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FIRST of all, I must know what you mean when you speak of civilization. I can quite well ask you this because you are an intelligent and an educated man, and then because you are always talking about this famous civilization.
Before the war I was an assistant in an industrial laboratory. It was a good enough little place; but I assure you, if I have the melancholy luck to come out of this catastrophe alive, I shall never enter it again. The open country! Some spot where I shall never hear the whirring of your aeroplanes or any of those machines of yours that used to amuse me once, when I knew nothing about anything, but that now fill me with horror, because they are the very soul of this war, the principle and reason of this war!
I hate the twentieth century, as I hate rotten Europe and the whole world on which this wretched Europe is spread out like a great spot of axle-grease. I know how ridiculous it is to flash out generalities like that; but, thunder! I don't say these things to every one, and besides, you might as well be ridiculous in one way as in another! I tell you that I shall go to the mountains and arrange it so that I shall be as much alone as possible. I had thought of going to live among the savages, among the black people, but there aren't even any real black people now. They all ride bicycles and want to be decorated. I shall not go to live with the black people. We have done all we could to lead them astray; I saw that clearly enough at Soissons.
In the spring of this year I was at Soissons, with all the G.B.C. I suspect G.B.C. doesn't mean much to you; but that's another reason for quarreling with you about this civilization: it rebuilt the Tower of Babel, and soon men will have so debased their native tongue that they will have made a sort of telegraphic patois out of it, without savor and without beauty.
The German retreat had carried the line over toward Vauxaillon and Laffaux, and there a good deal of fighting was going on. In one sector of the battle-field such a position as that of the mill of Laffaux was like a thorn at the bottom of a wound: it kept up the inflammation. Toward the beginning of May there was a great attack on this mill, and almost the whole of my own group had to go up into the line.
"As for you, Sergeant," the officer told me, "you are to remain at the hospital and take charge of the stretchers of the A. C. A. We'll send you men."
I knew all the subtleties of military language by this time. When I heard they were going to send me men, I knew perfectly well I wasn't going to get any one, and in actual fact I remained at the head of four men who had been rejected; they were a sort of cacochymic cretins for whom no one had any use.
From Saturday on, the wounded began to arrive in groups of one hundred. And I began to pile them up methodically in the wards of the A.C.A.
The truth is, the work didn't go well. My poor diseased stretcher-bearers did not pair off well, they stumbled like broken-kneed nags, and made the wounded scream. They would fish men out haphazard from the enormous pile waiting to be attended to, and the whole A. C. A. shuffled its feet with impatience, like a human flesh-factory that doesn't receive its raw material and revolves on itself, empty.
I must explain to you what an A. C. A. is. In the slang of the war it's an "autochir," [Ambulance Chirurgicale Automobile] in other words, the most perfect thing in the line of an ambulance that has been invented. It's the last word in science; it follows the armies with motors, steam-engines, microscopes, laboratories--the whole lock, stock, and barrel of a modern hospital. It's the first great repair-shop the wounded man encounters after he leaves the workshop of trituration and destruction that operates at the front. Those parts of the military machine that are the worst destroyed are brought there. Skilful workmen fling themselves upon them, unwrap them at full speed, and examine them competently, for all the world as if with a hydro-pneumatic machine, a collimator. If the part is seriously out of order, they do what they can to set it right; if the human material is not absolutely worthless, they patch it up carefully, so as to get it back into service at the first opportunity. That is what they call "the conservation of the effective."
As I have said, the A. C. A. was trembling like a machine that is going but has no material to work upon. My stretcher-bearers, with the clumsiness of drunken porters, would bring it a few wounded men, who were immediately digested and eliminated. Then the factory would continue to rumble like a Moloch whose appetite has merely been awakened by the first fumes of the sacrifice.
I had picked up a stretcher myself. With the help of an artilleryman who was wounded in the neck and who asked nothing better than to make himself useful until he was operated upon, I was steering my litter across the throng. It was then that I saw in passing an anxious, smiling face, its forehead hidden under a casque, the face of a general, a considerate general, and I heard the words:
"Your stretcher-bearers aren't getting on very well. I am going to send you eight Malagasy. They are excellent porters."
Ten minutes later my Malagasy were there. To speak more precisely, it was an assortment of negroes in which the Malagasy element predominated, a collection of samples chosen from the 1st Colonial Corps, which at this very hour was striking hard before Laffaux. There were a few Sudanese, of uncertain age--dark, wrinkled, hiding under their regimental jackets glowing amulets that smelt of leather, sweat, and exotic oils. As for the Malagasy, imagine men of medium height and a timid air, who looked like black and serious embryos.
All these men took up the litters and, at my order, began to carry the wounded as silently and phlegmatically as if they were unloading bales of cotton on a dock.
