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Humphrey Cobb: Generals are reassured by the smell of the dead


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

American writers on peace and against war

Humphrey Cobb: Selections on war


Humphrey Cobb
From Paths of Glory (1935)

A fire began to burn, over in the German lines. The fire grew brighter and revealed its shape: the sun. Slowly it raised itself out of the earth, red and hostile-looking, but welcomed to the men who watched it. It swelled to enormous size, then paused in delicate contact with the rim of the world like a dancer waiting for the first notes of the ballet. For a moment the two edges were tangent and seemed to cling. Then the sun stepped off the edge of the earth and was instantly floating in its own space.

The bombardment began to die down slowly and the holocaust was gradually extinguishing itself. The earth seemed to relax from its fearful punishment of steel. Men, too, relaxed a little and began to talk in monosyllables, elliptically. Later, it seemed very quiet after the paroxysmal gunfire…

The sun, to whose coming all this inferno had been but a prelude, moved higher in the cloudless sky, unmindful, so it seemed, of the havoc caused in honor of the event. Day was full now, and Langlois saw that it was really spring. He saw the delicate blades of grass which the bodies of his comrades had fertilized; he saw the little shoots of the shell-shocked trees. He saw the smoke-puffs of shrapnel being blown about by the light breezes. He saw birds making love in the wire that a short while before had been ringing with flying metal. He heard the pleasant sound of larks up there, near the zenith of the trajectories. He smiled a little. There was something profoundly saddening about it. It all seemed so fragile and so absurd.


The morning was cloudless and fresh with spring. The dawn bombardment had died down and there was nothing to show for it but some new shell-holes, in some places linking, in others superimposed upon the old ones. The general walked along the road enjoying the cool and fragrant morning. Now and then a whiff of a less fragrant smell would filter through the bristles of his nostrils, and he enjoyed that too, in a way. Casualties were a part of war. Where there were no casualties, there was no fighting. It would be unthinkable not to have fighting under a fighting commander. The smell of the dead reassured him on this point.

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