Henri Barbusse: “That’s war. It’s not anything else.”
From Under Fire (1916)
Translated by Fitzwater Wray
Waking, Paradis and I look at each other, and remember. We return to life and daylight as in a nightmare. In front of us the calamitous plain is resurrected, where hummocks vaguely appear from their immersion, the steel-like plain that is rusty in places and shines with lines and pools of water, while bodies are strewn here and there in the vastness like foul rubbish, prone bodies that breathe or rot.
Paradis says to me, “That’s war.”
“Yes, that’s it,” he repeats in a far-away voice, “that’s war. It’s not anything else.”
He means – and I am with him in his meaning – “More than attacks that are like ceremonial reviews, more than visible battles unfurled like banners, more even than the hand-to-hand encounters of shouting strife, War is frightful and unnatural weariness, water up to the belly, mud and dung and infamous filth. It is befouled faces and tattered flesh, it is the corpses that are no longer like corpses even, floating on the ravenous earth. It is that, that endless monotony of misery, broken, by poignant tragedies; it is that, and not the bayonet glittering like silver, nor the bugle’s chanticleer call to the sun!”
Paradis was so full of this thought that he ruminated a memory, and growled, “D’you remember the woman in the town where we went about a bit not so very long ago? She talked some drivel about attacks, and said, ‘How beautiful they must be to see!'”
A chasseur who was full length on his belly, flattened out like a cloak, raised his bead out of the filthy background in which it was sunk, and cried, ‘Beautiful? Oh, hell! It’s just as if an ox were to say, ‘What a fine sight it must be, all those droves of cattle driven forward to the slaughter-house!'” He spat out mud from his besmeared mouth, and his unburied face was like a beast’s.
“Let them say, ‘It must be,'” he sputtered in a strange jerky voice, grating and ragged; “that’s all right. But beautiful! Oh, hell!”
Writhing under the idea, he added passionately, “It’s when they say things like that that they hit us hardest of all!” He spat again, hut exhausted by his effort he fell back in his bath of mud, and laid his head in his spittle.
At this moment there was a dull noise; cries broke out around us, and we shuddered. A length of earth had detached itself from the hillock on which–after a fashion – we were leaning back, and had completely exhumed in the middle of us a sitting corpse, with its legs out full length. The collapse burst a pool that had gathered on the top of the mound, and the water spread like a cascade over the body and laved it as we looked.
Some one cried, “His face is all black!”
“What is that face?” gasped a voice.
Those who were able drew near in a circle, like frogs. We could not gaze upon the head that showed in low relief upon the trench-wall that the landslide had laid bare. “His face? It isn’t his face!” In place of the face we found the hair, and then we saw that the corpse which had seemed to be sitting was broken, and folded the wrong way. In dreadful silence we looked on the vertical back of the dislocated dead, upon the hanging arms, backward curved, and the two outstretched legs that rested on the sinking soil by the points of the toes. Then the discussion began again, revived by this fearful sleeper. As though the corpse was listening they clamored – “No! To win isn’t the object. It isn’t those others we’ve got to get at – it’s war.”
“Can’t you see that we’ve got to finish with war? If we’ve got to begin again some day, all that’s been done is no good. Look at it there! – and it would be in vain. It would be two or three years or more of wasted catastrophe.”