Henri Barbusse: Murder enters as invisibly as death itself. Industry multiplies its magic.
From Light (1918)
Translated by Fitzwater Wray
I am borne away in one of the aeroplanes whose multitude darkens the light of day as flights of arrows do in children’s story-books, forming a vaulted army. They are a fleet which can disembark a million men and their supplies anywhere at any moment. It is only a few years since we heard the puling cry of the first aeroplanes, and now their voice drowns all others. Their development has only normally proceeded, yet they alone suffice to make the territorial safeguards demanded by the deranged of former generations appear at last to all people as comical jests. Swept along by the engine’s formidable weight, a thousand times more powerful than it is heavy, tossing in space and filling my fibers with its roar, I see the dwindling mounds where the huge tubes stick up like swarming pins. I am carried along at a height of two thousand yards. An air-pocket has seized me in a corridor of cloud, and I have fallen like a stone a thousand yards lower, garrotted by furious air which is cold as a blade, and filled by a plunging cry. I have seen conflagrations and the explosions of mines, and plumes of smoke which flow disordered and spin out in long black zigzags like the locks of the God of War! I have seen the concentric circles by which the stippled multitude is ever renewed. The dugouts, lined with lifts, descend in oblique parallels into the depths. One frightful night I saw the enemy flood it all with an inexhaustible torrent of liquid fire. I had a vision of that black and rocky valley filled to the brim with the lava-stream which dazzled the sight and sent a dreadful terrestrial dawn into the whole of night. With its heart aflame Earth seemed to become transparent as glass along that crevasse; and amid the lake of fire heaps of living beings floated on some raft, and writhed like the spirits of damnation. The other men fled upwards, and piled themselves in clusters on the straight-lined borders of the valley of filth and tears. I saw those swarming shadows huddled on the upper brink of the long armored chasms which the explosions set trembling like steamships.
All chemistry makes flaming fireworks in the sky or spreads in sheets of poison exactly as huge as the huge towns. Against them no wall avails, no secret armor; and murder enters as invisibly as death itself. Industry multiplies its magic. Electricity lets loose its lightnings and thunders — and that miraculous mastery which hurls power like a projectile.
Who can say if this enormous might of electricity alone will not change the face of war? — the centralized cluster of waves, the irresistible orbs going infinitely forth to fire and destroy all explosives, lifting the rooted armor of the earth, choking the subterranean gulfs with heaps of calcined men — who will be burned up like barren coal — and maybe even arousing the earthquakes, and tearing the central fires from earth’s depths like ore!
That will be seen by people who are alive to-day; and yet that vision of the future so near at hand is only a slight magnification, flitting through the brain. It terrifies one to think for how short a time science has been methodical and of useful industry; and after all, is there anything on earth more marvelously easy than destruction? Who knows the new mediums it has laid in store? Who knows the limit of cruelty to which the art of poisoning may go? Who knows if they will not subject and impress epidemic disease as they do the living armies — or that it will not emerge, meticulous, invincible, from the armies of the dead? Who knows by what dread means they will sink in oblivion this war, which only struck to the ground twenty thousand men a day, which has invented guns of only seventy-five miles’ range, bombs of only one ton’s weight, aeroplanes of only a hundred and fifty miles an hour, tanks, and submarines which cross the Atlantic? Their costs have not yet reached in any country the sum total of private fortunes.
But the upheavals we catch sight of, though we can only and hardly indicate them in figures, will be too much for life. The desperate and furious disappearance of soldiers will have a limit. We may no longer be able to count; but Fate will count. Some day the men will be killed, and the women and children. And they also will disappear — they who stand erect upon the ignominious death of the soldiers — they will disappear along with the huge and palpitating pedestal in which they were rooted. But they profit by the present, they believe it will last as long as they, and as they follow each other they say, “After us, the deluge.” Some day all war will cease for want of fighters.
The spectacle of to-morrow is one of agony. Wise men make laughable efforts to determine what may be, in the ages to come, the cause of the inhabited world’s end. Will it be a comet, the rarefaction of water, or the extinction of the sun, that will destroy mankind? They have forgotten the likeliest and nearest cause — Suicide.
They who say, “There will always be war,” do not know what they are saying. They are preyed upon by the common internal malady of shortsight. They think themselves full of common-sense as they think themselves full of honesty. In reality, they are revealing the clumsy and limited mentality of the assassins themselves.
The shapeless struggle of the elements will begin again on the seared earth when men have slain themselves because they were slaves, because they believed the same things, because they were alike.
I utter a cry of despair and it seems as if I had turned over and stifled it in a pillow.