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Henri Barbusse: The world has come to the end of its strength: it is vanquished by wars

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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 Chains (1924)
Translated by Stephen Haden Guest

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There we found a pyramid built in tiers and in the earth long skulls engraved with polished stone instruments. There we encountered natives and narrow heads and we asked them: “What has there been here?” and they answered us: “War and blood. And over there, whence you come, what has there been there?” We answered: “War and blood.” In the other half of the world we found war as we found evening.

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They have stopped shouting, they are talking very low, like the pulse of my blood. What are they preparing? I know not. The words that gnaw me like graveyard worms have no contours: I cannot now reach up to the living source…

Yes, I can though: War.

Then I hear no more speech, only laughter. I pierced into the wheels of their laughter. In this hole where sumptuous mystery is distilled drop by drop I see them, for one moment, in their laughter, for sound and light are moulded into form – either their own laughter or the dragging bruit of weapons. The two enemies swear alliance above war itself. The laws and divisions of great forces are not what we suppose: they are greater.

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In this region where I had lived the depopulation had been so great that I could feel the vacant spaces.

The people renews itself constantly, and yet, at the end, it had been driven away, scattered to the winds by war upon war. From every side the empery of despair had closed down upon them.

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“What has been happening in the world?”

“Wars…But now a new age has begun!”

“What wars? Who?”

“Everyone – battles everywhere. The world has come to the end of its strength: it is vanquished by wars. But we have come to the end of the Iron Age.”

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War is everywhere; kingdom against kingdom, and the towns of Italy against each other, – (Italy was once a single kingdom; now she is a world in herself) – and faction against faction in the bosom of each town. France against England or Navarre, Amagnac against Burgundian, York against Lancaster, Blois against Montfort, Beaumont against Gramont of Navarre.

There are not two districts, two families, or two people of importance who are not struggling one with the other to break free and climb higher, upon a heap of bodies. They and their hatreds are inseparable. They would attack their own shadows. All the hopes of this world are centred on the luck of war…Ah, the luck of war!

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“Behind the great war between France and England we must discern two men, among the ant-heaps of men, disputing as to whether the nephew or the grandson has the better title of inheritance. The two high and mighty lords thus pursuing their proprietorial business in human flesh and blood were sprung from the same stock, spoke the same tongue, were bound by the same code of morals, produced by the same laws. There were no strangers confronted with one another save the Princes and their subjects. This dispute as to golden titles and as to the ceremonies of suzerainty caused a war which none could stop; a winter of a century and a half fell upon nature, famine laid its fell grip upon the poor and in France and in England mothers ate their children; human flesh was sold in the market-place, and many men built hovels at the crossroads to murder wayfarers and steal their corpses. Corruption began to infest the very fields; beneath all this sway of death came plague, the black plague. And worse than plague, and deeper, was hate. Not hate made the war; the war made hate.”

“Today the old battle-field of the world is divided up like a map with circles and lines – roads and administrations – radiating out from the centre. the capital: a spider’s web fashioned by a man.

“And behold they no longer form their royal armies with soldiers; now they take citizens, an army of innocents. Poor wretches are forced to become executioners: the peasant to become the maker of deserts! They say: We; they become one body with the people, for they have devoured the people.”

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