John Dos Passos: The miserable dullness of industrialized slaughter
John Dos Passos
From Three Soldiers (1921)
“Have you been in France long?” asked Andrews settling himself in one of the chairs and looking into the dancing flames of the log fire. “Will you smoke?” He handed Sheffield a crumpled cigarette.
“No, thanks, I only smoke special kinds. I have a weak heart. That’s why I was rejected from the army…Oh, but I think it was superb of you to join as a private; It was my dream to do that, to be one of the nameless marching throng.”
“I think it was damn foolish, not to say criminal,” said Andrews sullenly, still staring into the fire.
“You can’t mean that. Or do you mean that you think you had abilities which would have been worth more to your country in another position?…I have many friends who felt that.”
“No…I don’t think it’s right of a man to go back on himself…I don’t think butchering people ever does any good…I have acted as if I did think it did good…out of carelessness or cowardice, one or the other; that I think bad.”
He wondered how many buglers there were in the army. He could picture them all, in dirty little villages, in stone barracks, in towns, in great camps that served the country for miles with rows of black warehouses and narrow barrack buildings standing with their feet a little apart; giving their little brass bugles a preliminary tap before putting out their cheeks and blowing in them and stealing a million and a half (or was it two million or three million) lives, and throwing the warm sentient bodies into coarse automatons who must be kept busy, lest they grow restive, till killing time began again.
Andrews began to think of the men he had left behind. They were asleep at this time of night, in barns and barracks, or else standing on guard with cold damp feet, and cold hands which the icy rifle barrel burned when they tended it. He might go far away out of sound of the tramp of marching, away from the smell of overcrowded barracks where men slept in rows like cattle, but he would still be one of them. He would not see an officer pass him without an unconscious movement of servility, he would not hear a bugle without feeling sick with hatred. If he could only express these thwarted lives, the miserable dullness of industrialized slaughter, it might have been almost worth while – for him; for the others, it would never be worth while.