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Eugene O’Neill: The hell that follows war

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

American writers on peace and against war

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Eugene O’Neill
From Shell Shock (1918)

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You’ve been hearing the rumble and crash of the big guns, the rat-a-pet rivetting of the machine-guns, the crack of rifles, the whine of bullets, the roar of bursting shells. Everything whirls in a constant feverish movement around you; the earth trembles and quakes beneath your feet; even the darkness is only an intermittent phenomenon snatching greedily at the earth between the wane of one star shell and the bursting brilliance of the next; even the night is goaded into insomnia by the everlasting fireworks. Nothing is fixed or certain. The next moment of your life never attains to the stability of even a probable occurrence. It hits you with the speed of a bullet, passes through you, is gone. And then you come out into the old peaceful world you once knew — for a rest — and it seems as if you were buried in the tomb of a pyramid erected before the stars were born. Time has died of old age; and the silence, like the old Chinese water torture, drips leadenly drop by drop — on your brain — and then you think — you have to think — about the things you ought to forget —

Terrible? No word for it! Man alive, you couldn’t know! We’d crouch down in the mud with the trench rats squeaking and scampering with fright over our feet — nipping at your legs — while we waited for the next counter attack, wondering if the Bosche would get through the next time, gritting our teeth to stick it out. Their artillery played hell with us. The world seemed flying to bits. The concussions of the bursting shells — all about us — would jar your heart right back against your spine. It rained shell splinters. Men kept falling, writhing and groaning in the muck — one’s friends! — and nothing to do. A little Italian private — Tony — he used to sing for us in camp — don’t know his second name — used to be a bootblack here at home — was standing near me. A shell fragment came down on his skull — his brains spattered all over my face. And all that time not a cigarette — not a damned smoke of any kind — to take your mind off — all that!

You’ve got to know about it, all you others — then you’ll send us the things we need, smokes and the rest. And at nights it was frightful, expecting a surprise attack every minute — watching — straining your eyes! We had to pile the dead up against the rear wall of the trench; and when you’d stumble in the dark you’d put your hand out and touch a — a face, or a leg — or — something sticky with blood. Not a wink of sleep! You couldn’t! Even when the guns let up for a moment there were the screams of the wounded out in No Mans Land. They’d keep the dead awake — lying out there dying by bits. And you couldn’t go out to get them in that fire. It was suicide. I told the men that. They wanted to go out and get their friends, and I couldn’t give permission. We needed every man. It was suicide. I told them so. They wept and cursed. It was my duty. They would have been killed — uselessly.

I thought I’d go mad. No place for the wounded to be cared for — groans and shrieks on all sides! And not a thing to smoke! You had to think — think about it! And the stench of the bodies rotting in the sun between the Bosche trench and ours! God! And not a single cigarette, do you understand? Not one! You’d feel sick clear down to the soles of your feet. You finally came to believe you were putrefying yourself — alive! — and the living men around you — they too — rotten!

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