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Flight to Arras, Page 6

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

  One fact the enemy grasped and exploited--that men fill small space in the earth's immensity. A continuous wall of men along our front would require a hundred million soldiers. Necessarily, there were always gaps between the French units. In theory, these gaps are cancelled by the mobility of the units. Not, however, in the theory of the armored division, for which an almost unmotorized army is as good as unmanceuvrable. The gaps are real gaps. Whence this simple tactical rule: "An armored division should move against the enemy like water. It should bear lightly against the enemy's wall of defence and advance only at the point where it meets with no resistance." The tanks operate by this rule, bear against the wall, and never fail to break through. They move as they please for want of French tanks to set against them; and though the damage they do is superficial,--capture of unit Staffs, cutting of telephone cables, burning of villages,--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; no time to say to ourselves even this--that forty million farmers must lose an armament race run against eighty million industrial workers. 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 uneasiness which no one can or dares put into words. There is no dignity in sacrifice if it is mere parody or suicide. 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 fail back. We know no rescuers on whom we can pin our hope. And as for those for whom we fight, for whom we say we are fighting, what are we doing except, apparently, 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 enemy's hundred and sixty divisions are not impressed by our burnings and our dead.

  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 saber. Alias knew perfectly well that those mournful fellows were an effect, not a cause of the disaster. He knew absolutely that they 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 one hundred and fifty 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 docs 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 windscreen. Below me are men. 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 inter-com 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 ties serve me hardly at all.

  What is this in me that has broken down? What is the secret of substitutions? Whence comes it that a gesture, a word, can give rise to endless ripples in a human destiny? 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? Whence comes it that that black dot below, which is a house of men....

  But again a childhood memory returns to me.

  When I was a small boy.... I speak of my early childhood, that is to say, of a vast region out of which all men emerge. Whence come I? I come from my childhood. I come from childhood as from a homeland.... When I was a small boy, then, I had a queer experience.

  I must have been five or six years old. It was eight in the evening. At eight o'clock children ought to be in bed. Particularly in winter, when night has already fallen. For some reason I had been forgotten.

  On the ground floor of our house in the country--which was big--there was a hall that seemed to me immense. It led into the warm room at the back in which we children were fed our supper. I had always been afraid of that hall, perhaps because of the feeble light of the lamp that hung in the middle of it and scarcely drew it forth from the darkness. A signal rather than a light. The hall was paneled high up, and the paneling creaked, which was another reason for my fear. And it was cold. Coming into it out of the warm and lamplit rooms that lined it was like coming into a cavern.

  But that evening, seeing that I had been forgotten, I gave way to the demon of evil in me, reached up on tiptoe for the handle of our supper-room door, pushed the door softly in, and embarked upon my illicit exploration of the world.

  The creaking of the paneling was the first warning I received of heavenly anger. I could see in the shadow the great reproving panels. Not daring to explore farther, I climbed up on a console table, and there, resting against the wall and letting my legs hang, I sat with beating heart like every shipwrecked sailor before me on his reef in mid-sea.

  At that moment the drawing-room door opened. Two uncles who absolutely terrified me shut the door behind them upon the lights and the hubbub of voices, and began to pace the hall.

  I trembled lest I be discovered. Uncle Hubert was in my eyes the very image of severity, A delegate of divine justice. This man, who never in his life had tweaked a child's ear or pinched its cheek affectionately, always threatened me when I had been naughty with a terrifying frown and these words: "The next time that I go to America I shall bring back a whipping machine. American machines are the most modern in the world. That is why American children are the best behaved in the world. And a very good thing for their parents, too."

  I did not like America.

  Here they were, then, strolling back and forth through the interminable hall while I almost fainted holding my breath and following them with my eyes and ears. "In times like these," they said; and they moved off with their secret meant only for grown people. "In times like these," I memorized the phrase. Then, as if a tide had rolled up to me another of its indecipherable treasures--"It's pure madness, positive madness," one uncle said to the other. And I fished up that phrase as if it were a priceless thing, and to myself I said slowly, testing its power upon the consciousness of a five-year-old, "It's pure madness, positive madness."

  The tide carried my uncles away, the tide rolled them up again. With a kind of sidereal regularity, like a gravitational phenomenon, this going and coming repeated itself and suggested to me fitfully lighted glimpses of the life of man. I was marooned on my console for eternity, the clandestine listener to a solemn consultation in the course of which my uncles, who knew all there was to know, were collaborating in the creation of the world. The house might stand a thousand years: for all that thousand years my two uncles, pacing the hall with the patience of a pendulum, would continue to fill the air with the apprehension of eternity.

  That black dot at which I stare is surely a human habitation thirty-three thousand feet below me. And I receive nothing from it. Yet it is possibly a great country house, and there may be two uncles in it pacing to and fro and slowly constructing in the consciousness of a child something as fabulous as the immensity of the seas.

  My field of vision embraces a territory as large as a province, yet round me space has shrunk to the point of suffocation. In all this space I have less space at my disposal than was available to me in the replica of that black dot. 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 spring 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 binds things together.

  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, go to the Arctic, 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. What are we worth when motionless, is the question.

  There is a density of being in a Dominican at prayer. He is never so much alive as when prostrate 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. Cezanne, 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 field of vision of 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 artill
eryman? 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 ant-hill? 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...