witt’s responsibility towards others is not limited to those whom he regards as “my people”, the men of Charlie Company. His responsibility more clearly exhibits the broadness of a Levinasian characteristic when, after the Japanese have been routed from their bunkers, Witt is observing some of the Japanese who have been taken prisoner. The prisoners are hunched close together; some are obviously distraught; others are clearly afraid. At that point, Witt recognizes that his responsibility properly extends even to the vanquished in whom Witt sees the face of the other for whom he has a responsibility and towards whom he is to respond. He offers some chewing gum to those others so that they might be invited out of their fear.
Continued in Part 9