Home > Uncategorized > Henri Barbusse: Soldier’s glory is a lie, like every other fine-looking thing in war

Henri Barbusse: Soldier’s glory is a lie, like every other fine-looking thing in war

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

Henri Barbusse: Selections on war

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

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They will say to you,” growled a kneeling man who stooped with his two bands in the earth and shook his shoulders like a mastiff, ‘My friend, you have been a wonderful hero!’ I don’t want them to say it!

“Heroes? Some sort of extraordinary being? Idols? Rot! We’ve been murderers. We have respectably followed the trade of hangmen. We shall do it again with all our might, because it’s of great importance to follow that trade, so as to punish war and smother it. The act of slaughter is always ignoble; sometimes necessary, but always ignoble. Yes, hard and persistent murderers, that’s what we’ve been. But don’t talk to me about military virtue because I’ve killed Germans.”

“Nor to me,” cried another in so loud a voice that no one could have replied to him even had he dared; “nor to me, because I’ve saved the lives of Frenchmen! Why, we might as well set fire to houses for the sake of the excellence of life-saving!”

“It would be a crime to exhibit the fine side of war, even if there were one!” murmured one of the somber soldiers.

The first man continued. “They’ll say those things to us by way of paying us with glory, and to pay themselves, too, for what they haven’t done. But military glory – it isn’t even true for us common soldiers. It’s for some, but outside those elect the soldier’s glory is a lie, like every other fine-looking thing in war. In reality, the soldier’s sacrifice is obscurely concealed. The multitudes that make up the waves of attack have no reward. They run to hurl themselves into a frightful inglorious nothing. You cannot even heap up their names, their poor little names of nobodies.”

“To hell with it all,” replies a man, “we’ve got other things to think about.”

“But all that,” hiccupped a face which the mud concealed like a hideous hand, “may you even say it? You’d be cursed, and ‘shot at dawn’! They’ve made around a Marshal’s plumes a religion as bad and stupid and malignant as the other!”

The man raised himself, fell down, and rose again. The wound that he had under his armor of filth was staining the ground, and when he had spoken, his wide-open eyes looked down at all the blood he had given for the healing of the world.

* * *

The others, one by one, straighten themselves. The storm is falling more heavily on the expanse of flayed and martyred fields. The day is full of night. It is as if new enemy shapes of men and groups of men are rising unceasingly on the crest of the mountain-chain of clouds, round about the barbaric outlines of crosses, eagles, churches, royal and military palaces and temples. They seem to multiply there, shutting out the stars that are fewer than mankind; it seems even as if these apparitions are moving in all directions in the excavated ground, here, there, among the real beings who are thrown there at random, half buried in the earth like grains of corn.

My still living companions have at last got up. Standing with difficulty on the foundered soil, enclosed in their bemired garb, laid out in strange upright coffins of mud, raising their huge simplicity out of the earth’s depths – a profundity like that of ignorance – they move and cry out, with their gaze, their arms and their fists extended towards the sky whence fall daylight and storm. They are struggling against victorious specters, like the Cyranos and Don Quixotes that they still are.

One sees their shadows stirring on the shining sad expanse of the plain, and reflected in the pallid stagnant surface of the old trenches, which now only the infinite void of space inhabits and purifies, in the center of a polar desert whose horizons fume.

But their eyes are opened. They are beginning to make out the boundless simplicity of things. And Truth not only invests them with a dawn of hope, but raises on it a renewal of strength and courage.

“That’s enough talk about those others!” one of the men commanded; “all the worse for them! – Us! Us all!” The understanding between democracies, the entente among the multitudes, the uplifting of the people of the world, the bluntly simple faith! All the rest, aye, all the rest, in the past, the present and the future, matters nothing at all.

And a soldier ventures to add this sentence, though he begins it with lowered voice, “If the present war has advanced progress by one step, its miseries and slaughter will count for little.”

And while we get ready to rejoin the others and begin war again, the dark and storm-choked sky slowly opens above our heads. Between two masses of gloomy cloud a tranquil gleam emerges; and that line of light, so blackedged and beset, brings even so its proof that the sun is there.

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