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Stephen Vincent Benét: Nightmare For Future Reference: The second year of the Third World War


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

American writers on peace and against war

Stephen Vincent Benét: The dead march from the last to the next blind war

Stephen Vincent Benét: Toy soldiers


Stephen Vincent Benét
Nightmare For Future Reference

That was the second year of the Third World War,
The one between Us and Them.
Well we’ve gotten used.
We don’t talk much about it, queerly enough.
There was all sorts of talk the first years after the Peace,
A million theories, a million wild suppositions,
A million hopeful explanations and plans,
But we don’t talk about it, now. We don’t even ask.
We might do the wrong thing. I don’t guess you’d understand that.
But you’re eighteen, now. You can take it. You’d better know.

You see, you were born just before the war broke out.
Who started it? Oh, they said it was Us or Them
And it looked like it at the time. You don’t know what that’s like.
But anyhow, it started and there it was,
Just a little worse, of course, than the one before,
But mankind was used to that. We didn’t take notice.
They bombed our capital and we bombed theirs.
You’ve been to the Broken Towns? Yes, they take you there.
They show you the look of the tormented earth.
But they can’t show the smell or the gas or the death
Or how it felt to be there, and a part of it.
But we didn’t know. I swear that we didn’t know.

I remember the first faint hint there was something wrong,
Something beyond all wars and bigger and strange,
Something you couldn’t explain.
I was back on leave –
Strange, as you felt on leave, as you always felt –
But I went to see the Chief at the hospital
And there he was, in the same old laboratory,
A little older, with some white in his hair
But the same eyes that went through you and the same tongue.
They hadn’t been able to touch him – not the bombs
Nor the ruin of his life’s work nor anything.
He blinked at me from behind his spectacles
And said, “Huh. It’s you. They won’t let me have guinea pigs
Except for the war work, but I steal a few.
And they’ve made me a colonel – expect me to salute.
Damn fools. A damn-fool business. I don’t know how.
Have you heard what Erickson’s done with the ductless glands?
The journals are four months late. Sit down and smoke.”
And I did and it was like home.
He was a great man.
You might remember that and I’d worked with him.
Well, finally he said to me, “How’s your boy?”
“Oh-healthy,” I said. “We’re lucky.”
“Yes,” he said,
And a frown went over his face. “He might even grow up,
Though the intervals between wars are getting shorter.
I wonder if it wouldn’t simplify things
To declare mankind in a permanent state of siege.
It might knock some sense in their heads.”
“You’re cheerful,” I said
“Oh, I’m always cheerful,” he said. “Seen these, by the way?”
He tapped some charts on a table.
“Seen what?” I said.
“Oh,” he said, with that devilish, sidelong grin of his,
“Just the normal city statistics death and birth.
You’re a soldier now. You wouldn’t be interested.
But the birth rate’s dropping -”
“Well, really, sir,” I said,
“We know that it’s always dropped, in every war.”

“Not like this,” he said. “I can show you the curve.
It looks like the side of a mountain, going down.
And faster, the last three months yes, a good deal faster.
I showed it to Lobenheim and he was puzzled.
It makes a neat problem yes?” He looked at me.

“They’d better make peace,” he said. “They’d better make peace.”

“Well, sir,” I said, “if we break through, in the spring -”

“Break through?” he said. “What’s that? They’d better make peace.
The stars may be tired of us. No, I’m not a mystic.
I leave that to the big scientists in bad novels.
But I never saw such a queer maternity curve.
I wish I could get to Ehrens, on their side.
He’d tell me the truth. But the fools won’t let me do it.”

His eyes looked tired as he stared at the careful charts.
“Suppose there are no more babies?” he said. “What then?
It’s one way of solving the problem.”
“But, sir-” I said.
“But, sir!” he said. “Will you tell me, please, what is life?
Why it’s given, why it’s taken away?
Oh, I know we make a jelly inside a test tube,
We keep a cock’s heart living inside a jar.
We know a great many things and what do we know?
We think we know what finished the dinosaurs,
But do we? Maybe they were given a chance
And then it was taken back. There are other beasts
That only kill for their food. No, I’m not a mystic,
But there’s a certain pattern in nature, you know,
And we’re upsetting it daily. Eat and mate
And go back to the earth after that, and that’s all right.
But now we’re blasting and sickening earth itself.
She’s been very patient with us. I wonder how long.”

Well, I thought the Chief had gone crazy, just at first,
And then I remembered the look of no man’s land,
That bitter landscape, pockmarked like the moon,
Lifeless as the moon’s face and horrible,
The thing we’d made with the guns.
If it were earth,
It looked as though it hated.
“Well? “I said,
And my voice was a little thin. He looked hard at me.
“Oh – ask the women,” he grunted. “Don’t ask me.
Ask them what they think about it.”
I didn’t ask them,
Not even your mother—she was strange, those days –
But, two weeks later, I was back in the lines
And somebody sent me a paper –
Encouragement for the troops and all of that –
All about the fall of Their birth rate on Their side.

I guess you know, now. There was still a day when we fought
And the next day, the women knew. I don’t know how they knew,
But they smashed every government in the world
Like a heap of broken china, within two days,
And we’d stopped firing by then. And we looked at each other.

We didn’t talk much, those first weeks. You couldn’t talk.
We started in rebuilding and that was all,
And at first, nobody would even touch the guns,
Not even to melt them up. They just stood there, silent,
Pointing the way they had and nobody there.
And there was a kind of madness in the air,
A quiet, bewildered madness, strange and shy.
You’d pass a man who was muttering to himself
And you’d know what he was muttering, and why.
I remember coming home and your mother there.
She looked at me, at first didn’t speak at all,
And then she said, “Burn those clothes. Take them off and burn them
Or I’ll never touch you or speak to you again.”
And then I knew I was still in my uniform.

Well, I’ve told you, now. They tell you now at eighteen.
There’s no use telling before.
Do you understand?
That’s why we have the Ritual or the Earth,
The Day of Sorrow, the other ceremonies.
Oh yes, at first people hated the animals
Because they still bred, but we’ve gotten over that.
Perhaps they can work it better, when it’s their turn,
If it’s their turn – I don’t know. I don’t know at all.
You can call it a virus, of course, if you like the word,
But we haven’t been able to find it. Not yet. No.
It isn’t as if it had happened all at once.
There were a few children born in the last six months
Before the end of the war, so there’s still some hope.
But they’re almost grown. That’s the trouble. They’re almost grown.
Well, we had a long run. That’s something. At first they thought
There might be a nation somewhere, a savage tribe.
But we were all in it, even the Eskimos,
And we keep the toys in the stores, and the colored books,
And people marry and plan and the rest of it,
But, you see, there aren’t any children. They aren’t born.

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