Home > Uncategorized > Roger Martin du Gard: War’s “serviceable lie” costs tens of thousands of lives

Roger Martin du Gard: War’s “serviceable lie” costs tens of thousands of lives

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Nobel prize in literature recipients on peace and war

French writers on war and peace

Roger Martin du Gard: Selections on war

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Roger Martin du Gard
From Epilogue to Les Thibault (1940)
Translated by Stuart Gilbert

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Antoine stepped into the car. Before joining him, Rumelles bought several evening papers at the bookstall.

“Eyewash!” Antoine muttered.

Before replying, Rumelles took care to close the sliding window behind the driver. “Of course it’s eyewash!” Rumelles retorted almost aggressively. “Don’t you realize it’s just as necessary to supply the country with its daily ration of optimistic news as to supply troops with ammunition?”

“Ah, yes,” Antoine murmured ironically. “I was forgetting you have the ‘cure of souls.'”

Rumelles tapped his friend’s knee reprovingly. “You may laugh, Thibault, but it’s a serious matter. Just think. What can a government do in wartime? Control the course of events? Impossible, as you know. But public opinion’s another matter. That, anyhow, the government can control; in fact, it’s the one and only thing it can control. Well, here’s where we come in. Our principal task is – how shall I put it? – this adjustment of the facts before they reach the public. We have to see that the news is such as to reinforce the public confidence in victory. And it’s equally important to safeguard day by day the trust the nation has come to repose in its leaders, military and civil.”

“By fair means or foul, it’s all the same?”

Rumelle’s only answer was a slight shrug of his shoulders.

After crawling down the dimly lit Boulevard Saint-Germain and the Rue de l’Université, the car pulled up at Antoine’s door. The two men stepped out. Rumelles was still speaking. “For instance, there was the week of Nivelle’s offensive in April 1917.” The febrile eagerness Antoine had noticed before had again crept into his voice, and, grasping Antoine’s arm, he drew him out of the driver’s earshot. “You can’t imagine what it was like for us, who followed each stage of it hour by hour and saw blunder heaped on blunder and each night reckoned up our losses. Thirty-four thousand killed and over eighty-thousand wounded in four or five days. Followed by a mutiny of the regiments concerned – what was left of them! But there could be no question of admitting the facts or doing justice; at all costs the mutiny had to be suppressed before it spread to other regiments. It was a matter of life and death for the nation. So we had to bolster up the General Staff, camouflage their blunders, save their face. Worse still, with our eyes open to the folly of it, we had to carry on, resume the offensive, throw more divisions into the shambles and sacrifice twenty or twenty-five thousand men more at Chemin-des-Dames and Laffaux.”

“But why?”

“To score a small success, however trifling, upon which we could graft the ‘serviceable lie.’ And to restore confidence, which had been badly shaken everywhere. And at last we had a stroke of luck in the Craonne attack. We magnified it into a splendid victory. We were saved! Ten days later the government ousted the generals responsible and put Pétain in command.”

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