Flight to Arras. Ii

(Translated by Lewis Galantière)

[IN this true story of the French Air Force in May 1940, Captain Saint-Exupery describes the experiences of his own decimated escadrille (six planes out of twenty-three survive), and more particularly what is happening to his plane, Dutertre his observer, his gunner, and himself on a dangerous sortie over Arras. Here in prose of epic quality is the story of man’s courage in the face of defeat. The chapters describing the take-off and the chaos within the French lines appeared in the Atlantic for January. 7 emdash; THE EDITOR]


FOR us in the plane, life was losing its edge, blunted by a slow wearing away of ourselves. We were aging. The sortie was aging. What price high altitude? An hour of life spent at thirty-three thousand feet is equivalent to what? To a week? Three weeks? A month of organic life, of the work of the heart, the lungs, the arteries? Not that it signifies. My semi-swoonings have added centuries to me: I float in the serenity of old age.

How far away now is the agitation in which I dressed! In what a distant past it is lost! And Arras is infinitely far in the future. The adventure of war? Where is there adventure in war? I have this day taken an even chance to disappear, and I have nothing to report unless it is that passage of tiny wasps seen for three seconds. The real adventure would have lasted but the tenth of a second; and those among us who go through it do not come back, never come back, to tell the story.

‘Give her a kick to starboard, Captain.’

Dutertre has forgotten that my rudder is frozen. I was thinking of a picture that used to fascinate me when I was a child. Against the background of an aurora borealis it showed a graveyard of fantastic ships, motionless in the Antarctic seas. In the ashen glow of an eternal night the ships raised their crystallized arms. The atmosphere was of death, but they still spread sails that bore the impress of the wind as a bed bears the impress of a shoulder, and the sails were stiff and cracking.

Here too everything was frozen. My controls were frozen. My machine guns were frozen. And when I had asked the gunner about his the answer had come back, ‘Nothing doing, sir.’

Into the exhaust pipe of my mask I spat icicles fine as needles. From time to time I had to crush the stopper of frost that continued to form inside the flexible rubber, lest it suffocate me. When I squeezed the tube I felt it grate in my palm.

‘Gunner! Oxygen all right?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘What’s the pressure in the bottles?’

‘Er . . . seventy. Falling, sir.’

Time itself had frozen for us. We were three old men with white beards. Nothing was in motion. Nothing was urgent. Nothing was cruel.

The adventure of war. Major Alias had thought it necessary to say to me one day, ‘Take it easy, now!’

Take what easy, Major Alias? The fighters come down on you like lightning. Having spotted you from fifteen hundred feet above you, they take their time. They weave, they orient themselves, take careful aim. You know nothing of this. You are the mouse lying in the shadow of the bird of prey. The mouse fancies that it is alive. It goes on frisking in the wheat. But already it is the prisoner of the retina of the hawk, glued tighter to that retina than to any glue, for the hawk will never leave it now.

And thus you, continuing to pilot, to daydream, to scan the earth, have already been flung outside the dimension of time because of a tiny black dot on the retina of a man.

The nine planes of the German fighter group will drop like plummets in their own good time. They are in no hurry. At five hundred and fifty miles an hour they will fire their prodigious harpoon that never misses its prey. A bombing squadron possesses enough firing power to offer a chance for defense; but a reconnaissance crew, alone in the wide sky, has no chance against the seventytwo machine guns that first make themselves known to it by the luminous spray of their bullets. At the very instant when you first learn of its existence, the fighter, having spat forth its venom like a cobra, is already neutral and inaccessible, swaying to and fro overhead. Thus the cobra sways, sends forth its lightning, and resumes its rhythmical swaying.

Each machine gun fires fourteen hundred bullets a minute. And when the fighter group has vanished, still nothing has changed. The faces themselves have not changed. They begin to change now that the sky is empty and peace has returned. The fighter has become a mere impartial onlooker when, from the severed carotid in the neck of the reconnaissance pilot, the first jets of blood spurt forth, when from the hood of the starboard engine the hesitant leak of the first tongue of flame rises out of the furnace fire. And the cobra has returned to its folds when the venom strikes the heart and the first muscle of the face twitches. The fighter group does not kill. It sows death. Death sprouts after it has passed.

Take what easy, Major Alias? When we flew over those fighters I had no decision to make. I might as well not have known they were there. If they had been overhead, I should never have known it.

Take what easy? The sky is empty.

The earth is empty.

Look down on the earth from thirtythree thousand feet, and man ceases to exist. Man’s traces are not to be read at this distance. Our telescopic lenses serve here as microscopes. It wants this microscope — not to photograph man, since he escapes even the telescopic lens — to perceive the signs of his presence. Highways, canals, convoys, barges. Man fructifies the microscope slide. I am a glacial scientist, and their war has become for me a laboratory experiment.

‘Are the anti-aircraft firing, Dutertre?’

‘I believe they are firing, Captain.’

Dutertre cannot tell. The bursts are too distant and the smoke is blended in with the ground. They cannot hope to bring us down by such vague firing. At thirty-three thousand feet we are virtually invulnerable. They are firing in order to gauge our position, and probably also to guide the fighter groups towards us — a fighter group diluted in the sky like invisible dust.

The German on the ground knows us by the pearly white scarf which every plane flying at high altitude trails behind like a bridal veil. The disturbance created by our meteoric flight crystallizes the watery vapor in the atmosphere. We unwind behind us a cirrus of icicles. If the atmospheric conditions are favorable to the formation of clouds, our wake will thicken bit by bit and become an evening cloud over the countryside.

The fighters are guided towards us by their radio, by the bursts on the ground, and by the ostentatious luxury of our white scarf. Nevertheless we swim in an emptiness almost interplanetary. Everything round us and within us is total immobility.

We are now flying at three hundred and twenty-five miles an hour, you on the ground would say. But that is a race-course point of view. Here time is not, but only space. The earth itself, despite its twenty-five miles a second, moves but slowly round the sun. A whole year goes to the task. Perhaps we too are slowly approached in this exercise in gravitation. The density of aerial warfare? Grains of dust in a cathedral. We, grain of dust, are perhaps attracting to ourselves some dozens, it may be hundreds, of enemy grains of dust. And all those cinders rise as from a shaken rug slowly into the sky.

Take what easy, Major Alias? Looking straight down, all that I see is the bric-a-brac of another age exhibited under a pure crystal without tremor. I am leaning over the glass cases of a museum. But already the exhibit stands outlined against the light. Very far ahead lie Dunkerque and the sea. To left and right I see virtually nothing. The sun has dropped too low, now, and I command the view of a vast glittering sheet.

‘Dutertre! Can you see anything at all in this mess?’

‘Straight down, yes.’

‘Gunner! Any sign of the fighters?’

‘No sign, sir.’

The fact is, I have absolutely no idea whether or not we are being pursued, and whether from the ground they can or cannot see us trailed by the collection of gossamer threads we sport.

‘Gossamer threads’ sets me daydreaming again. An image comes into my mind which for the moment seems to me enchanting. ‘. . . As inaccessible as a woman of exceeding beauty, we follow our destiny, drawing slowly behind us our train of frozen stars.’

‘A little kick to port, Captain!’

There you have reality. But I go back to my shoddy poetry: ‘We bank, and a whole sky of suitors banks in our wake.’

Kick to port, indeed! Try it.

The woman of exceeding beauty has fumbled her bank.

Is it true that I was humming?

For Dutertre has spoken again. ‘Hum like that, Captain, and you’ll pass out.’

He has certainly killed my taste for humming.

‘Camera work nearly finished, Captain. Give me a few minutes more and we can make for Arras.’

We can make for Arras. Why, of course. Since we’re halfway there, we might as well.

Phew! My throttles are frozen!

And I say to myself: ‘This week, one crew out of three has got back. Therefore, there is great danger in this war. But if we are among those that get back, we shall have nothing to tell. I have had adventures — pioneering mail lines; being forced down among rebellious Arabs in the Sahara; flying the Andes. But war is not a true adventure. It is a mere ersatz. Where ties are established, where problems are set, where creation is stimulated — there you have adventure. But there is no adventure in heads-ortails, in betting that the toss will come out life or death. War is not an adventure. It is a disease. Like typhus.’

Perhaps I shall feel later that my sole veritable adventure in this war was that of my room in Orconte.


