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Humphrey Cobb: Hallucination of fantastic butchery; too much for one man to bear

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

American writers on peace and against war

Humphrey Cobb: Selections on war

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Humphrey Cobb
From Paths of Glory (1935)

This fear of his was, so far as he knew, an idiosyncrasy, one which grew with each step forward he was now taking, one which became more acute every time he had to perform the duty of leading his regiment into the trenches…All he could think of was the compact mass of living, human, vulnerable flesh, strung out for two kilometers or so behind him. All that he could think of was that in another half hour the whole two kilometers of compact, human, vulnerable flesh would be well within range of the German guns. The thought appalled him; it also prevented the saliva from forming in his mouth..

“Flesh, bodies, nerves, testicles, brains, arms, intestines, eyes…” He could feel the mass of it, the weight of it pushing forward, piling up on his defenseless shoulders, overwhelming him with an hallucination of fantastic butchery. A point of something formed in his stomach, then began to spread and rise slowly. It reached level near his diaphragm where it became stationary and seemed to embed itself. He could not dislodge it or budge it up or down, but he recognized it for what it was: the nausea induced by intense fear.

“Three thousand men. My men. To run the gauntlet of open, registered roads with three thousand men. All neatly packeted for the slaughter. It’s too much for one man to bear…Three thousand men, two kilometers of massed flesh. What a target!…”

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“Flesh, bodies, nerves, legs…” Things were getting all mixed up in his mind. It seemed to be filled with flesh, cloyed with the sweetish smell of flesh that is torn open and over which blood is pouring. It was his flesh, their flesh, lying about still alive, but dying, dying so slowly, dying so fast…

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