I was satisfied; that is to say, reassured. The A. C. A., satiated for once, was working with full jaws, and had the hum of all well-cared-for machines which drip with oil and all of whose parts glitter.
Glitter! The word's not too strong. I was blinded by it when I went into the operating-barrack. Night had just fallen--one of those warm nights of that beautiful, brutal spring. The cannonade gave sudden leaps like a giant in torment. The wards of the hospital were crowded with a confused and surging mass of suffering beings in which death was working to restore order. I took a deep breath in the darkness of the garden, and then, as I have said, I made my way into the operating-room.
There were several compartments in it. The one in which I suddenly found myself formed a boss on the side of the building. It was as hot as a smelting-furnace in there. Men were washing, brushing, polishing with minute care a mass of glittering instruments, while others were stirring up the fires, which had the white heat of soldering-lamps. Ceaselessly, men came in and went out, ceremoniously carrying boxes in their outstretched hands, like head waiters devoted to the stately rites of the table.
"It's warm in your quarters," I murmured, to say something.
"Go over to the side, it will be better there," said a little man, bearded like a kobold.
I lifted a hanging, with the impression that I was penetrating into the breast of a monster. Opposite me, raised up like a monarch on a sort of throne, which one reached by a number of steps, I recognized the heart of this being. It was what they call an autoclave, a sort of immense pot in which one could cook with ease an entire calf. It rested flat on its belly and flung out a jet of vapor with a noise deafening and monotonous enough to make one lose all sense of time and space. Suddenly this infernal sound ceased, and it seemed to me like the end of eternity. A lot of little vessels on the back of the monster continued to sputter and gurgle. A man like a helmsman was turning a large wheel and the lid of the sterilizer, suddenly unscrewed, turned over, revealing a fiery interior out of which came all sorts of packages and cases.
The heat of the furnace was succeeded by a moist, depressing warmth, like that of the sweating-room of a Turkish bath.
"But where do they operate on the wounded'?" I asked a boy who was washing rubber gloves in a great copper basin.
"Over there in the operating-rooms; can't you see! But don't go in from this side."
I plunged back into the night, as into an abyss of coolness, and made my way toward the waiting-room to find my stretcher-bearers again.
At this moment they were bringing in a lot of cuirassiers. A division of dismounted cavalry had been engaged since morning. The finest men in France had been struck down by hundreds, and they were waiting there like broken statues, whose very fragments are beautiful. God! What strong, magnificent creatures! They had such big chests, such powerful limbs, that they couldn't believe in death; and when they felt the rich, thick blood flowing from their veins they swore with oaths and laughter at the breakdown of their torn flesh.
"When it's my turn," said one of them, "they can do what they like with my carcass, but as for putting me to sleep--by God! not much!"
"Yes, whatever they like," said another, "but no amputations! I need my paw, even if it is all smashed up. I want that!"
These men were coming out of the radiograph room. They were naked under their wraps, and were wearing, pinned to their' bandages, a whole outfit of many-colored tags, labels, formulas, like a sort of algebraic commentary on their wounds and the injuries of their internal organs.
They were talking about this first excursion into the laboratory like well-trained children who understand that the modern world cannot live or die any longer without the meticulous discipline of the sciences.
"What did he say, the X-ray major?"
"He said it was an anteroposterior axis. I suspected as much myself."
"As for me, mine's in the stomach. He said the abdomen, but I know it's in the stomach, all right. The devil take it! But I don't want to be put to sleep! I won't have that, if I know myself!"
The door of the operating-room opened at this moment and a flood of light deluged the waiting-room. A voice called out:
"Next! And the stomach case first."
The black porters adjusted their shoulder-straps and the two speakers were carried off. I followed the stretchers.
Imagine a luminous rectangular block, set in the night like a jewel in a lump of coal. The door shut again, and I found myself imprisoned in the brightness. On the ceiling an immaculate canvas diffused the bright light from the lamps. The springy floor was strewn with red cloths which the orderlies were quickly picking up with pincers. Between the floor and the ceiling were four strange forms which were men. They were entirely clothed in white. Their faces were completely covered by masks which, like those of the Touaregs, concealed everything but the eyes; they were holding their rubber-covered hands spread out in the air, in the fashion of Chinese dancers, and the sweat was streaming from their temples.
One could hear faintly the whirring of the motor that generated all these lights. The autoclave, once more gorged with food, filled the universe with its strident wail. Little radiators snorted like animals whose fur is stroked the wrong way. All this made a barbaric and yet grandiose music, and the men moving about there seemed to be performing, harmoniously, some religious dance, some grave and mysterious sort of ballet.