Orconte is a village on the outskirts of Saint-Dizier where my Group was stationed during the bitterly cold winter of ‘39. I was billeted in a clay-walled peasant house. The temperature would drop during the night low enough to freeze the water in my rustic crock, and the first thing I did in the morning was, of course, to light a fire. But to do that I had to get out of a bed in which I lay snug and warm and happy.

Nothing seemed to me more miraculous than that simple bed in that bare and freezing chamber. It was there that I reveled in the bliss of relaxation after the exhaustion of the day’s work. I felt safe in that bed. No danger could reach me there. During the day I was exposed to the rigor of the upper altitudes and the risk of the peremptory machine guns. During the day my body was available for transformation into a lair of agony and undeserved laceration. During the day my body was not mine, was no longer mine. Any of its members might at any moment be commandeered; its blood might at any moment be drawn off without my acquiescence.

For it is another consequence of war that the soldier’s body becomes a stock of accessories that are no longer his property. The bailiff arrives and demands a pair of eyes — you yield up the gift of sight. The bailiff arrives and demands a pair of legs — you yield up the gift of movement. The bailiff arrives torch in hand and demands the flesh off your face — and you, having yielded up the gift of smiling and manifesting your friendship for your kind, become a monster. Thus this body, which during any daylight hour might reveal itself my enemy and do me ill, might transform itself into a generator of whimperings, was still my obedient and comradely friend as it snuggled under the eiderdown in its demi-slumber, murmuring to my consciousness no more than its gratification and its purring bliss. Yet this body had to be withdrawn from beneath that eiderdown; it had to be washed in freezing water, shaved, dressed, made respectable before presenting itself to the bursts of steel. And getting out of bed was like a return to infancy, like being torn away from the maternal arms, the maternal breast, from everything that cherishes, caresses, shelters the existence of the infant.

So, having pondered and meditated and put off my decision as long as I could, I would grit my teeth and spring in a single leap to the fireplace, drench the logs with kerosene, and touch a match to them. Then, when the oil had flared up, and I had succeeded in crossing back to my bed, I would snuggle down again in its grateful warmth. With blankets and eiderdown drawn up to my left eye, I would watch the fireplace. At first the logs would seem not to catch, and only occasional flashes would flicker on the ceiling. But soon the fire would settle down in the hearth as if to organize a celebration. There would come a crackling, a roaring, a singing, and the fire would be as merry as a village wedding feast when the guests have begun to drink, to warm up, to nudge one another in the ribs.

Now and then it would seem to me that my good-tempered fire was standing guard over me like a particularly brisk and faithful shepherd dog going diligently about his work. A feeling of quiet jubilation would go through me as I watched it. And when the merrymaking was at its height, when the shadows were dancing on the ceiling, when the warm golden music filled the air, and the glowing logs had become a rosy architecture, when my room was quite redolent of the magic odor of smoke and resin, I would leap again from one friend to the other, from my bed to my fire; and, standing there beside the more generous friend, I could never say whether I was in truth toasting my belly or warming my heart at that fireplace. Faced by two temptations, I, like a coward, had given way to the stronger, the ruddier, the one which, with its fanfare and flutter, had advertised its wares more cleverly.

Thus three times — first to light my fire, then to get back into bed, then again to harvest my crop of flames — three times with chattering teeth I had crossed the bare and frozen tundra of my chamber and known what it was to explore the polar regions. I had made my way on foot across a desert to arrive at a blessed haven, and my effort had been rewarded by that fire which in my presence, for my sake, had danced its jubilant air.

Very likely my story seems to you pointless, and yet this was a great adventure. My chamber had shown me as in a glass something I should never have discovered had I happened in by chance on this peasant hovel. What, as tourist, I should have seen would have been a bare and commonplace room, a vague bed, a water pitcher, an ugly chimneypiece. I should have yawned and turned away. Of its three provinces, its three civilizations,— the one of sleep, the other of fire, the third of desert, — I should have known nothing, nor been able to distinguish between them. How should I possibly have guessed the adventure of the body, first as infant clinging to the tenderness and the shelter of the maternal breast, then as soldier made for suffering, and finally as man enriched by the delight of the civilization of fire — fire, the magnetic pole of the tribe, that honors me and will do honor to my comrades who, when they come to see me if I get back, will take their part in this festivity, will draw up their chairs round mine, and while we talk of our problems, our worries, our drudgery, will nevertheless say as they rub their hands and stuff their pipes, ‘There’s no getting round it, a fire does make you feel fine.’

But here in this plane there is no fire to persuade me to believe in friendship. There is no freezing chamber here to persuade me of the existence of adventure. I waken out of my reverie. There is nothing here but a void. Nothing but extreme old age. Nothing but a voice — Dutertre’s, stubborn in its chimerical longing — saying to me: ‘Give her a little kick to the starboard, Captain.’


I am doing my job like a conscientious workman. Which does not alter the fact that I feel myself to be a pilot of defeat. I feel drenched in defeat. Defeat oozes out of every pore, and in my hands I hold a pledge of it.

For my throttle controls are frozen. These controls regulate the flow of the fuel and the power of the engines. The cold has turned them into two stumps of useless metal and has involved me in a serious predicament.

My engines are equipped with propellers of variable pitch. A propeller is not a fan, it is a whirling knife; and the pitch is the angle at which I set the blade of the knife. Sharpening a pencil, if you hold the knife blade perpendicular you will drive it straight down into the wood; hold it at an angle, and you will drive it forward towards the point of the pencil. Exactly so does the pitch of my blade determine how far forward the propeller will bite into the air at a given number of revolutions per minute of my engines. Thus the speed of my plane, when under control, is a function of two elements — motor power and pitch. Roughly speaking, I go faster or slower, not as I open or shut the throttle so much as when I increase or diminish the pitch.

But this is not the whole story. Like all engines, there is a maximum rotation which my engines cannot exceed without danger of blowing up. Since engines and propellers revolve together, this maximum may be reached either by my operation of the throttle or, in certain circumstances, by the rush of air through the whirling propellers. The pitch therefore has still another function: it allows me to increase my speed without increasing my engine rotation; and when I am flying at maximum safe rotation — say 2200 revolutions a minute — I can still increase my speed by increasing the pitch. The pitch serves in a sense as a brake on my engines without constituting a brake on my speed.

If, sitting here with frozen throttles, I am forced to dive, the combined effect of flying full-throttle and falling through space will raise my speed to something like five hundred miles an hour. This would not be serious if I could increase my pitch to the point where maximum engine rotation would not be exceeded. But unfortunately the increase of my pitch is limited by an automatic check. On the one hand, I cannot reduce my engine power because of the frozen throttles, and on the other hand I cannot increase the pitch sufficiently to prevent a torrential rush of air into the propellers. That rush of air may increase the rotation of my engines to the point at which they blow up.

I could, if I had to, switch off my engines; but in that case I should never be able to start them again. I should then be stalled for good and all, which would mean the failure of the sortie and the crack-up of the machine. Not every terrain is favorable to the landing of a plane at one hundred and twenty miles an hour — and this, by manœuvring and gliding, is about the minimum speed at which I could hope to set the machine down. Therefore I must succeed in unblocking my throttles.

I was able to unblock the throttle of the port engine; the starboard throttle would not budge.

Now, if I were forced down, I could reduce the port engine to a degree consonant with the automatic check on the propellers. But if I cut down the port engine, over which I have regained control, I should need to be able to offset the lateral traction exercised by the starboard engine — for the accelerated rotation of the starboard engine would obviously tend to pivot the plane to port. There is a way of offsetting this tendency. I could do it by the play of my rudder. But the bar that governs my rudder has long been frozen stiff. Therefore I should be able to offset nothing at all. The moment I cut down my port engine I must go into a spin.

Here was another of the war’s absurdities. Nothing worked properly. Our world was made up of gearwheels that refused to mesh. And where the gearwheels refused to mesh, there was obviously no watchmaker.

After nine months of war we had still not succeeded in persuading the industries concerned that aerial cannon and controls ought to be manufactured with regard to the climate of the upper altitudes in which they were employed. What we were up against was not the irresponsible attitude of the manufacturers. Men are for the most part decent and conscientious. I am sure that almost always their lack of initiative is a result and not a cause of their ineffectualness.

