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Anatole France: In civilised nations the glory of massacre is the greatest glory known


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

Anatole France: Selections on war


Anatole France
From The Wicker-Work Woman (1897)
Translated by M.P. Willcocks


“It is true,” said M. Bergeret, “that men consider it the primary social duty to learn to kill their fellows according to rule, and that, in civilised nations, the glory of massacre is the greatest glory known…”


“Remains of barbarism,” said M. Bergeret, “still persist in modern civilisation. Our code of military justice, for instance, will make our memory hateful in the eyes of the near future. That code was framed to deal with the bands of armed brigands who ravaged Europe in the eighteenth century. It was perpetuated by the Republic of ’92 and reduced to a system during the first half of this century. When a nation had taken the place of an army, they forgot to change the code, for one cannot think of everything. Those brutal laws which were framed in the first place to curb a savage soldiery are now used to govern scared young peasants, or the children of our towns, who could easily be led by kindness. And that is considered a natural proceeding!”

“I don’t follow you,*’ said M. de Terremondre. “Our military code, prepared, I believe, at the Restoration, only dates from the Second Empire. About 1875 it was revised and made to suit the new organisation of the army. You cannot, therefore, say that it was framed for the armies of former times.”

“I can with truth,” answered M. Bergeret, “for this code is nothing more than a mere collection of orders respecting the armies of Louis XIV and Louis XV. Everyone knows what these armies were, a conglomeration of kidnappers and kidnapped, the scourings of the country, divided into lots which were bought by the young nobles, often mere children. In such regiments discipline was maintained by perpetual threats of death. But everything is now changed : the soldiery of the monarchy and the two Empires has given place to a vast and peaceful national guard. There is no longer any fear of mutiny or violence. Nevertheless, death at every turn still threatens these gentle flocks of peasants and artisans clumsily disguised as soldiers. The contrast between their harmless conduct and the savage laws in force against them is almost laughable. And a moment’s reflection would prove that it is as absurd as it is hateful to punish with death crimes which could easily be dealt with by the simple penal code devised for the maintenance of public order.”

“But,” said M. de Terremondre, “the soldiers of to-day are armed as were the soldiers of former ages, and it is quite necessary that a small, unarmed body of officers should be able to ensure obedience and respect from a mob of men armed with muskets and cartridges. That’s the gist of the whole matter.”

“It is an ancient prejudice,” said M. Bergeret, “to believe in the necessity of punishment and to fancy that the severer the punishment the more efficacious it is. The death penalty for assaulting a superior officer is a survival of the time when the officers were not of the same blood as the soldiers. These penalties were still retained in the republican armies. Brindamour, who became a general in 1792, employed the customs of bygone days in the service of the Revolution and shot volunteers.”


“If,” answered M. Bergeret, “you had only seen a batch of raw recruits filing into the barrack yard, you would no longer think it necessary to be for ever hurling threats of death at these sheep-like creatures in order to maintain discipline among them. They are thinking of nothing but of how to get through their three years, as they put it, and Sergeant Bridoux would be touched even to tears by their pitiful docility, were it not that he thirsts to terrify them in order that he may enjoy his own sense of power. It is not that Sergeant Bridoux was born with a more callous heart than anyone else. But he is doubly perverted, both as slave and tyrant, and if Marcus Aurelius had been a non-commissioned officer I would not go so far as to promise that he would never have tyrannised over his men. However that may be, this tyranny suffices to produce that submission tempered by deceit that is the soldier’s most useful virtue in time of peace.

“It is high time that our military codes of law, with their paraphernalia of death, should be seen no more, save in the chamber of horrors, by the side of the keys of the Bastille and the thumb screws of the Inquisition.”

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