Richard Harding Davis: Destruction versus civilization, soldiers and engineers
Richard Harding David
From Soldiers of Fortune (1897)
“There are no men to-day, Miss Langham,” King exclaimed, suddenly, turning toward her, “to my mind, who lead as picturesque lives as do civil engineers. And there are no men whose work is as little appreciated.”
“Really?” said Miss Langham, encouragingly.
“Now those men I met,” continued King, settling himself with his side to the table, “were all young fellows of thirty or thereabouts, but they were leading the lives of pioneers and martyrs – at least that’s what I’d call it. They were marching through an almost unknown part of Mexico, fighting Nature at every step and carrying civilization with them. They were doing better work than soldiers, because soldiers destroy things, and these chaps were creating, and making the way straight. They had no banners either, nor brass bands. They fought mountains and rivers, and they were attacked on every side by fever and the lack of food and severe exposure. They fought mountains and rivers, and they were attacked on every side by fever and the lack of food and severe exposure. They had to sit down around a camp-fire at night and calculate whether they were to tunnel a mountain, or turn the bed of a river or bridge it. And they knew all the time that whatever they decided to do out there in the wilderness meant thousands of dollars to the stockholders somewhere up in God’s country, who would some day hold them to account for them. They dragged their chains through miles and miles of jungle, and over flat alkali beds and cactus, and they reared bridges across roaring canons. We know nothing about them and we care less. When their work is done we ride over the road in an observation-car and look down thousands and thousands of feet into the depths they have bridged, and we never give them a thought. They are the bravest soldiers of the present day, and they are the least recognized. I have forgotten their names, and you never heard them. But it seems to me the civil engineer, for all that, is the chief civilizer of our century.”
He saw the enemy in changing groups of scowling men, who seemed to eye him for an instant down the length of a gun-barrel and then disappear behind a puff of smoke. He kept thinking that war made men take strange liberties with their fellow-men, and it struck him as being most absurd that strangers should stand up and try to kill one another, men who had so little in common that they did not even know one another’s names.