Ineffectualness weighed us down, all of us in the uniform of France, like a sort of doom. It hung over the infantry that stood with fixed bayonets in the face of German tanks. It lay upon the air crews that fought one against ten. It infected those very men whose job it should have been to see that our guns and controls did not freeze and jam.

We were living in the blind belly of an administration. An administration is a machine. The more perfect the machine, the more human initiative is eliminated from it. And in a perfect administration, where man plays the part of a cog, such things as laziness, dishonesty, or injustice cannot prevail.

But a machine is not built for creation. It is built for administration. It administers the transformation of raw materials into finished products. It goes unvaryingly through motions preordained once and for always. And an administration, like a machine, does not create. It carries on. It applies a given penalty to a given breach of the rules, a given method to a given aim. An administration is not conceived for the purpose of solving fresh problems. If, into your automobilemanufacturing machine, you inserted wood at one end, furniture would not come out at the other end. For this to happen, a man would have to intervene with authority to rip the whole thing up. But an administration is conceived as a safeguard against disturbances resulting from human initiative. Its gearwheels reject the intervention of man; they reject the watchmaker.

I was posted to Group 2-33 in November 1939. When I arrived, my fellow pilots gave me due warning.

‘You’ll be flying over Germany,’ they said, ‘without guns or controls.’

And, to console me, they added: ‘But don’t take it too hard, for it really doesn’t matter. The German fighters always down you before you know they are there.’

Six months later, in May 1940, the guns and the controls were still freezing up.

In the spring of 1940, everybody was repeating an ancient French saw: ‘France is always saved at the eleventh hour by a miracle.’

There was a reason for the miracle. It used to happen occasionally that the beautiful administrative machine would break down and everybody would agree that it could not be repaired. For want of better, men would be substituted for the machine. And men would save France.

If a bomb had reduced the Air Ministry to ashes, a corporal — any corporal at all — would have been summoned, and the government would have said to him: ‘You are ordered to see that the controls are thawed out. You have full authority. It’s up to you. But if they are still freezing up two weeks from now you go to prison.’

The controls would have been thawed out.

I could cite a hundred examples of this flaw. The Requisitions Committee for the Department of the North, for example, used to requisition heifers quick with young, and the slaughterhouses of France were transformed into graveyards of fœtuses. The requisitioning administration was a perfect machine. And, because it was, not a single cog in the machine, not a single colonel on the board, had the slightest authority to act otherwise than as a cog. Each cog, as if the machine were a watch, was obedient to another cog. Revolt against the whole was useless. And this is why, once the machine began to go out of order, the cogs light-heartedly took to slaughtering freshened heifers. It may have been the lesser evil. Had the machine broken down altogether, the cogs might have begun to kill colonels.

I sat at my wheel discouraged to the marrow of my bones by this universal dilapidation. But, as it seemed to me useless to blow up one of my engines, I fought again with the starboard throttle. In my disgust I forgot myself, wrestled with it too strenuously, and had to give it up. The effort had cost me another twinge at the heart. It was obvious that man was not made to do physical-culture exercises at thirty-three thousand feet in the air. That twinge of pain was a warning, a sort of localized consciousness queerly come to life in the night of my organs.

‘Let the engines blow up if it pleases them,’ I said to myself, ‘I don’t care a hang.’ I was trying to catch my breath. It seemed to me that if I took my mind off my breath I should never be able to catch it again. The image of a pair of old-fashioned bellows came into my mind. ‘I am stirring up my fire,’ I thought. And I prayed that it would make up its mind to catch.

Was there something I had strained beyond repair? At thirty-three thousand feet a slightly strenuous physical effort can strain the heart muscles. A heart is a frail thing. It has to go on working a long time. It is silly to endanger it for such coarse work. As if one burnt up diamonds in order to bake a potato.


As if one burnt up all the villages of France without by their destruction halting the German advance for a single day. And yet this stock of villages, this heritage, these ancient churches, these old houses with all the cargo of memories they carry, with their shining floors of polished walnut, the white linen in their cupboards, the laces at their windows that have served unfrayed so many generations — here they are burning from Alsace to the sea.

Burning is a great word when you look down from thirly-three thousand feet; for over the villages and the forests there is nothing to be seen but a grayish pall caught motionless as ice. Below it the fires are at work like a secret digestion. At thirty-three thousand feet time slows down, for there is no movement here. There are no crackling flames, no crashing beams, no spirals of black smoke. There is only that grayish milk curdled in the amber air. Will that forest recover? Will that village recover? At thirty-three thousand feet, flame over France is a gray leper.

About this, too, there is much to be said. ‘We shall not hesitate to sacrifice our villages.’ I have heard these words spoken. And it was necessary to speak them. When a war is on, a village ceases to be a cluster of traditions. The enemy who hold it have turned it into a nest of rats. Things no longer mean the same. Here are trees three hundred years old that shade the home of your family. But they obstruct the field of fire of a twentytwo-year-old lieutenant. Wherefore he sends up a squad of fifteen men to annihilate the work of time. In ten minutes he destroys three hundred years of patience and sunlight, three hundred years of the religion of the home and of betrothals in the shadows round the grounds. You say to him, ‘My trees!’ but he does not hear you. He is right. He is fighting a war.

But how many villages have we seen burnt down only that war may be made to look like war? Burnt down exactly as trees are cut down, crews flung into the holocaust, infantry sent against tanks, merely to make war look like war. Small wonder that an unutterable disquiet hangs over the land. For nothing does any good.

The German armored divisions move as they please for want of French tanks to set against them; and though the damage they do is superficial, the consequences of their raids are irreparable. In every region through which they make their lightning sweep, a French army, even though it seem to be virtually intact, has ceased to be an army. It has been transformed into clotted segments. It has, so to say, coagulated. The armored divisions play the part of a chemical agent precipitating a colloidal solution. Where once an organism existed they leave a mere sum of organs whose unity has been destroyed. Between the clots — however combative the clots may have remained — the enemy moves at will. An army, if it is to be effective, must be something other than a numerical sum of soldiers.

We stand to the enemy in the relation of one man to three. One plane to ten or twenty. After Dunkerque, one tank to one hundred. We have no time to meditate upon the past; we are engaged in the present. And the present is what it is. No sacrifice, at any moment, on any front, can serve to slow up the German advance.

Whence it comes that throughout the civil and military hierarchies, from the plumber to the minister of state, from the second-class private to the general, there reigns a sort of bad conscience which no one can or dares put into words. And this because sacrifice has become a mere caricature of itself. It is beautiful to sacrifice oneself. These die in order that the rest be saved. The flames are grimly fought when the conflagration has to be put out. Men fight to the death in the cut-off camp so that their rescuers may have time to come to their aid. Yes, but we are surrounded by the conflagration. We have no camp on which to fall back. There is no hope of rescue. And as for those for whom we fight, for whom we say we are fighting, what are we doing except ensuring their murder? For the aeroplane, dropping its bombs on towns behind the lines, has made this such a war as was never dreamt of.

I was later to hear foreigners reproach France with the few bridges that were not blown up, the handful of villages we did not burn, the men who failed to die. But here on the scene it is the contrary, it is exactly the contrary, that strikes me so powerfully. It is our desperate struggle against self-evident fact. We know that nothing can do any good, yet we blow up bridges nevertheless, in order to play the game. We burn down real villages, in order to play the game. It is in order to play the game that our men die.

Of course some are overlooked! Bridges are overlooked, villages are overlooked, men are allowed to continue alive. But the tragedy of this rout is that all its acts are without meaning. The soldier who blows up a bridge can only do it reluctantly. He slows down no enemy — he merely creates a ruined bridge. He destroys his country in order to turn it into a splendid caricature of war. But it was a real bridge, not a caricature, that was blown up.

If a man is to strive with all his heart, the significance of his striving must be unmistakable. The significance of the ashes of the village must be as telling as the significance of the village itself. But the ashes of our villages are meaningless. Our dead must be as meaningful as death itself. But our dead die in a charade.

The question used to be asked, ’Are our men dying well or badly?' Meaningless question! The Staff know that a given town can hold out for three hours. Yet our men are ordered to hold it forever. Having no means of offense, they as good as beg the enemy to destroy the town in order that the rules of war be respected. They are like a friendly opponent at chess who says, ’But you have forgotten to take your pawn.’ Our men spend their time challenging the enemy.

