Monday, June 2, 2014

Bernal Diaz confesses his fear

Though we have only his own testimony before us in his narration, The Conquest of New Spain, I have no doubt but that Bernal Diaz was an extremely brave and effective soldier, and yet . . .

“It is now a long time since we fought these terrible battles, which continued without intermission day and night, and I cannot be too thankful to the Almighty for my preservation; and now I must relate something extraordinary which befel myself. The reader will remember above that I stated how we could see the Mexicans sacrificing our unfortunate countrymen; how they ripped open their breasts, tore out their palpitating hearts, and offered them to their abominable idols. This sight made a horrible impression on my mind, yet no one must imagine that I was wanting either in courage or determination; on the contrary, I fearlessly exposed myself in every engagement to the greatest dangers, for I felt that I had courage. It was my ambition at that time to pass for a good soldier, and I certainly bore the reputation of being one; and what any of our men ventured, I ventured also, as everyone who was present can testify; yet I must confess that I felt terribly agitated in spirit when I each day saw some of my companions being put to death in the dreadful manner above mentioned, and I was seized with terror at the thought that I might have to share a similar fate! Indeed the Mexicans had on two different occasions laid hold of me, and it was only through the great mercy of God that I escaped from their grasp.

I could no longer divest myself of the thoughts of ending my life in this shocking manner, and each time, before we made an attack upon the enemy, a cold shudder ran through my body, and I felt oppressed by excessive melancholy. It was then I fell upon my knees, and commended myself to the protection of God and the blessed Virgin; and from my prayers I rushed straightway into the battle, and all fear instantly vanished. This feeling appeared the more unaccountable to me, since I had encountered so many perils at sea, fought so many sanguinary battles in the open field, been present on so many dangerous marches through forests and mountains, stormed and defended so many towns; for there were very few great battles fought by our troops in New Spain in which I was not present. In these perils of various natures I never felt the fear I did subsequent to that time when the Mexicans captured sixty-two of our men, and we were compelled to see them thus slaughtered one by one, without being able to render them assistance. I leave those cavaliers to judge who are acquainted with war, and know from experience what dangers a man is exposed to in battle, whether it was want of courage which raised this feeling in me. Certain it is that I each day pictured to myself the whole extent of the danger into which I was obliged to plunge myself; nevertheless, I fought with my accustomed bravery, and all sensation of fear fled from me as soon as I espied the enemy. Lastly, I must acquaint the reader that the Mexicans never killed our men in battle if they could possibly avoid it, but merely wounded them, so far as to render them incapable of defending themselves, in order that they might take as many of them alive as possible, to have the satisfaction of sacrificing them to their warrior-god Huitzilopochtli, after they had amused themselves by making them dance before him, adorned with feathers. [Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain, Kindle locations 10040-10063]

Comment: Was the fervent praying Diaz engaged in before battle taken into consideration by Nicholas Wade? Not as far as I’ve read. Wade describes religion as providing a personal overseer (sort of like Freud’s Superego) who would have kept him apprised of how he ought to behave in the coming battle, but would this overseer also provide Diaz with the strength to accomplish that behavior and more importantly rescue him if he got in over his head? Diaz thought so, and he did after all survive, and since he wrote his book when he was in his seventies, he had made it into old age with nothing changing his mind.

Diaz was a brave and a very-effective soldier and yet he felt fear as a result of seeing the torture the Aztecs engaged in before killing the 62 men captured from Cortes’s division earlier. In the modern-day American military “fear” is made light of. Soldiers going into battle will “normally” have the “jitters,” but once the fighting actually starts, they are told, they’ll be okay; which is in effect what Diaz describes as his behavior. He feels a bit guilty about the fear, but the modern soldier is told that fear is okay as long as it isn’t incapacitating, as long as it doesn’t prevent the soldier from doing his job. Bravery consists in overcoming that fear, and after all, there are comrades to the right and to the left. One doesn’t want to let them down now does one?

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