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Flight to Arras, Page 8

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

  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 that parade of ghosts they will build historic conversations in which they will discern farsighted views and weighty responsibilities. They will invent agreements, resistances, attitudinous pleas, cowardices. But I know what an evacuated 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 in rime of evacuation 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 flunkey to the minister. The minister presses the button and the flunkey appears.

  "My car," says the minister.

  And there his authority stops. He gives his flunkey a little exercise. But the flunkey is not sure if, on earth, there exists a car that is the minister's. No electric cord runs between the flunkey and anything at all. 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? News 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 was reached by desperately urgent appeals; but they were abstract, reduced to three scrawled lines. How could those who governed us 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."


  "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 fibers 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. Why, I want to know, are not traitors decorated?


  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 Leon Werth 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 French 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! The children are 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!"

  A 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 will 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 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 musculature of the war was invisible, 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 tty 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, since these little people are ignorant of how to cure th
e ills of their scrap-iron, the soldiers have taken to repairing 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 court-martialled. 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 fairytale, have hustled a dozen children threatened 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 wave that would reach them, the vision 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 !s 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 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 his messenger--provided that his 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 re-shape 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.

  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 universal disaster but only over the thing for which one is personally responsible. 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 which tomorrow will fail 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 criticise her ugliness?

  The injustice of defeat lies in the fact that its most innocent victims are made to look like heartless accomplices. It is impossible to see behind defeat the sacrifices, the austere performance of duty, the self-discipline and the vigilance that are there--those things the god of battle does not take account of. Defeat cannot show love, though love is there. Defeat shows up generals without authority, men without organization, crowds that are passive. Unquestionably, slackers and cowards have their part in this defeat. But what do they signify? 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 those 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.

  In accepting the challenge of this war, France accepted the risk of disfigurement for a time by defeat. Was France to refuse this challenge, which is to say, this risk of disfigurement? There were Frenchmen who said: "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 wheatfields into coalfields. 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. Why? 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 fight in order to spare herself defeat? I think not. And France must instinctively have thought the same, since these warnings could not dissuade France from war. Among us, spirit conquered intelligence.

  Life always bursts the bound
aries 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 doomed to defeat. But it is, nevertheless, the awakening of resistance. Life 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. And who is 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 a funny war--aside from the spiritual reality that made it necessary. A funny 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 defence. This day, as I fly to Arras, the annihilation has been consummated. There is no longer an army, there is no liaison, no materiel, 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.

  A funny 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 German army much less.