‘We are the defenders of the village,’ they say in effect. ‘You are the attackers. Ready? Play!’

And under the burst of an enemy squadron the village is wiped out.

‘Well played, Nazi!’

Certainly inert men exist, but inertia is frustrated despair. Certainly fugitives exist, and I remember that twice or three times Major Alias had threatened to shoot occasional gloomy wretches picked up on the highways and evasive in the answers they gave to his questions. One’s impulse is so strong to make somebody responsible for disaster, and to believe that by putting him out of the way all can be saved. The fugitives are responsible for the rout, since there would be no rout if there were no fugitives. Therefore, flourish a gun and all is well.

As well bury the sick in order to eliminate sickness. Major Alias always ended by slipping his gun back into its holster. He could see very well that there was something awfully pompous about that gun, like a comic-opera sabre. Alias knew perfectly well that these mournful fellows were an effect, not a cause of the disaster. He knew absolutely that these were the same men, exactly the same men, as those who somewhere else in France, at that very moment, were accepting the fact that they must die. In two short weeks two hundred thousand of them accepted the fact that they must die. But some men are stubborn and insist upon a reason why they should die.

It is hard to find a reason.

Here is a runner engaged in the race of life against other runners of his own class. The starter fires, the runner springs forward — and he discovers that he has a ball and chain attached to his leg. He quits.

‘This race doesn’t count,’ he says.

‘It does, though, it does!’ you protest.

What are you going to tell a man to make him put his heart into a race that is not a race? Alias knew what those fugitives were thinking. ‘This race doesn’t count’ was what they were thinking.

Alias put his gun back into the holster and tried to find a better argument.

There is but one better argument, but one logical argument, and I challenge anybody to find another. It is this: ‘Your death will have no effect at all. Defeat is inescapable. But it is proper that a defeat manifest itself by dead. There must be mourning. Your part is to play the dead.’

‘Very good, sir.’

Alias did not despise the fugitives. He knew well enough that his argument always worked. He himself accepted the expectancy of death. All his crews accepted the expectancy of death. His argument, slightly disguised, never failed to work with us: ‘It’s damned awkward. But the General Staff want it done. They very much want it done. . . . And that’s that.’

‘Very good, sir.’

Alias knew that we had accepted.

My very simple notion is that those who died served as bondsmen for the rest.


I have aged so much that all that I was is left behind me. I stare out through the great glittering plate of my window. Below me are men, but their stories full of sound and fury are reduced to the scale of infusoria wriggling under a microscope. Who can work up interest in a family of infusoria?

Were it not for this twinge of pain that seems to me a living thing, I could sink into drowsy rumination, like an aged tyrant. It is only ten minutes since I spoke of our crews as supernumeraries. Pure rhetoric and sickeningly false. When I saw the German fighters below, did my fancy speak of tender sighs? It spoke of poisonous wasps. That was reality. They were tiny, and they were obscene. It is hard to believe that I invented that disgusting literary image of a dress with a train. I couldn’t have! For one thing, I have never seen the wake of my ship. Here in this cockpit, in which I fit like a pipe in its case, I can see nothing behind me. I see behind me through the eyes of my gunner. And then only if the intercom is working. My gunner never called down to me, ‘Adoring suitors aft in the wake of our train!’

All this is mere juggling with words. Of course I should like to believe, I should like to fight, I should like to win. But try as a man will to pretend to believe, pretend to fight, pretend to win by setting fire to his own villages, it is hard to feel elation over pretense.

It is hard to exist. Man is a knot into which relationships are tied, and my language serves me hardly at all.

I am a tourist in the land of the infusoria.

What is this in me that has broken down? What is the secret of substitutions? Whence comes it that in other circumstances I should be overwhelmed by what seems to me now remote and abstract? Whence comes it that if I were Pasteur the play of true infusoria would seem to me pathetic to the point where a slide under a microscope would represent something infinitely more vast than a virgin forest, and the watching of that slide would seem to me the most thrilling kind of adventure?

My field of vision embraces a territory as large as a province, yet round me space has shrunk to the point of suffocation. I have lost the sense of distance, am blind to distance. But I feel now a kind of thirst for it. And it seems to me that I have stumbled here upon a common denominator of all the aspirations of mankind.

When chance awakens love, everything takes its place in a man in obedience to that love, and love brings him the sense of distance. When, in the Sahara, the Arabs would surge up in the night round our campfires and warn us of a coming danger, the desert would come to life for us and take on meaning. Those messengers had lent it distance. Music does something like this. The humble odor of an old cupboard does it when it awakens and brings memories to life. Pathos is the sense of distance.

But I know that nothing which truly concerns man is calculable, weighable, measurable. True distance is not the concern of the eye; it is granted only to the spirit. Its value is the value of language, for it is language which lends life to things.

And now it seems to me that I begin to see what a civilization is. A civilization is a heritage of beliefs, customs, and knowledge slowly accumulated in the course of centuries, elements difficult at times to justify by logic, but justifying themselves as paths when they lead somewhere, since they open up for man his inner distance.

There is a cheap literature that speaks to us of the need of escape. It is true that when we travel we are in search of distance. But distance is not to be found. It melts away. And escape has never led anywhere. The moment a man finds that he must play the races, sing in choruses, or make war in order to feel himself alive, that man has begun to spin the strands that bind him to other men and to the world. But what wretched strands! A civilization that is really strong fills man to the brim, though he never stir.

There is a density of being in a Dominican at prayer. He is never so much alive as when prostrated and motionless before his God. In Pasteur, holding his breath over the microscope, there is a density of being. Pasteur is never more alive than in that moment of scrutiny. At that moment he is moving forward. He is hurrying. He is advancing in seven-league boots, exploring distance despite his immobility. Cézanne, mute and motionless before his sketch, is an inestimable presence. He is never more alive than when silent, when feeling and pondering. At that moment his canvas becomes for him something wider than the seas.

Distance granted man by the childhood home, by the chamber at Orconte, by the slide under Pasteur’s microscope; distance opened up by a poem. What are these but the fragile and magical gifts that only a civilization is able to distribute? For distance is the property of the spirit, not of the eye; and there is no distance without language.

But how am I to quicken the sense of my language when all is confusion? When the trees round the house are at one and the same time a ship transporting the generations of a family and a mere screen in the way of an artilleryman? When the press of the German bombers bearing down upon the villages has squeezed out a whole people and sent it flowing down the highways like a black syrup? When France displays the sordid disorder of a scattered anthill? When we must fight, not against a flesh-and-blood opponent, but against rudders that freeze, throttles that jam, bolts that stick?

‘You may drop down now, Captain.’

I may drop down. I shall drop down. I shall drop down upon Arras. I shall carry out the second half of our mission — the low-altitude sortie. Behind me I have a thousand years of civilization to help me. But they have not helped me yet. I dare say this is not the moment for rewards.

At five hundred miles an hour I lose altitude. Banking, I have left behind me a polar sun exaggeratedly red. Ahead and three or four miles below me, I see the broad surface of a rectilinear mass of cloud that looks like an ice floe. A whole province of France lies buried in its shadow. Arras lies shadowed by it. Beneath my ice floe, I imagine, the world has a blackish tinge. The war must be stewing there as in the belly of a giant soup kettle. Jammed roads, flaming houses, tools lying where they were flung down, villages in ruins — muddle, endless muddle.

To drop down here is like tumbling into a ruin. We shall have to splash about in their mud. We shall have to live with those below in their barbarous dilapidation. Below us lies a world in decomposition. We are like travelers who, after long years amid coral and palm, are on our way home penniless. We face the prospect of a return to our native sordidness — the greasy food of avaricious relatives, the cantankerousness of family squabbles, the bad conscience born of money cares, the disappointed hopes, the degrading flight before the rent collector, the arrogance of the landlord, squalor, and the stinking death in hospital. Up here, at any rate, death is clean. A death of flame and ice, of sun and sky and flame and ice. But below! That digestion stewing in slime . . .


Dutertre’s voice came down the intercom.

‘Due south, Captain.’

Quite right. Safer to lose altitude over our own zone than the enemy’s.

