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Henri Barbusse: The enemy is militarism and no other

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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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If, from the idea of motherland, you take away covetousness, hatred, envy and vainglory; if you take away from it the desire for predominance by violence, what is there left of it?

It is not an individual unity of laws; for just laws have no colors. It is not a solidarity of interests, for there are no material national interests—or they are not honest. It is not a unity of race; for the map of the countries is not the map of the races. What is there left?

***

But I do not know what will become of us. All the blood poured out, all the words poured out, to impose a sham ideal on our bodies and souls, will they suffice for a long time yet to separate and isolate humanity in absurdity made real? History is a Bible of errors. I have not only seen blessings falling from on high on all which supported evil, and curses on all which could heal it; I have seen, here below, the keepers of the moral law hunted and derided, from little Termite, lost like a rat in unfolding battle, back to Jesus Christ.

***

Excitement grows around that bayonet. The young girl, who is beautiful and expansive, cannot tear herself away from it. At last she touches it with her finger, and shudders. She does not disguise her pleasant emotion:—

“I confess I’m a patriot! I’m more than that — I’m a patriot and a militarist!”

All heads around her are nodded in approval. That kind of talk never seems intemperate, for it touches on sacred things.

And I, I see — in the night which falls for a moment, amid the tempest of dying men which is subsiding on the ground — I see a monster in the form of a man and in the form of a vulture, who, with the death-rattle in his throat, holds towards that young girl the horrible head that is scalped with a coronet, and says to her: “You do not know me, and you do not know, but you are like me!”

The young girl’s living laugh, as she goes off with a young officer, recalls me to events.

All those who come after each other to the bayonet speak in the same way, and have the same proud eyes.

***

When you see that fever, that spectacle of intoxication, these people who seize the slightest chance to glorify their country’s physical force and the hardness of its fists, you hear echoing the words of the orators and the official politicians:

“There is only in our hearts the condemnation of barbarism and the love of humanity.”

And you ask yourself if there is a single public opinion in the world which is capable of bearing victory with dignity.

I stand aloof. I am a blot, like a bad prophet. I hear this declaration, which bows me like an infernal burden: It is only defeat which can open millions of eyes!

***

But they who govern Thought take unfair advantage of that agreement, for they know well that when the simple folk have said, “German militarism,” they have said all. They stop there. They amalgamate the two words and confuse militarism with Germany — once Germany is thrown down there’s no more to say. In that way, they attach lies to truth, and prevent us from seeing that militarism is in reality everywhere, more or less hypocritical and unconscious, but ready to seize everything if it can. They force opinion to add, “It is a crime to think of anything but beating the German enemy.” But the right-minded man must answer that it is a crime to think only of that, for the enemy is militarism, and not Germany. I know; I will no longer let myself be caught by words which they hide one behind another.

***

The visitors have gone away. I linger to look at the beflagged front of the War Museum, while night is falling. It is the Temple. It is joined to the Church, and resembles it. My thoughts go to those crosses which weigh down, from the pinnacles of churches, the heads of the living, join their two hands together, and close their eyes; those crosses which squat upon the graves in the cemeteries at the front. It is because of all these temples that in the future the sleep-walking nations will begin again to go through the immense and mournful tragedy of obedience. It is because of these temples that financial and industrial tyranny, Imperial and Royal tyranny — of which all they whom I meet on my way are the accomplices or the puppets — will to-morrow begin again to wax fat on the fanaticism of the civilian, on the weariness of those who have come back, on the silence of the dead. (When the armies file through the Arc de Triomphe, who is there who will see — and yet they will be plainly visible — that six thousand miles of French coffins are also passing through!) And the flag will continue to float over its prey, that flag stuck into the shadowy front of the War Museum, that flag so twisted by the wind’s breath that sometimes it takes the shape of a cross, and sometimes of a scythe!

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