A Soldier Thinks of War
By Alan Seeger
[The New Republic, May 22, 1915]
The winter's trials are about over. Already the larks are singing in the dawn that every week seems earlier, and whenever the cloud-banks roll away there is real warmth in the sunshine. The season of good weather that will bring great events and precipitate the action which all winter has been more or less in suspense will at the same time make the business of fighting harder to those of us in whom spring will wake other thoughts and other impulses. For war seemed perfectly proper when the fields were sere and nature abounded in images of death. But the bursting shells that hitherto have only sent the crows clamoring out of the bare forests will seem a strange anomaly when they scatter the cherry blossoms that will soon cloud the hillsides here where our trenches run.
They are the young soldier's worst enemy, these moments when the greatness of his renunciation is brought home to him by a song, a perfume, a memory:
"J'aimerai toujours le temps des cerises,
Et le souvenir que j'en garde au coeur."
It is when someone near the campfire begins to sing as only a Latin can—the feeling that wells so naturally from his heart touching in his listeners the spring of all that is fondest in memory and desire; it is in the long nights at the outposts when the grim irony comes over him that he should be there praying for the dawn where once it was Lente, lente, currite noctis equi—it is then that Youth in its tragic brevity and beauty slips by, and the sense of its vanishing opportunities for happiness plagues his heart with a poignancy of regret that at times becomes almost intolerable.
When he feels this way, the best remedy is to look a moment on the other side of the picture. Let him fancy himself liberated, lounging on the Riviera, or sipping his liqueur along the boulevards. Let him picture himself for a moment in the Venusberg of his dreams. Would he really be content? Would he not soon sing the same song as the minstrel knight? The vision would rise before him of young men who had been his companions in many a happy night in the Latin Quarter or Montmartre. Spurred less by the thought of any military ostentation or glory than that another generation might live free of the menace that had hung over their lives, quietly, uncomplainingly, they had marched forth. Who that had shared their hours of rejoicing could feel now in their hour of trial that, other things being equal, his place was not all the more at their side, that the burden that unsought had been laid on their shoulders should not rightfully be his too? No one of any imagination; no one of any conscience.
I have talked with so many of the young volunteers here. Their case is little known, even by the French, yet altogether interesting and appealing. They are foreigners on whom the outbreak of war laid no formal compulsion. But they had stood on the butte in springtime perhaps, as Julian and Louise stood, and looked out; over the myriad twinkling lights of the beautiful city. Paris—mystic, maternal, personified, to whom they owed the happiest moments of their lives—Paris was in peril. Were they not under a moral obligation, no less binding than their comrades were bound legally, to put their breasts between her and destruction? Without renouncing their nationality they had yet chosen, to make their homes here beyond any other city in the world. Did not the benefits and blessings they had received point them a duty that heart and conscience could not deny?
"Why did you enlist?" In every case the answer was the same. That memorable day in August came. Suddenly the old haunts were desolate, the boom companions had gone. It was unthinkable to leave the danger to them and accept only the pleasures oneself, to go on enjoying the sweet things of life in defence of which they were perhaps even then shedding their blood in the north. Some day they would return, and with honor—not all, but some. The old order of things would have irrevocably vanished. There would be a new comradeship whose bond would be the common danger run, the common sufferings borne, the common glory shared. "And where have you been all the time, and what have you been doing?" The very question would be a reproach, though none were intended. How could they endure it?
Face to face with a situation like that a man becomes reconciled, justifies easily the part he is playing, and comes to understand, in a universe where logic counts for so little and sentiment and the impulses of the heart for so much, the inevitableness and naturalness of war. Suddenly the world is up in arms. All mankind takes sides. The same faith that made him surrender himself to the impulses of normal living and of love forces him now to make himself the instrument through which a greater force works out its inscrutable ends through the impulses of terror and repulsion. And with no less a sense of moving in harmony with a universe where masses are in continual conflict and new combinations are engendered out of eternal collisions, he shoulders arms and marches forth with haste.
