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Henri Barbusse: War, as hideous morally as physically


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

Henri Barbusse: Selections on war


Henri Barbusse
From Under Fire (1916)
Translated by Fitzwater Wray


“Then neither the other side nor us’ll remember! So much misery all wasted!”

This point of view added to the abasement of these beings on the shore of the flood, like news of a greater disaster, and humiliated them still more.

“Ah, if one did remember!” cried some one.

“If we remembered,” said another, “there wouldn’t be any more war.”

A third added grandly, “Yes, if we remembered, war would be less useless than it is.”

But suddenly one of the prone survivors rose to his knees, dark as a great bat ensnared, and as the mud dripped from his waving arms he cried in a hollow voice, “There must be no more war after this!”

In that miry corner where, still feeble unto impotence, we were beset by blasts of wind which laid hold on us with such rude strength that the very ground seemed to sway like sea-drift, the cry of the man who looked as if he were trying to fly away evoked other like cries: “There must be no more war after this!”

The sullen or furious exclamations of these men fettered to the earth, incarnate of earth, arose and slid away on the wind like beating wings—

“No more war! No more war! Enough of it!”

“It’s too stupid — it’s too stupid,” they mumbled.

“What does it mean, at the bottom of it, all this? — all this that you can’t even give a name to?”

They snarled and growled like wild beasts on that sort of ice-floe contended for by the elements, in their dismal disguise of ragged mud. So huge was the protest thus rousing them in revolt that it choked them.

“We’re made to live, not to be done in like this!”

“Men are made to be husbands, fathers — men, what the devil! — not beasts that hunt each other and cut each other’s throats and make themselves stink like all that.”

“And yet, everywhere — everywhere — there are beasts, savage beasts or smashed beasts. Look, look!”

I shall never forget the look of those limitless lands wherefrom the water had corroded all color and form, whose contours crumbled on all sides under the assault of the liquid putrescence that flowed across the broken bones of stakes and wire and framing; nor, rising above those things amid the sullen Stygian immensity, can I ever forget the vision of the thrill of reason, logic and simplicity that suddenly shook these men like a fit of madness.

I could see them agitated by this idea — that to try to live one’s life on earth and to be happy is not only a right but a duty, and even an ideal and a virtue; that the only end of social life is to make easy the inner life of every one.

“To live!” — “All of us!” — “You!” — “Me!”

“No more war — ah, no! — it’s too stupid — worse than that, it’s too —”

For a finishing echo to their half-formed thought a saying came to the mangled and miscarried murmur of the mob from a filth-crowned face that I saw arise from the level of the earth — “Two armies fighting each other — that’s like one great army committing suicide!”

“And likewise, what have we been for two years now? Incredibly pitiful wretches, and savages as well, brutes, robbers, and dirty devils.”

“Worse than that!” mutters he whose only phrase it is.

“Yes, I admit it!”

In their troubled truce of the morning, these men whom fatigue had tormented, whom rain had scourged, whom night-long lightning had convulsed, these survivors of volcanoes and flood began not only to see dimly how war, as hideous morally as physically, outrages common sense, debases noble ideas and dictates all kind of crime, but they remembered how it had enlarged in them and about them every evil instinct save none, mischief developed into lustful cruelty, selfishness into ferocity, the hunger for enjoyment into a mania.

They are picturing all this before their eyes as just now they confusedly pictured their misery. They are crammed with a curse which strives to find a way out and to come to light in words, a curse which makes them to groan and wail. It is as if they toiled to emerge from the delusion and ignorance which soil them as the mud soils them; as if they will at last know why they are scourged.

“Well then?” clamors one.

“Ay, what then?” the other repeats, still more grandly. The wind sets the flooded flats a-tremble to our eyes, and falling furiously on the human masses lying or kneeling and fixed like flagstones and grave-slabs, it wrings new shivering from them.

“There will be no more war,” growls a soldier, “when there is no more Germany.”

“That’s not the right thing to say!” cries another. “It isn’t enough. There’ll be no more war when the spirit of war is defeated.” The roaring of the wind half smothered his words, so he lifted his head and repeated them.

“Germany and militarism” — some one in his anger precipitately cut in — “they’re the same thing. They wanted the war and they’d planned it beforehand. They are militarism.”

“Militarism — ” a soldier began again.

“What is it?” some one asked.

“It’s — it’s brute force that’s ready prepared, and that lets fly suddenly, any minute.”

“Yes. To-day militarism is called Germany.”

“Yes, but what will it be called to-morrow?”

“I don’t know,” said a voice serious as a prophet’s.

“If the spirit of war isn’t killed, you’ll have struggle all through the ages.”

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