Looking down on those swarming highways, I understood more clearly than ever what peace meant. In time of peace the world is self-contained. The villagers come home at dusk from their fields. The grain is stored up in the barns. The folded linen is piled up in the cupboards. In time of peace each thing is in its place, easily found. Each friend is where he belongs, easily reached. All men know where they will sleep when night comes. Ah, but peace dies when the framework is ripped apart —when there is no longer a place that is yours in the world — when you know no longer where your friend is to be found. Peace is present when man can see the face that is composed of things that have meaning and are in their place. Peace is present when things form part of a whole greater than their sum, as the divers minerals in the ground collect to become the tree.

But this is war.

I can see from my plane the long swarming highways, that interminable syrup flowing endless to the horizon. The inhabitants of the war zone are being evacuated. This, at any rate, is the official version. But it is no longer true. They are evacuating themselves. There is a crazy contagion in this exodus. Where are these vagabonds going? They are going south — as if in the south there was room for them, food for them, tender hands waiting to welcome them. But southward there are only villages filled to bursting, men and women sleeping in sheds, stocks of food running out. Southward the most generous hearts are beginning little by little to harden at the sight of this mad invasion which little by little, like a sluggish river of mud, is beginning to suffocate them. Can a single province lodge and nourish all France?

Where are they going? They have no notion. They are tramping towards phantom havens — for scarcely does this caravan come up to an oasis when it ceases to be an oasis. One by one these oases burst their bonds and pour into the caravan. And when, by chance, the caravan comes upon a real village, a village that seems still to be alive, it swallows up its substance in a single night, gnaws it clean as the worm polishes the bone.

Faster than the exodus, the enemy moves. Here and there armored cars roll past the stream. It thickens, swirls, flows for a moment backwards. Whole German divisions flounder in this stew; and Germans who at another point were killing their kind are here quenching the thirst of the refugees.

In the course of the retreat our Group had been quartered in a dozen villages. A dozen times our Group had been entangled in the dragging herd that shuffled slowly through those villages.

‘Where are you bound?’

‘Nobody knows.’

They knew nothing. Nobody knew anything. They were evacuating. There was no way to house them. Every road was blocked. And still they were evacuating. Somewhere in the north of France a boot had scattered an anthill, and the ants were on the march. Laboriously. Without panic. Without hope. Without despair. On the march as if in duty bound. The rural constable or the mayor’s clerk had wakened them at three in the morning. One morning at three the order had run through the village: ‘Everybody out!’

They had been expecting this. For two weeks they had seen the passage through their village of refugees who no longer believed in the eternity of their homes. Man had been a settler on the planet. He had ceased to be a nomad. He had built himself villages that had lasted through the ages. The family house had received him at his birth and transported him to his death. And then, like a good bark crossing the water from bank to bank, it had carried his sons over the same stream. All that was ended now. The villagers were on the move. And no one so much as knew why.

Three days earlier I had seen one of these villages go to pieces. It was six in the morning, and Dutertre and I, coming out of our billet, found ourselves in the midst of chaos. All the stables, all the sheds, all the barns and garages, had vomited into the narrow streets a most extraordinary collection of contrivances. There were new motorcars, and there were ancient farm carts that for half a century had stood untouched under layers of dust. There were hay wains and lorries, carryalls and tumbrils. Had we seen a mail coach in this maze it would not have astonished us. Every box on wheels had been dug up and was now laden with the treasures of the home. From door to vehicle, wrapped in bed sheets sagging with hernias, the treasures were being piled in.

Together, those treasures had made up that greater treasure— a home. By itself, each was valueless, yet they were the objects of a private religion, a family’s worship. Each filling its place, they had been made indispensable by habit and beautiful by memories, had been lent price by the sort of fatherland which, together, they constituted. But those who owned them thought each precious in itself and for itself. These treasures had been wrenched from their fireside, their table, their wall; and now that they were heaped up in disorder they showed themselves to be the worn and torn stock of a junkshop that they were. There is no picking up the bits of a face destroyed: it is to the face itself that love goes out. What was heaped up in those carts before us was now forever dead.

‘ What’s going on here? Are you mad ? ‘

The café owner’s wife to whom we spoke shrugged her shoulders.

‘We’re evacuating.’

‘But why, in God’s name?’

‘Nobody knows. Mayor’s orders.’

She was too busy to talk, and vanished up her staircase. Dutertre and I stood in the doorway and looked on. Every motorcar, every lorry, every cart and charabanc, was piled high with children, mattresses, kitchen utensils.

Of all these objects the most pitiful were the old motorcars. A horse standing firmly in the shafts of a farm cart gives off a sensation of solidity. A horse does not call for spare parts. A farm cart can be put into shape with three nails. But all these vestiges of the mechanical age! This assemblage of pistons, valves, magnetos, and gearwheels! How long would it run before it broke down?

‘Please, Captain. Could you give me a hand?’

‘Of course. What is it?’

‘I want to get my car out of the garage.’

I looked at the woman in amazement.

‘Are you sure you know how to drive? ‘

‘ Oh, it will be all right. The road is so jammed, it won’t be hard.’

There was herself, and her sister-inlaw, and their children — seven children in all.

That road easy to drive? A road over which you made two or ten miles a day, stopping dead every two hundred yards? Braking, stopping, shifting gears, changing from low into second and back again every fifty yards in the confusion of an inextricable jam? Easy driving? The woman would break down before she had gone half a mile! And gas! And oil! And water, which she was sure to forget!

‘ Better watch your water. Your radiator is leaking like a sieve.’

‘Well, it’s not a new car.’

‘You’ll be on the road a week, you know. How are you going to make it?’

‘I don’t know.’

She won’t have gone three miles before running into half a dozen cars, stripping her gears, and blowing out her tires. Then she and her sister-in-law and the seven children will start to cry. And she and her sister-in-law and the seven children, faced by problems out of their ken, will give up. They will abandon the car, sit down by the side of the road, and wait for the coming of a shepherd.

But it is astonishing how few shepherds there are. Dutertre and I are staring at sheep who have taken things into their own hands. And these sheep are off in an immense clatter of mechanical equipment. Three thousand pistons. Six thousand valves. The grate, the grind, the clank, the bump of this machinery. Water boiling up in a radiator already. And slowly, laboriously, this caravan of doom stirs into movement. This caravan without spare parts, without tires, without gasoline, without a mechanic. They are mad!

‘Why don’t you stay at home?’

‘God knows we’d like to stay.’

‘Then why do you leave?’

‘They said we had to.’

‘Who said so?’

‘The mayor.’

Always the mayor.

‘Of course we’d all rather stay at home.’

It is a fact that these people are not panicky; they are people doing a blind chore. Dutertre and I tried to shake some of them out of it.

‘Look here, why don’t you unload and put that stuff back into your house? At least you’ll have your pump water to drink.’

‘Of course that would be the best thing.’

‘But you are free to do it. Why don’t you?’

Dutertre and I are winning. A cluster of villagers has collected round us. They listen to us. They nod their heads approvingly.

‘He’s right, he is, the captain.’

Others come to our support. A road mender, converted, is hotter about it than I am.

‘Always said so. Get out on that road and there’s nothing but asphalt to eat.’

They argue. They agree. They will stay. Some go off to preach to others. And they come back discouraged.

‘Won’t do. Have to go.’


‘Baker’s already left. Who will bake our bread?’

The village has already broken down. At one point or another it has burst; and through that hole its contents are running out. Hopeless.

Dutertre said what he thought about it: —

‘The tragedy is that men have been taught that war is an abnormal condition. In the past they would have stayed home. War and life were the same thing.’

I went back to the café owner.

‘You can let us have a cup of coffee, I suppose. We are flying this morning.’

‘Ah, my poor lads!’

She wiped her eyes. It was not we she was weeping for — nor herself. Already she was crying with exhaustion. And yet she had not even started on that extraordinary exodus of a caravan which was to go further to pieces with every mile of its journey.

Here and there overhead the enemy fighters flew low and spat forth a burst of machine-gun fire upon this lamentable flock. But it was astonishing how on the whole the enemy left that flock to itself. Here and there I could see a car in flames, but very few. And there were few dead. Death was a sort of luxury, something like a bit of advice. It was the nip in the hock by which the shepherd dog hurried the flock along. Though one wondered why this enemy action was so little insistent, so altogether sporadic and local. The enemy was at no pains whatever to blow up the roads. True, the roads had no need of the enemy to be useless. The machines took care of that. They went spontaneously out of order. The machine is conceived for a deliberate and peaceful society, a society master of its time. When man is not present to repair the machine, regulate it, polish it, it ages at a dizzying pace. Tonight all these machines will look a thousand years old. I seemed to be looking on at the death throes of the machine.

