Home > Uncategorized > Henri Barbusse: Flags and swords, instruments of the cult of human sacrifice

Henri Barbusse: Flags and swords, instruments of the cult of human sacrifice

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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

2139822-M

The valley has suddenly filled with tumult. On the road which goes along the opposite slope a regiment is passing on its way to the barracks, a new regiment, with its colors. The flag goes on its way in the middle of a long-drawn hurly-burly, in vague shouting, in plumes of dust and a sparkling mist of battle.

We have both mechanically risen on the edge of the road. At the moment when the flag passes before us, the habit of saluting it trembles in my arms. But, just as when a while ago the bishop’s lifted hand did not humble me, I stay motionless, and I do not salute.

No, I do not bow in presence of the flag. It frightens me, I hate it and I accuse it. No, there is no beauty in it; it is not the emblem of this corner of my native land, whose fair picture it disturbs with its savage stripes. It is the screaming signboard of the glory of blows, of militarism and war. It unfurls over the living surges of humanity a sign of supremacy and command; it is a weapon. It is not the love of our countries, it is their sharp-edged difference, proud and aggressive, which we placard in the face of the others. It is the gaudy eagle which conquerors and their devotees see flying in their dreams from steeple to steeple in foreign lands. The sacred defense of the homeland — well and good. But if there was no offensive war there would be defensive war. Defensive war has the same infamous cause as the offensive war which provoked it; why do we not confess it? We persist, through blindness or duplicity, in cutting the question in two, as if it were too great. All fallacies are possible when one speculates on morsels of truth. But Earth only bears one single sort of inhabitant.

It is not enough to put something on the end of a stick in public places, to shake it on the tops of buildings and in the faces of public assemblies, and say, “It is decided that this is the loftiest of all symbols; it is decided that he who will not bend the knee before it shall be accursed.” It is the duty of human intelligence to examine if that symbolism is not fetish-worship.

As for me, I remember it was said that logic has terrible chains and that all hold together — the throne, the altar, the sword and the flag. And I have read, in the unchaining and the chaining-up of war, that these are the instruments of the cult of human sacrifices.

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The idea of motherland is not a false idea, but it is a little idea, and one which must remain little.

There is only one common good. There is only one moral duty, only one truth, and every man is the shining recipient and guardian of it. The present understanding of the idea of motherland divides all these great ideas, cuts them into pieces, specializes them within impenetrable circles. We meet as many national truths as we do nations, and as many national duties, and as many national interests and rights — and they are antagonistic to each other. Each country is separated from the next by such walls — moral frontiers, material frontiers, commercial frontiers — that you are imprisoned when you find yourself on either side of them. We hear talk of sanctified selfishness, of the adorable expansion of one race across the others, of noble hatreds and glorious conquests, and we see these ideals trying to take shape on all hands. This capricious multiplication of what ought to remain one leads the whole of civilization into a malignant and thorough absurdity. The words “justice” and “right” are too great in stature to be shut up in proper nouns, any more than Providence can be, which every royalty would fain take to itself.

National aspirations — confessed or unconfessable — are contradictory among themselves. All populations which are narrowly confined and elbow each other in the world are full of dreams vaster than each of them. The nations’ territorial ambitions overlap each other on the map of the universe; economic and financial ambitions cancel each other mathematically. Then in the mass they are unrealizable.

And since there is no sort of higher control over this scuffle of truths which are not admissible, each nation realizes its own by all possible means, by all the fidelity and anger and brute force she can get out of herself. By the help of this state of world-wide anarchy, the lazy and slight distinction between patriotism, imperialism and militarism is violated, trampled, and broken through all along the line, and it cannot be otherwise. The living universe cannot help becoming an organization of armed rivalry. And there cannot fail to result from it the everlasting succession of evils, without any hope of abiding spoils, for there is no instance of conquerors who have long enjoyed immunity, and history reveals a sort of balance of injustices and of the fatal alternation of predominance. In all quarters the hope of victory brings in the hope of war. It is conflict clinging to conflict, and the recurrent murdering of murders.

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