Home > Uncategorized > Henri Barbusse: Pay for a glory which is not yours or for ruins that others have made with your hands

Henri Barbusse: Pay for a glory which is not yours or for ruins that others have made with your hands

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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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The primeval cataclysm has begun again upon the earth. My vision — beautiful as a fair dream which shows men’s composed reliance on each other in the sunrise — collapses in mad nightmare.

But this flashing devastation is not incoherent, as at the time of the conflict of the first elements and the groping of dead things. For its crevasses and flowing fires show a symmetry which is not Nature’s; it reveals discipline let loose, and the frenzy of wisdom. It is made up of thought, of will, of suffering. Multitudes of scattered men, full of an infinity of blood, confront each other like floods. A vision comes and pounces on me, shaking the soil on which I am doubtless laid — the marching flood. It approaches the ditch from all sides and is poured into it. The fire hisses and roars in that army as in water; it is extinguished in human fountains!

***

Nearer, one makes out the human shape of great drifts and hilly fields, many-colored and vaguely floral—the corpse of a section or of a company. Nearer still, I perceive at my feet the ugliness of skulls. Yes, I have seen them—wounds as big as men! In this new cess-pool, which fire dyes red by night and the multitude dyes red by day, crows are staggering, drunk.

***

I am wandering on the other side of the immense fields where the yellow puddles are strewn with black ones (for blood soils even mud), and with thickets of steel, and with trees which are no more than the shadows of themselves; I hear the skeleton of my jaws shiver and chatter. In the middle of the flayed and yawning cemetery of living and dead, moonlike in the night, there is a wide extent of leveled ruins. It was not a village that once was there, it was a hillside whose pale bones are like those of a village.

***

And I — I am seeking; it is a fever, a longing, a madness. I struggle, I would fain tear myself from the soil and take wing to the truth. I am seeking the difference between those people who are killing themselves, and I can only find their resemblance. I cannot escape from this resemblance of men. It terrifies me, and I try to cry out, and there come from me strange and chaotic sounds which echo into the unknown, which I almost hear!

They do not wear similar clothes on the targets of their bodies, and they speak different tongues; but from the bottom of that which is human within them, identically the same simplicities come forth. They have the same sorrows and the same angers, around the same causes. They are alike as their wounds are alike and will be alike. Their sayings are as similar as the cries that pain wrings from them, as alike as the awful silence that soon will breathe from their murdered lips. They only fight because they are face to face. Against each other, they are pursuing a common end. Dimly, they kill themselves because they are alike.

And by day and by night, these two halves of war continue to lie in wait for each other afar, to dig their graves at their feet, and I am helpless. They are separated by frontiers of gulfs, which bristle with weapons and explosive snares, impassable to life. They are separated by all that can separate, by dead men and still by dead men, and ever thrown back, each into its gasping islands, by black rivers and consecrated fires, by heroism and hatred.

And misery is endlessly begotten of the miserable.

There is no real reason for it all; there is no reason.

***

Soldier of the wide world, you, the man taken haphazard from among men, remember — there was not a moment when you were yourself. Never did you cease to be bowed under the harsh and answerless command, “It has to be, it has to be.” In times of peace encircled in the law of incessant labor, in the mechanical mill or the commercial mill, slave of the tool, of the pen, of your talent, or of some other thing, you were tracked without respite from morning to evening by the daily task which allowed you only just to overcome life, and to rest only in dreams.

When the war comes that you never wanted — whatever your country and your name — the terrible fate which grips you is sharply unmasked, offensive and complicated. The wind of condemnation has arisen.

They requisition your body. They lay hold on you with measures of menace which are like legal arrest, from which nothing that is poor and needy can escape. They imprison you in barracks. They strip you naked as a worm, and dress you again in a uniform which obliterates you; they mark your neck with a number. The uniform even enters into your flesh, for you are shaped and cut out by the stamping-machine of exercises. Brightly clad strangers spring up about you, and encircle you. You recognize them — they are not strangers. It is a carnival, then — but a fierce and final carnival, for these are your new masters, they the absolute, proclaiming on their fists and heads their gilded authority. Such of them as are near to you are themselves only the servants of others, who wear a greater power painted on their clothes. It is a life of misery, humiliation and diminution into which you fall from day to day, badly fed and badly treated, assailed throughout  your body, spurred on by your warders’ orders. At every moment you are thrown violently back into your littleness, you are punished for the least action which comes out of it, or slain by the order of your masters. It is forbidden you to speak when you would unite yourself with the brother who is touching you. The silence of steel reigns around you. Your thoughts must be only profound endurance. Discipline is indispensable for the multitude to be melted into a single army; and in spite of the vague kinship which is sometimes set up between you and your nearest chief, the machine-like order paralyzes you first, so that your body may be the better made to move in accordance with the rhythm of the rank and the regiment—into which, nullifying all that is yourself, you pass already as a sort of dead man.

“They gather us together but they separate us!” cries a voice from the past.

If there are some who escape through the meshes, it means that such “slackers” are also influential. They are uncommon, in spite of appearances, as the influential are. You, the isolated man, the ordinary man, the lowly thousand-millionth of humanity, you evade nothing, and you march right to the end of all that happens, or to the end of yourself.

You will be crushed. Either you will go into the charnel house, destroyed by those who are similar to you, since war is only made by you, or you will return to your point in the world, diminished or diseased, retaining only existence without health or joy, a home-exile after absences too long, impoverished forever by the time you have squandered. Even if selected by the miracle of chance, if unscathed in the hour of victory, you also, you will be vanquished. When you return into the insatiable machine of the work-hours, among your own people — whose misery the profiteers have meanwhile sucked dry with their passion for gain — the task will be harder than before, because of the war that must be paid for, with all its incalculable consequences. You who peopled the peace-time prisons of your towns and barns, begone to people the immobility of the battlefields — and if you survive, pay up! Pay for a glory which is not yours, or for ruins that others have made with your hands.

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