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Henri Barbusse: Blood-stained priest of the God of 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 Light (1918)
Translated by Fitzwater Wray

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An inexorable religion has fallen from them upon us all, upholding what exists, preserving what is.

Suddenly I hear beside me, as if I were in a file of the executed, a stammering death-agony; and I think I see him who struggled like a stricken vulture, on the earth that was bloated with dead. And his words enter my heart more distinctly than when they were still alive; and they wound me like blows at once of darkness and of light.

“Men must not open their eyes!”

“Faith comes at will, like the rest!” said Adjutant Marcassin, as he fluttered in his red trousers about the ranks, like a blood-stained priest of the God of War.

He was right! He had grasped the chains of bondage when he hurled that true cry against the truth. Every man is something of account, but ignorance isolates and resignation scatters. Every poor man carries within him centuries of indifference and servility. He is a defenseless prey for hatred and dazzlement.

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And the great voices, the poets, the singers — what have the great voices said? They have sung the praises of the victor’s laurels without knowing what they are. You, old Homer, bard of the lisping tribes of the coasts, with your serene and venerable face sculptured in the likeness of your great childlike genius, with your three times millennial lyre and your empty eyes — you who led us to Poetry! And you, herd of poets enslaved, who did not understand, who lived before you could understand, in an age when great men were only the domestics of great lords — and you, too, servants of the resounding and opulent pride of to-day, eloquent flatterers and magnificent dunces, you unwitting enemies of mankind! You have all sung the laurel wreath without knowing what it is.

There are dazzlings, and solemnities and ceremonies, to amuse and excite the common people, to dim their sight with bright colors, with the glitter of the badges and stars that are crumbs of royalty, to inflame them with the jingle of bayonets and medals, with trumpets and trombones and the big drum, and to inspire the demon of war in the excitable feelings of women and the inflammable credulity of the young. I see the triumphal arches, the military displays in the vast amphitheaters of public places, and the march past of those who go to die, who walk in step to hell by reason of their strength and youth, and the hurrahs for war, and the real pride which the lowly feel in bending the knee before their masters and saying, as their cavalcade tops the hill, “It’s fine! They might be galloping over us!” “It’s magnificent, how warlike we are!” says the woman, always dazzled, as she convulsively squeezes the arm of him who is going away.

And another kind of excitement takes form and seizes me by the throat in the pestilential pits of hell — “They’re on fire, they’re on fire!” stammers that soldier, breathless as his empty rifle, as the flood of the exalted German divisions advances, linked elbow to elbow under a godlike halo of ether, to drown the deeps with their single lives.

Ah, the intemperate shapes and unities that float in morsels above the peopled precipices! When two overlords, jewel-set with glittering General Staffs, proclaim at the same time on either side of their throbbing mobilized frontiers, “We will save our country!” there is one immensity deceived and two victimized. There are two deceived immensities!

There is nothing else. That these cries can be uttered together in the face of heaven, in the face of truth, proves at a stroke the monstrosity of the laws which rule us, and the madness of the gods.

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