Here is a peasant whipping up his horse. Perched on his seat with the majesty of a king, he lords it over the whole caravan.

‘You look very satisfied up there.’

‘Ah, it’s the end of the world.’

Suddenly I felt queasy. All these workers, these simple people, each with his place in the world, were to be transformed into parasites, vermin. They were going to spread over the countryside and devour it. The thought made me sick.

‘Why don’t you stay home? Who is going to feed you?’

‘Nobody knows.’

How is one to feed millions of migrants shuffling over miles of road at the rate of two to ten miles a day? If food existed, it could not be brought up to them.

All this muddle of men and scrap iron lost on the asphalt of the highways made me think suddenly of my march through the Libyan desert. Prévot and I had crashed in a landscape glassy with black rocks and covered with a carpet of sungrilled iron. This was not far different.

I stared at the refugees in despair. How long would a swarm of locusts last in a field of asphalt?

‘Do you expect to drink rain water?’

‘Nobody knows.’

They knew nothing. For ten days they had seen an unbroken stream of refugees from the north flow through their village. For ten days they had watched this unending exodus. And their turn had come. They would take their place in the procession. But without confidence: —

‘If it was up to me, I’d rather die at home.’

‘We’d all rather die at home.’

That was true. Their village might have collapsed over their heads, and still none would have chosen to leave.

Had France possessed reserves of food, that food could never have been brought up the highways down which this stream was flowing. If you have to, you can force your way downstream through broken-down cars, jammed cars, inextricable knots of traffic at successive crossroads. But how can you move against such a stream?

‘There being no reserves of food,’ said Dutertre grimly, ‘all is well.’

A rumor is spreading that the Government has forbidden all evacuations. Even if it were true, how were the orders to be transmitted? There are no roads, and the telephone cables are jammed, or cut; or the messages are received with a distrust born of experience. And it is no longer a matter of giving orders. What is wanted is the invention of a new code. For a thousand years man has been taught that women and children are to be shielded from war. War is a matter for men only. The village mayors are full of this law of society; their clerks know it; the schoolteachers know it. Assume that suddenly they receive orders to stop the evacuations — which is to say, force women and children to remain in the zone of bombardment. It will take them a month to adjust their conscience to this sign of a new age. You cannot overthrow a system of morality at one blow. And, while you examine your conscience, the enemy continues his advance. Wherefore the mayors, their clerks, the schoolteachers, send forth this stream of people on the highways. What is to be done? Where does truth reside? Forward troop the sheep without shepherd.

‘Is there a doctor in this village?’

‘You don’t live here, I take it.’

‘No. We live up north.’

‘What, do you want of a doctor?’

‘My wife is going to have a baby.’ Lying among her kitchen utensils, in this desert of old iron.

‘Couldn’t you have thought of a doctor earlier?’

‘We’ve been four days on the road.’

The road is an irresistible stream. Where can you stop? Every village you move through is deserted the moment you arrive, pours into the caravan like the flow of a burst pipe into a giant sewer.

‘No. No doctor here. The Group doctor is ten miles up the line.’

‘Well, thank you.’

The man mopped his forehead. Everything was going to pieces. His wife would bring her child into the world in a bed of kitchen utensils. There was nothing cruel about this. It was above all, most of all, monstrously beyond the bounds of things human. Nobody complained. Complaint was meaningless. His wife would die, and he would not complain. There was no help for it. It was a cosmic cataclysm.

‘If we could only stop somewhere!’

Find a real village, a real inn, a real hospital. But, for God knows what reason, the hospitals too are being evacuated. It is part of the game. There isn’t time to recast the rules of the game. Find a real death. But there is no real death any longer. There are bodies that break down the way the cars do.

Everywhere in this mob I sense a worn-out haste, a haste that has renounced haste. At the rate of tw?o to ten miles a day these people are fleeing before tanks moving at fifty miles a day and aeroplanes flying at four hundred miles an hour. Thus treacle flows when the bottle has been overturned. This man’s wife would lie in; but he had all the time in the world before him. It was urgent. Was it really urgent? It was suspended in unstable equilibrium between urgency and eternity.

The world of these people had slowed down, like the thoughts of a dying man. This was an enormous flock that stood, exhausted and shuffling, at the gates of a slaughterhouse, condemned to death on its asphalt. Were there ten or only five million of them on the asphalt? Here was a people accepting the notion of its reabsorption into eternity. It had forgotten that individuals existed; its thoughts were of a cosmic tragedy.

‘How,’ I said to myself, ‘are these people to survive?’ Man does not eat branches. But they themselves were not in the least horrified by their fate. Wrenched from their homes, their work, their responsibilities, they had lost all significance. Their very identity seemed to have been rubbed off. They were very little themselves. They were very little alive. Later, they would re-invent their sufferings. Meanwhile they were suffering most of all from the aching strain of heavy loads, from the loosened knots in bed sheets that dripped with their dreary entrails, from the strain of pushing their handcarts those many miles.

Not a word about the defeat. Naturally. No man feels the need of discussing a thing that constitutes his very substance. They were the defeat. I had suddenly the vision of a France losing its entrails. Quick! Sew up our France! There is not a moment to lose. France is doomed.

It began again. Like fish on dry land, these people were suffocating: —

‘Anybody got any milk here?’

A question to make you die laughing.

‘My kid hasn’t drunk anything since yesterday.’

The kid was a six-months-old baby. He made a lot of noise. But his noise wouldn’t last. Fish out of water are soon quiet. There is no milk here. There is only scrap iron here. There is only an enormous quantity of useless scrap iron, falling apart mile after mile, dropping bolts, nuts, screws, sheets, while it bears this prodigiously needless exodus, this people, away towards oblivion.

A rumor spreads that some miles to the south the road is being machinegunned by the enemy. There is talk of bombs. There is even the muffled sound of distant explosions. The rumor is no mere rumor.

But these people are not frightened. They seem even to perk up a little at the news. That concrete risk seems to them healthier than this drowning in old iron.

Ah, the blueprint that historians will draft of all this! The angles they will plot to lend shape to this mess! They will take the word of a cabinet minister, the decision of a general, the discussion of a committee, and out of this parade of ghosts they will build historic conversations in which they will discern farsighted views and weighty responsibilities. They will invent agreements, resistances, attitudinal pleas, cowardices. But I know what a ministry can be. I’ve seen one. It taught me that, once a government evacuates, it is no longer a government. It is like a human body. If you begin to take it apart, sending the stomach here, the liver there, the guts somewhere else, that collection no longer constitutes an organism. I spent twenty minutes at the Air Ministry. And I can tell you that a minister is a being who controls the movements of his messenger. Miraculous control: he has only to press a button. An electric cord still joins the flunky to the minister. The minister presses the button and the flunky appears.

‘My car,’ says the minister.

And there his authority stops. He gives his flunky a little exercise. But the flunky is not sure if, on earth, there exists a car that is the minister’s. No electric cord runs between the flunky and any chauffeur. The chauffeur is lost somewhere, out in the world. What could the men who governed us know of the war? Situated as we were, impossible as liaison now was, it would take our people a week to arrange for the bombardment of an enemy division spotted by my Group. What sound could reach the ears of our governors from this land that was losing its entrails? Newrs moved at the rate of ten miles a day. The telephone service was out. There was no way of transmitting a picture of this being, this France, in a state of decomposition. The Government swam in a void, a polar void. From time to time it w-as reached by desperately urgent appeals; but they were abstract, reduced to three scrawled lines. How could those who governed know whether ten million Frenchmen had or had not already died of hunger? And this cry for help from ten million men could have been contained in a single sentence. It wants but a single sentence to say: —

‘Meet you tomorrow’ at four.’


‘They say ten million men are dead.’


‘Blois is in flames.’

Or: —

‘They’ve found your chauffeur.’

All this on the same level of importance. Just like that. Ten million men. The motorcar. The Army of the East. Western civilization. The chauffeur has been found. England. Bread. What time is it?