If no more serious argument can be brought against war than those inconveniences and sacrifices resulting to a man from his break with merely comfortable living, I confess I cannot see the contention of the pacifist, nor am I able to understand how war can be any more reasonably objected to than parturition, for example. That too, is painful; only, being a phenomenon of common occurrence and one to which no alternative has ever been imagined even by the visionary, its inevitableness is universally accepted. It would be Well if war were equally so—the supreme demand that nature makes upon the male, as the other is the supreme demand made up on the female. Wars are the birthpangs of new era? And he who, ready to assume the burden and share the anguish, makes himself the instrument through which this vast power operates, is playing the largest part a man can play. Though he perish while the sweetness of youth is still in him and his capacities for earthly happiness are still unexhausted, I imagine that he does so with infinitely more assurance than any hypothetical reward of a supernatural religion can afford its votary. For his comfort is the sense of his life's blood flowing close to the heart of that cosmic entity of which he feels himself a fraction, and in whose movements it is his measure of his life's success to play the most essential, the most intimate part.
This view of war in its sublimity is one that will not easily occur to the distant spectator. It takes long nights at the outposts, nights such as the last we have been spending half way up the hillside to the enemy's trenches, when the cannon thundered a;; along the line down toward Rheims, and, mounting toward the meteors that fell out of the morning skies, the slow-curving rockets marked the course of the battlefront across the vast, misty lowlands and into the starlit distances. Not the sense of the bestiality and inutility of it all, but rather of its entire harmoniousness in a universe properly understood is the emotion that possesses the spectator of such a scene. The easy-going pacifist will continue to talk of the horrors of militarism and the clock of civilization being set back a hundred years. This is because he is unable to conceive of evolution except as an orderly progress toward the realization of some arbitrary ideal based upon considerations of individual human wellbeing. The philosophic mind, on the other hand, does not think of evolution in terms of anything so relative as the principles of human morality at all, but rather as an increasing complexity of phenomena—of the possibilities for happiness as well as of all else—-a process which works out through destructive influences quite as much as through inventive and creative.
In B—— the other day I watched the children playing in the streets, for, reassured by the long deadlock on this part of the front, many families have returned to the little towns here within the very zone of artillery fire, living in the caves of their houses, where they run to shelter whenever the "marmites" begin to tumble about their roofs or the sudden buzzing of an aeroplane is heard overhead. They were playing soldier, which is natural enough for children in any part of the world, only their games had a little touch of realism that was amusing, for they were imitating with their childish voices the whistling of the shells that even to them has become a sound so familiar as to cause no emotion. It was a little thing, but it made me think of the opening paragraph of de Musset's "Confessions," where he attributes so much of the character of his genius to the spirit of that age in which he was born. And I had visions of distant compensations when the generation that is growing up under the stress of this present cataclysm is ripe to bear its spiritual fruits.
Sometimes through the doors of our dugouts here on the firing line a batch of American papers and periodicals is handed in with the mail that under the most abnormal conditions is delivered with laudable regularity. It is amusing to read these distant commentaries on the war, here where the postman that brings them to us has to crouch to shelter himself from the enemy's fire. In them are arranged all the errors of the antimilitarists which such a juxtaposition renders all the more transparent—the exaggerated notion of the importance of human life, the inability to understand international relations as being conducted upon any other basis than that which subsists between individuals. Especially there is the tendency to forget that peace in America is accidentally due to the very condition which Germany is trying to produce in Europe—that is, an hegemony of one people so powerful that no neighbor is able to contest it—and to attribute it to some quality of superiority in American civilization which thereby gives us the right to evangelize to the older nations. Let America beware of the hour when her long isolation from the currents of world politics shall be at an end, when, her most vital interests suddenly brought into conflict with those of a powerful rival, she must play her part among nations that have not had the leisure to dwell much upon prospects of what is most comfortable and agreeable to humanity, but having from time immemorial been forced to accept the grim inevitableness of the ultimate resort to armed force, have from time immemorial taken their precautions to meet it. Let her beware of that hour lest the alternative to war be not peace but dishonor. For that hour will certainly come.
I for my part find more beautiful the vistas that unfold through the windows of common everyday reality than through the portals of any premature Palace of Peace. The games of the children in the streets of B—— arouse speculations more interesting to me than those of the pacifist visionary. In so far as civilization means complexity in all the devices for material comfort and convenience, America can claim first place. But it seems to me that Europe will continue for some time yet to sing the world's great songs and make the world's great poems. For she has vibrated to all ranges of emotion. She has known great élans, and from the pinnacles of enthusiasm visions will have been revealed to her more wonderful than have ever yet been dreamed of. She has suffered greatly, and her heart has been tried with that kind of affliction that alone can unfold the profundities of the human spirit.
Sur L'Aisne, France.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald