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Anatole France: Military service the most terrible pest of civilised nations


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

Anatole France: Selections on war


Anatole France
From The Opinions of Jerome Coignard (1893)
Translated by Mrs. Wilfred Jackson


“What would it be if the heart and thought of a Caesar dwelt in my head and my breast? My desires would recognise no sex and I should be untouched by pity. I should light the fire of inextinguishable war at home and abroad.”


“I would not change my existence for that of the great Caesar. It would cost my innocence too much. And I would rather be an obscure man, poor and despised, as indeed I am, than rise to the height whence new destinies are opened to the world through paths of blood.

“This recruiting-sergeant, whom you can hear from here promising these vagabonds a halfpenny a day, with bread and meat, fills me, my son, with profound reflections on war and armies. I have worked at all trades save that of a soldier, which has always filled me with disgust and terror, by the characteristics of servitude, false glory, and cruelty, attached to it, which are in direct opposition to my peaceful temper, to my wild love of freedom, and to my turn of mind, which, judging sanely of glory, estimates at its rightful worth that attainable by a musketeer. I am not speaking at all of my incorrigible leaning to meditation which would have been exceedingly thwarted by sword and gun exercise…And I own to you, my son, that military service seems to me to be the most terrible pest of civilised nations.

“This is the opinion of a philosopher. There is nothing to show that it will ever be shared by a large number of people. And in actual fact, kings and republics will always find as many soldiers as they want for their parades and their wars…”


“And beyond some rare exceptions, of which I am one, man may be defined as an animal with a musket. Give him a fine uniform with the hope of fighting, and he will be happy. Also, we make the military calling the noblest, which is true, in a sense, for it is the oldest calling, and the earliest of mankind made war. The military calling, moreover, has this appropriateness to human nature, that it never thinks, and clearly we are not made for thought.”


“Soldiers live in company, and man is a sociable animal. They wear blue-and-white, blue-and-red, or grey-and-blue coats, ribbons, plumes, and cockades, which give them the same advantage over women as the cock over the hen. They march to war and pillage and man is naturally thievish, libidinous, destructive, and easily touched by glory. The love of glory decides us Frenchmen, above all, to take up arms. And it is certain, that in public opinion, military glory eclipses all…”


“And what, in fact, is this military nobility flaunted with so much pride over us, if not the debased legacy of those unfortunate hunters of the woods whom the poet Lucretius has depicted in such a way that one does not know if they be men or beasts? It is wonderful, Tournebroche, my son, that war and the chase, of which the thought alone should overwhelm us with shame and remorse when we recall the wretched needs of our nature and our inveterate wickedness, serve on the contrary, as matter for vain-glory to men, that Christian peoples should continue to honour the profession of butcher and executioner, when it is of old standing in families, and that finally one estimates among refined people the celebrity of citizens by the quantity of murders and carnage that they bear, so to speak, in their veins.”

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