I give you seven letters. They are the seven letters of the Bible. Reproduce the Bible with them for me.

Historians will forget reality. They will invent thinking men, joined by mysterious fibres to an intelligible universe, possessed of sound farsighted views and pondering grave decisions according to the purest laws of Cartesian logic. There will be powers of good and powers of evil, heroes and traitors. But treason implies responsibility for something, control over something, influence upon something, knowledge of something. Treason in our time is a proof of genius. France has been transformed into a cancer.


Already, as I move in the direction of Arras, peace is everywhere beginning to take shape. Not that well-defined peace which, like a new period in history, follows upon a war decorously terminated by a treaty. This is a nameless peace that stands for the end of everything. For an end of things that go on endlessly ending. It is an impulse that little by little finds itself bogged down. There is no feeling that either a good or a bad conclusion is on the way. Quite the contrary. Little by little the notion that this putrefaction is provisional gives way to the feeling that it may be eternal. Nothing here is conclusive, for there is no grip by which this great creature can be seized as you might seize a drowning man by knotting your fist in his hair. Everything has gone to pieces, and not even the most pathetic striving can bring up more than an insufficient lock of hair. The peace that is on its way is not the fruit of a decision reached by man. It spreads apace like a gray leprosy.

Below me those roads on which the caravan is breaking down, on which the enemy kills or quenches thirst at will, put me in mind of the miry regions where land and water are indistinguishable. This peace that has become fused with this war has begun to rot this war.

My friend Léon Worth heard on the road an extraordinary remark which he recorded in his excellent book. On the left were the Germans, and on the right the French. Between the two flowed the sluggish stream of refugees. Hundreds of women and children extricating themselves as well as they were able from flaming motorcars. A French artillery officer, entangled despite himself in the snarl, stopped to set up his seventy-five beside the road. Opposite, the enemy aimed, missed his target, and mowed down the migrants in his line of fire. Whereupon Frenchwomen rushed upon the French lieutenant who, running with sweat, was stubbornly performing his incomprehensible duty, trying (with twelve men!) to hold a position that was untenable, and shouted at him: ‘Go away! Go away! You cowards!’

The lieutenant and his men went away. Wherever they went, they were brought up against problems of peace, not of war. Of course children should not be massacred on the highways. Yet every soldier who pulled a trigger found a child in his line of fire. Every army lorry that moved or tried to move through that mob was potentially the cause of death among those people. For, moving upstream against, the flow, the lorry could not but bottle up the whole highway.

‘You are mad! Let us through! My child is dying!’

‘We’re fighting a war.’

‘What war? Where are you fighting it? It will take you three days to go a mile against this current.’

Here was a handful of French soldiers in a lorry, trying to reach a point to which they had been ordered and which had certainly been abandoned to the enemy hours before. All that they could think about was their plain duty: —

‘Gangway, there! ‘

‘Why don’t you let us ride with you? You are beasts!’

The child bawls.

’And the kid...'

But the kid has stopped crying. It takes milk to make a child cry.

‘We’re fighting a war.’

There was a kind of despairing stupidity in the way they repeated it.

‘But you will never find your war! You wall croak on the road with the rest of us!’

‘We’re fighting a war.’

They were by no means sure of what they were saying. They were by no means sure that they were fighting a war. They had never seen the enemy. They were rolling in a lorry towards a goal more fugitive than a mirage. They were moving towards nothing more than a peace that was a pool of putrefaction. And, as they were caught up inextricably in the chaos, they jumped down from the lorry. Instantly they were surrounded.

‘Have you any water?’

So they shared their water.

‘Have you any bread?’

And they shared their bread.

‘But you can’t leave her here to die!’

So into their lorry they put the woman who lay dying in a car wrecked by the side of the road.

‘And what about this child?’

The child went in beside the dying woman.

‘And this woman in labor.’

They put her in beside the living child.

And for another woman they found room merely because she was crying so bitterly.

It took an hour to free the lorry and turn it round till it too faced the south. Rising like an erratic block, it too would now be carried downstream by the civilian flood. The soldiers had been converted to this peace. Because they hadn’t been able to find the war. Because the gun aimed at you kills a child. Because on your way up to the lines you stumble upon women in labor. Because it is as useless to try to transmit information or receive a command as to communicate with the inhabitants of Mars. There is no longer an army. There are only men.

They have been converted to this peace. They have been changed by the force of things into mechanics, doctors, shepherds, stretcher-bearers. Because these little people are ignorant of how to cure the ills of their scrap iron, the soldiers repair their cars. And not one of them could tell you, in the midst of his sweating labor, whether he was a hero or a man who deserved to be courtmartialed. It would not astonish him if he were decorated on the spot. Nor if he were stood up against a wall with a dozen bullets in his skull. Nor if he were demobilized. Nothing would astonish him. It is a long time since he and his kind have crossed the frontiers of astonishment.

Here is an immense stew in which not an order, not a movement, not a scrap of news, not a wave of anything at all can run on beyond a single mile. Exactly as the villages topple one by one into the common sewer, so these army lorries, absorbed into this peace, are one by one converted to this peace. These handfuls of men who would have accepted without question the notion of their imminent death — assuming they had so much as thought of it — now accept the duties they meet; and they fall to their job of repairing an antique carryall into which three nuns, embarked upon God knows what pilgrimage, off for God knows what haven invented in a fairy tale, have hustled a dozen children menaced by death.


Like Alias, when he slipped his gun back into its holster, I shall not sit in judgment upon these men who threw in their hand. Where was the breath to come from that would bring them life? Where the face that would unite them? All that they knew of the rest of the world was contained in the crazy rumors that sprouted by the roadside every mile or two in the form of ludicrous hypotheses, and somehow, slowly spreading through a mile or two of the chaos, were transformed into certainties. The United States had declared war. The Pope had committed suicide. Russian planes had set fire to Berlin. The Armistice had been signed three days ago. Hitler had landed in England.

There is no shepherd for the women and children, but none for the men, either. The general is able to communicate with his orderly, the cabinet minister with his messenger. It may be that, by their eloquence, general and minister are able to transfigure their servants. Alias is able to communicate with his pilots and to win from them the sacrifice of their lives. The sergeant commanding the lorry is able to communicate with his squad. Beyond this, there is no way in the world of welding oneself to the rest. Even if we assume that at the moment of my flight towards Arras a genius existed who knew precisely what was happening in France, and that genius, that chief, had a plan that would save France, all that chief possessed to carry out his plan was an electric cord which rang a bell in his reception room; and the army he commanded was made up of that messenger — provided that messenger was still at his post in the reception room.

Those stray parties of soldiers who, separated from their scattered units, wandered over the jammed roads, were soldiers with no soldiering to do. But they were not filled with that despair which the vanquished patriot is supposed to feel. If in their confusion of mind they longed for peace, the peace they longed for meant to them the end of this unspeakable chaos and the return to some kind of identity, however humble. A shoemaker among them might dream that he was hammering pegs into a shoe. To hammer pegs into a shoe again would mean for him building a world. And if these men allowed themselves to be rolled back by the tide it was because the general chaos had disintegrated them, and not because they felt a horror of dying. They felt no horror of anything; they were empty of feeling.

We may take it as incontrovertible fact that men cannot be changed overnight from conquered into conquerors. Anybody who speaks of an army falling back in order to go on fighting is employing verbal subterfuge. The troops that fall back, and those that give battle, are not the same men. The army that fell back was no longer an army. I do not mean that men in retreat become unworthy of victory. Simply, the fact of falling back destroys all the ties, material and spiritual, by which they were once united. What was once an army becomes a scattering of disintegrated parts allowed to filter back to the rear. Fresh reserves are substituted for them, because the reserves constitute an organism, a whole. It is they, not a reorganized army, who undertake to block the path of the enemy. As for the fugitives, an attempt is made to collect them and reshape them into an army. But where, as in France, there are no reserves to throw in, your initial retreat is irreparable.

There is but one principle of unity, and that is victory. Defeat not only splits men off from other men, it creates a split within the individual himself. If those apathetic fugitives do not mourn the fate of a collapsing France it is simply because they are the defeated. It is in the hearts of those men that France has been defeated. To weep for France is already the promise of victory.

