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Georges Bernanos: War, the penalty of rendering unto Caesar what is no longer his

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

French writers on war and peace

Georges Bernanos: Wars like epidemics, with neither beginning nor end

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Georges Bernanos
From The Diary of a Country Priest
Translated by Pamela Morris

‘What is your grudge against the Church?’ I said at last, foolishly.

‘Mine? Oh, nothing much. You’ve secularized us. The first real secularization was that of the soldier. And it’s some time ago now. When you go snivelling over the excesses of nationalism, you should remember it was you who first pandered to the law-makers of the Renaissance, whilst they made short work of Christian right, and patiently constructed, under your very noses, right in your very faces, the Pagan State: the state which knows no law but that of its own well-being – the merciless countries full of greed and pride.’

‘Listen,’ I said, ‘I don’t know much about history, but it seems to me that feudal anarchy had its own risks.’

‘No doubt….You wouldn’t take them. You left Christianity high and dry, it took too long, it cost a
lot and brought in very little. You gave us the “state” instead. The state to arm us and clothe us and feed us, and take charge of our conscience into the bargain. Mustn’t judge, mustn’t even try to understand! And your theologians approve it all, naturally. With a simper, they grant us permission to kill, kill anywhere, anyhow, to kill by order, like executioners. We are supposed to defend our land, but we can also be used to keep down revolution, and if the revolution should win we serve it instead. No loyalty required. That’s how you put us “in the army,” and now we’re so thoroughly “in the army” that in a democracy inured to all servility, the lawyers themselves are really astonished at the servile ways of Ministers of War. “The army” is so entirely debased that even a fine soldier like Lyautey hated the very name of his profession. And besides, soon there won’t be any army. We shall all be in it, from the age of seven to sixty – in what, come to think of it? The word “army”’ means nothing when entire nations are hurling themselves against each other like African tribes – tribes of a hundred thousand men! And your theologians, more and more disgusted, will still “approve” of it, still print “dispensations,” or so I imagine, drawn up by the Secretary of the Board of National Conscience. But between you and me, when do your theologians intend to stop? The cleverest killers of to-morrow will kill without any risk. Thirty thousand feet above the earth, any dirty little engineer, sitting cosily in his slippers with a special bodyguard of technicians, will merely have to press a button to wipe out a town, and scurry home in fear – his only fear – of being late for dinner. Nobody could call an employee of that description a soldier. Can he even deserve to be called “an army man”? And you people, who refused Christian burial to poor mummers in the seventeenth century, how do you mean to bury a guy like that? Has our trade become so debased that we are no longer responsible for any one of our actions, that we share in the horrible innocence of our steel machines? Don’t tell me! A poor lad who puts his girl in the family way one spring night, is considered by you to be in mortal sin, but the killer of a whole town, whilst the kids he’s just poisoned’ll be vomiting up their lungs on their mothers’ lap, need only go off and change pants to “distribute holy bread”! Frauds you all are! What’s the use of pretending to “render unto Caesar”? The ancient world is dead, as dead as its gods. And the tutelary gods of the modern world -we know ’em; they dine out, they’re called bankers. Draw up as many agreements as you like. Outside Christianity there is no place in the West for soldiers or fatherland, and your shifty compromises will soon have permitted the final shame of both.’

He had risen and was still enfolding me in his strange gaze, always the same pale blue, but which looked golden in the shadow. He threw his cigarette furiously into the cinders.

‘I don’t give a damn,’ he said. ‘I’ll be killed before then.’

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