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Humphrey Cobb: Reworking the sixth commandment for war; thou shalt not commit individual murder

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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)

What about getting the priest in? No use in that either. He knew what he’d say. Thou shall not kill. Poor piece of translation, that. Should be, Thou shalt not commit murder. Better still, Thou shalt not commit individual murder. The church ought to get that changed before the next war. Make it much easier for good Catholics to answer embarrassing questions…

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“One man’s got to be shot for a crime he didn’t commit, which nobody committed. Do you call that justice?”

“Who said anything about justice? There’s no such thing. But injustice is as much a part of life as the weather. And you’re getting away from the point again. He’s being shot for a crime he didn’t commit. He’s being shot as an example. That’s his contribution to the winning of the war. An heroic one too, if you like.”

“So you figure that the man who is shot as an example is as much a part of the scheme of an offensive as the man who calculates the barrages, the infantryman who goes over the top, or the quartermaster who doesn’t?”

“Of course, why not? Discipline is the first requisite of an army. It must be maintained and one of the ways of doing it is to shoot a man now and then. He dies, therefore, for the ultimate benefit of his comrades and of the country.”

“In other words, then, you think the general ought to come down and invest the victim with the médaille militaire, then step aside and let the firing-squad do its work?”

“Excellent, my boy, excellent!”

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“…Shells kill good and bad soldiers without discrimination. So even speaking militarily, they aren’t worth more than anyone else. We’re all cannon fodder…”

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