But we do not mourn the fate of fragments: we mourn the fate of a whole. Virtually none of those men, neither those still fighting nor those already benumbed, will see that whole, will see the face of a vanquished France, until later, when the tumult has died and silence has been restored. Today, in the midst of defeat, each man is concentrated upon a stubborn or shattered vulgar detail— a broken-down lorry, a road bottled up, a throttle stuck fast, a sortie that is a patent absurdity. The absurdity of the sortie is a sign of the collapse. The very act performed to arrest the collapse is a sign of absurdity. For every element stands divided against itself: there is no unity.

During a retreat there is no weeping over the collapse but only over the bit of iron that has snapped off in one’s hand, the sole tangible thing, the thing out of order. Some weep for a smashed radiator, others for the lack of milk. Alias, if he were to weep, would weep over the imbecility of the depots that refuse to deliver spare parts except against a requisition drawn in due form — parts that tomorrow will fall into the hands of the enemy. Collapsing France has become a deluge of fragments none of which has any identity — neither this aeroplane nor that lorry, neither that highway nor this foul throttle that refuses to budge.

Of course a collapse is a sad spectacle. Base men reveal themselves base. Pillagers reveal themselves pillagers. Institutions crumble. Troops heartsick and weary decompose. All these effects are implicit in defeat as death is implicit in the death rattle. But if the woman you loved were run over by a lorry, would you feel impelled to criticize her ugliness?

The injustice of defeat lies in the fact that its very victims are themselves made to look like heartless accomplices in the result. It is impossible to see behind defeat those sacrifices, that austere performance of duty, the self-discipline and the vigilance that are there — those things the god of battle was unable to make use of. Defeat shows us generals without authority, men without organization, crowds that are passive. Of course there was negligence, inertia, failure to measure up, here and there, to the task. But what is really significant is that the rumor of a Russian change of heart or an American intervention was enough to triple the value of these men, enough to bind them together again in a common hope. Each time that such a rumor blew through France like a sea wind, our men were filled with a fresh exaltation. If France is to be judged, judge her not by the effects of her defeat but by her readiness to sacrifice herself.

France agreed to go to war in the face of the arguments of logicians who spoke thus: ‘We cannot in a single year create the forty million Frenchmen needed to match those eighty millions of Germans. We cannot overnight transform a nation of farmers into a people of factory workers such as the Germans are. We cannot change our wheat fields into coal fields. We cannot look for American intervention. The Germans demand Danzig. They thus impose upon us, not the duty of saving Danzig, which is impossible, but of committing suicide in order to preserve our honor. But what dishonor is there in possessing a land that brings forth more wheat than machines? What dishonor is there in being only forty millions to the other man’s eighty millions? Why should the dishonor be ours, and not the whole world’s?’ They were perfectly right. War, for France, signified disaster. Was France to refuse to go to war in order to spare herself defeat? I think not; and France must instinctively have thought the same, since none of these warnings dissuaded France from war. Among us, spirit conquered intelligence.

Life always bursts the boundaries of formulas. Defeat may prove to have been the only path to resurrection, despite its ugliness. I take it for granted that to create a tree I condemn a seed to rot. If the first act of resistance comes too late it is unprofitable. But it is, nevertheless, the awakening of resistance. A tree may grow from it as from a seed.

France played her part. Her part consisted in offering herself up to be crushed and in seeing herself buried for a time in silence — since the world chose to arbitrate, and neither fought nor united against a common enemy. When a fort is to be taken by storm some men necessarily are in the front rank. Almost always, those men die. But the front rank must die if the fort is to be captured.

Since we of France agreed to fight this war without illusions, this was the role that fell to us. We put farmers into the field against factory workers — one man into the field against three. I refuse to sit in judgment upon the ugliness of the collapse. Is a pilot brought down in flames to be judged by the consequences? Obviously, he will be disfigured,


Which does not prevent this from being an odd war— aside from the spiritual fact that made it necessary. An odd war! I was never ashamed of this label. Hardly had we declared war when, being in no state to take the offensive, we began to look forward to our annihilation. Here it is.

We set up our haycocks against their tanks; and the haycocks turned out useless for defense. This day, as I fly to Arras, the annihilation has been consummated. There is no longer an army, there is no liaison, no matériel, and there are no reserves.

Nevertheless I carry on as solemnly as if this were war. I dive towards the German army at five hundred miles an hour. Why? I know! To frighten the Germans. To make them evacuate France. For since the intelligence I may bring back will be useless, this sortie can have no other purpose.

An odd war!

As a matter of fact, I am boasting. I have lost a great deal of altitude. Controls and throttles have thawed out. I have stepped down my speed to no more than three hundred and thirty miles an hour. A pity. I shall frighten the Germans much less.

After all, it is we ourselves who call this an odd war. Why not? I should imagine that no one would deny us the right to joke about it as we pleased, since it is we who are sacrificing ourselves, not those others who think our joke immoral. Surely I have the right to joke about my death if joking about it gives me pleasure. And Dutertre has that right. I have the right to play with paradoxes. Why is it that those villages are still in flames? Why is it that that population has poured pell-mell out on the pavements? Why is it that we rush with inflexible determination towards an unmistakable slaughterhouse?

I have every right to my joke; for in this moment I am fully conscious of what I am doing. I accept death. It is not danger that I accept. It is not combat that I accept. It is death. I have learned a great truth. War is not the acceptance of danger. It is not the acceptance of combat. For the combatant, it is at certain moments the pure and simple acceptance of death.

And while men in the outside world were wondering, ‘Why is it that more Frenchmen are not being killed?’ I was wondering, as I watched our crews go off to their death, ‘What are we giving ourselves to? Who is still paying this bill?’

For we were dying. For two hundred thousand Frenchmen did die. Those dead do not exemplify an extraordinary resistance. I am not singing the praises of an extraordinary resistance. Such a resistance was impossible. But there were men here giving up their lives. There were clusters of infantrymen massacred in undefendable farmhouses. There were aviation crews melting like wax flung into a fire. And all this exemplified something.

Look once again at Group 2-33. Will you explain to me why, as I fly to Arras, we of Group 2-33 still agree to die? For the esteem of the world? But esteem implies the existence of a judge. And I have the impression that none of us will grant whoever it may be the right to sit in judgment. To us who imagine that we are defending a cause which is fundamentally the common cause, the cause of Poland, of Holland, of Belgium, of Norway; to us who hold this view, the rôle of arbiter seems much too comfortable. It is we who sit in judgment upon the arbiter. I invite you to try to explain to us who take off with a ‘Very good, sir,’ having one chance in three to get back when the sortie is an easy one; I invite you to try to explain to a pilot of a certain squadron, half of whose neck and jaw were shot away so that he is forced to renounce the love of woman for life, is frustrated in a fundamental right of man, frustrated as totally as if he were behind prison walls, surrounded as inescapably by his virtue and preserved as totally by his disfigurement, isolated as completely by his ugliness — I invite you to explain to him that certain bystanders are sitting in judgment upon him. Toreadors live for the bull-fight crowd: we are not toreadors. If you said to another of my friends, to Hochedé, ‘You’ve got to go up because there are bystanders who have their eye on you,’ Hochedé would answer, ‘There must be some mistake; it is I, Hochedé, who have my eye on those bystanders.’

For, after all, why do we go on fighting? For democracy? If we die for democracy then we must be one of the democracies. Let the rest fight with us, if that is the case. But the most powerful of them, the only democracy that could save us, chooses to bide its time. Very good. That is its right. But, by so doing, that democracy signifies that we are fighting for ourselves alone. And we go on fighting despite the assurance that we have lost the war. Why, then, do we go on dying? Out of despair? But there is no despair. You know nothing at all about defeat if you think there is room in it for despair.

There is a verity that is higher than the pronouncements of the intelligence. There is a thing which pierces and governs us and which cannot be grasped by the intelligence. A tree has no language. We are a tree. There are truths which are evident, though not to be put into words. I do not die in order to obstruct the path of the invasion, for there is no shelter upon which I can fall back with those I love. I do not die to preserve my honor, since I deny that my honor is at stake, and I challenge the jurisdiction of my judge. Nor do I die out of desperation.

And yet Dutertre, looking at his map, having plotted the position of Arras somewhere round the one hundred and seventy-fifth degree of the compass, is about to say to me, — I can feel it, — ‘One hundred and seventy-five degrees, Captain,’

And I shall accept.

(To be concluded)