The stretchers wound their way among the tables like canoes about an archipelago. The instruments, arranged on white cloths, shone like the windows of a goldsmith; and the little Malagasy handled their burdens with care and docility. They stopped when they were ordered and waited. Their black, thin necks, encircled by the yokes, their shriveled fingers about the handles of the stretchers, made one think of sacred monkeys, trained to carry idols. The two cuirassiers, immense, pale, stretched beyond the litters both at the head and the foot.
There were a few ritualistic gestures and the wounded men found themselves on the tables.
At this moment my glance met that of one of the blacks and I had a sensation of sickness. It was a calm, profound gaze like that of a child or a young dog. The savage was turning his head gently from right to left and looking at the extraordinary beings and objects that surrounded him. His dark pupils lingered lightly over all the marvelous details of this workshop for repairing the human machine. And these eyes, which betrayed no thought, were none the less disquieting. For one moment I was stupid enough to think, "How astonished he must be!" But this silly thought left me, and I no longer felt anything but an insurmountable shame.
The four Malagasy went out. I felt somewhat relieved. The wounded men seemed bewildered, stupefied. The attendants hurried about them, tying their hands, their legs, rubbing them with alcohol. The masked men gave orders and moved about the tables with the measured gestures of officiating priests.
"Who is in charge in there?" I asked some one, quite low.
He was pointed out to me. He was a man of medium height, seated and holding his gloved hands in the air while he dictated something to a secretary.
Fatigue, the noise of the cannonade, the dazzling lights, the hum of industry about me, all contributed to give me a sort of lucid intoxication. I remained motionless, carried away in a turmoil of thoughts. All these things that surrounded me were made for a good purpose. It was civilization's reply to itself, the correction it was giving to its own destructive eruptions; it took all this complexity to efface a little of the immense harm engendered by the age of the machines. I thought once more of the inexplicable look of the savage, and the emotion I felt was made up of pity, anger, and disgust.
The man whom they had pointed out as the chief had finished dictating. He remained motionless in his heraldic position and seemed to be dreaming. I noticed that behind his spectacles there burned a beautiful grave look, mingled of serenity, ardor, and sadness. One could see almost nothing of his face, the mask concealed the mouth and the beard; but the temples revealed a few newly gray locks and a swollen vein on his forehead betrayed the efforts of a strained will.
"The wounded man has gone off" some one murmured.
The surgeon approached the table. The wounded man was indeed unconscious, and I saw that it was the same one who had declared so energetically that he did not wish to be put to sleep. The poor man had not even dared to stammer out his protest. Caught in the mill-hopper, he had been immediately mastered and had abandoned himself to the appetite of the machine, like pig-iron swallowed up by the rolling-mill. And besides, didn't he know that all this was for his own good, since good has been reduced to this pass?
"Sergeant," a voice said to me, "you mustn't stay in the operating-room without a cap." Just as I was going out, I looked at the surgeon once more. He was leaning over his work with an earnestness in which, in spite of habit, in spite of his costume, his gloves and all that apparatus about him, one could discern a certain tenderness. I thought with a sudden vehemence: "No! No! That man is not taken in by it!"
I found myself again in the waiting-room with its smell of blood, like the lair of some wild animal. A shaded lamp filled it with a dim light. Some wounded men were groaning; others were talking in low voices.
"Who's talking about tanks?" said one of them. "I was wounded in a tank." A short, respectful silence followed. The man, who was buried under bandages, added: "Our gasolene reservoir was split open, my legs were broken, and my face is burned. I know what a tank is, I do!"
He said this with a strange accent in which I recognized that ancient tormentor of humanity, pride.
I went off to smoke a pipe in the heart of the darkness. The world seemed to me confused, incoherent and unhappy; and in my opinion it really is so.
Believe me, Monsieur, when I speak with pity of civilization I know what I'm talking about; and it's not the wireless telegraph that can make me change my views. It's all the sadder, because there's nothing one can do about it: you can't climb back up a slope like that down which the world is going to roll from now on. And yet!
Civilization! the true Civilization--I often think of it. It is like a choir of harmonious voices chanting a hymn in my heart, it is a marble statue on a barren hill, it is a man saying, "Love one another!" and "Return good for evil!" But for nearly two thousand years people have done nothing but repeat these things over and over, and the princes and the priests have far too many interests in the age as it is to conceive other things like them.
Men are mistaken about goodness and happiness. The most generous souls are mistaken also, for solitude and silence are too often denied them. I have taken a good look at the monstrous autoclave on its throne. I tell you truly, civilization is not in that object any more than it is in the shining pincers that the surgeons use. Civilization is not in all that terrible pack of trumpery wares; and if it is not in the heart of man, well! it's nowhere.