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Georges Duhamel: War and civilization

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

Georges Duhamel: Selections on war

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Georges Duhamel
From Civilization, 1914-1917
Translated by  E. S. Brooks

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Civilization

First of all, I must know what you mean when you speak of civilization. I can quite well ask you this because you are an intelligent and an educated man, and then because you are always talking about this famous civilization.

Before the war I was an assistant in an industrial laboratory. It was a good enough little place; but I assure you, if I have the melancholy luck to come out of this catastrophe alive, I shall never enter it again. The open country! Some spot where I shall never hear the whirring of your aeroplanes or any of those machines of yours that used to amuse me once, when I knew nothing about anything, but that now fill me with horror, because they are the very soul of this war, the principle and reason of this war!

I hate the twentieth century, as I hate rotten Europe and the whole world on which this wretched Europe is spread out like a great spot of axle-grease. I know how ridiculous it is to flash out generalities like that; but, thunder! I don’t say these things to every one, and besides, you might as well be ridiculous in one way as in another! I tell you that I shall go to the mountains and arrange it so that I shall be as much alone as possible…

In the spring of this year I was at Soissons, with all the G.B.C. I suspect G.B.C. doesn’t mean much to you; but that’s another reason for quarreling with you about this civilization: it rebuilt the Tower of Babel, and soon men will have so debased their native tongue that they will have made a sort of telegraphic patois out of it, without savor and without beauty.

From Saturday on, the wounded began to arrive in groups of one hundred. And I began to pile them up methodically in the wards of the A.C.A.

The truth is, the work didn’t go well. My poor diseased stretcher-bearers did not pair off well, they stumbled like broken-kneed nags, and made the wounded scream. They would fish men out haphazard from the enormous pile waiting to be attended to, and the whole A. C. A. shuffled its feet with impatience, like a human flesh-factory that doesn’t receive its raw material and revolves on itself, empty.

I must explain to you what an A. C. A. is. In the slang of the war it’s an “autochir,” [Ambulance Chirurgicale Automobile] in other words, the most perfect thing in the line of an ambulance that has been invented. It’s the last word in science; it follows the armies with motors, steam-engines, microscopes, laboratories – the whole lock, stock, and barrel of a modern hospital. It’s the first great repair-shop the wounded man encounters after he leaves the workshop of trituration and destruction that operates at the front. Those parts of the military machine that are the worst destroyed are brought there. Skilful workmen fling themselves upon them, unwrap them at full speed, and examine them competently, for all the world as if with a hydro-pneumatic machine, a collimator. If the part is seriously out of order, they do what they can to set it right; if the human material is not absolutely worthless, they patch it up carefully, so as to get it back into service at the first opportunity. That is what they call “the conservation of the effective.”

As I have said, the A. C. A. was trembling like a machine that is going but has no material to work upon. My stretcher-bearers, with the clumsiness of drunken porters, would bring it a few wounded men, who were immediately digested and eliminated. Then the factory would continue to rumble like a Moloch whose appetite has merely been awakened by the first fumes of the sacrifice.

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Fatigue, the noise of the cannonade, the dazzling lights, the hum of industry about me, all contributed to give me a sort of lucid intoxication. I remained motionless, carried away in a turmoil of thoughts. All these things that surrounded me were made for a good purpose. It was civilization’s reply to itself, the correction it was giving to its own destructive eruptions; it took all this complexity to efface a little of the immense harm engendered by the age of the machines…

“The wounded man has gone off” some one murmured.

The surgeon approached the table. The wounded man was indeed unconscious, and I saw that it was the same one who had declared so energetically that he did not wish to be put to sleep. The poor man had not even dared to stammer out his protest. Caught in the mill-hopper, he had been immediately mastered and had abandoned himself to the appetite of the machine, like pig-iron swallowed up by the rolling-mill. And besides, didn’t he know that all this was for his own good, since good has been reduced to this pass?

The world seemed to me confused, incoherent and unhappy; and in my opinion it really is so.

Believe me, Monsieur, when I speak with pity of civilization I know what I’m talking about; and it’s not the wireless telegraph that can make me change my views. It’s all the sadder, because there’s nothing one can do about it: you can’t climb back up a slope like that down which the world is going to roll from now on. And yet!

Civilization! the true Civilization – I often think of it. It is like a choir of harmonious voices chanting a hymn in my heart, it is a marble statue on a barren hill, it is a man saying, “Love one another!” and “Return good for evil!” But for nearly two thousand years people have done nothing but repeat these things over and over, and the princes and the priests have far too many interests in the age as it is to conceive other things like them.

Men are mistaken about goodness and happiness. The most generous souls are mistaken also, for solitude and silence are too often denied them. I have taken a good look at the monstrous autoclave on its throne. I tell you truly, civilization is not in that object any more than it is in the shining pincers that the surgeons use. Civilization is not in all that terrible pack of trumpery wares; and if it is not in the heart of man, well! it’s nowhere.

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