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Henri Barbusse: “War must be killed; war itself”

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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

237 - HENRI BARBUSSE, LES HOMMES VERITABLES_Photos_237-Henri_Barbusse-5

“The Jingoes – they’re vermin,” growled a shadow.

Several times they repeated, as though feeling their way, “War must be killed; war itself.”

“That’s all silly talk. What diff does it make whether you think this or that? We’ve got to be winners, that’s all.”

But the others had begun to cast about. They wanted to know and to see farther than to-day. They throbbed with the effort to beget in themselves some light of wisdom and of will. Some sparse convictions whirled in their minds, and jumbled scraps of creeds issued from their lips.

“Of course – yes – but we must look at facts – you’ve got to think about the object, old chap.”

“The object? To be winners in this war,” the pillar-man insisted, “isn’t that an object?”

Two there were who replied together, “No!”

***

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.”

***

A still more violent blast of wind shut our eyes and choked us. When it had passed, and we saw the volley take flight across the plain, seizing and shaking its muddy plunder and furrowing the water in the long gaping trenches – long as the grave of an army – we began again.

“After all, what is it that makes the mass and the horror of war?”

“It’s the mass of the people.”

“But the people – that’s us!”

He who had said it looked at me inquiringly.

“Yes,” I said to him, “yes, old boy, that’s true! It’s with us only that they make battles. It is we who are the material of war. War is made up of the flesh and the souls of common soldiers only. It is we who make the plains of dead and the rivers of blood, all of us, and each of us is invisible and silent because of the immensity of our numbers. The emptied towns and the villages destroyed, they are a wilderness of our making. Yes, war is all of us, and all of us together.”

“Yes, that’s true. It’s the people who are war; without them, there would be nothing, nothing but some wrangling, a long way off. But it isn’t they who decide on it; it’s the masters who steer them.”

***

“We shall say to ourselves,” says one, “‘After all, why do we make war?’ We don’t know at all why, but we can say who we make it for. We shall be forced to see that if every nation every day brings the fresh bodies of fifteen hundred young men to the God of War to be lacerated, it’s for the pleasure of a few ringleaders that we could easily count; that if whole nations go to slaughter marshaled in armies in order that the gold-striped caste may write their princely names in history, so that other gilded people of the same rank can contrive more business, and expand in the way of employees and shops – and we shall see, as soon as we open our eyes, that the divisions between mankind are not what we thought, and those one did believe in are not divisions.”

***

Ah, you are right, poor countless workmen of the battles, you who have made with your bands all of the Great War, you whose omnipotence is not yet used for well-doing, you human host whose every face is a world of sorrows, you who dream bowed under the yoke of a thought beneath that sky where long black clouds rend themselves and expand in disheveled lengths like evil angels – yes, you are right. There are all those things against you. Against you and your great common interests which as you dimly saw are the same thing in effect as justice, there are not only the sword-wavers, the profiteers, and the intriguers.

There is not only the prodigious opposition of interested parties – financiers, speculators great and small, armor-plated in their banks and houses, who live on war and live in peace during war, with their brows stubbornly set upon a secret doctrine and their faces shut up like safes.

There are those who admire the exchange of flashing blows, who hail like women the bright colors of uniforms; those whom military music and the martial ballads poured upon the public intoxicate as with brandy; the dizzy-brained, the feeble-minded, the superstitious, the savages.

***

And even while they are saying that they do not wish for war they are doing all they can to perpetuate it. They nourish national vanity and the love of supremacy by force. “We alone,” they say, each behind his shelter, “we alone are the guardians of courage and loyalty, of ability and good taste!” Out of the greatness and richness of a country they make something like a consuming disease. Out of patriotism – which can be respected as long as it remains in the domain of sentiment and art on exactly the same footing as the sense of family and local pride, all equally sacred – out of patriotism they make a Utopian and impracticable idea, unbalancing the world, a sort of cancer which drains all the living force, spreads everywhere and crushes life, a contagious cancer which culminates either in the crash of war or in the exhaustion and suffocation of armed peace.

They pervert the most admirable of moral principles. How many are the crimes of which they have made virtues merely by dowering them with the word “national”? They distort even truth itself. For the truth which is eternally the same they substitute each their national truth. So many nations, so many truths; and thus they falsify and twist the truth.

Those are your enemies. All those people whose childish and odiously ridiculous disputes you hear snarling above you – “It wasn’t me that began, it was you!” – “No, it wasn’t me, it was you!” – “Hit me then!” – “No, you hit me!” – those puerilities that perpetuate the world’s huge wound, for the disputants are not the people truly concerned, but quite the contrary, nor do they desire to have done with it; all those people who cannot or will not make peace on earth; all those who for one reason or another cling to the ancient state of things and find or invent excuses for it – they are your enemies!

They are your enemies as much as those German soldiers are to-day who are prostrate here between you in the mud, who are only poor dupes hatefully deceived and brutalized, domestic beasts. They are your enemies, wherever they were born, however they pronounce their names, whatever the language in which they lie. Look at them, in the heaven and on the earth. Look at them, everywhere! Identify them once for all, and be mindful for ever!

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