As local author Adam Hochschild makes the rounds with his latest, amazing book, To End All Wars [following King Leopold’s Ghost, and Bury the Chains, both wonderful and heart-teaching books] we are reminded again of that first of all modern wars, WW I;  modern in its weaponry, modern in how such weapons made futile and murderous the strategies from the previous war, modern in it use of mass armies and modern in the uncountable deaths of civilians.

Many many books have been written about that war, its futility, the jingoistic patriotism that converted so many pacifists to bellecists , the ignorance and incompetence of much of the high commands, and yes, the courage and stoicism of those under fire.  Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Hemingway’s A Farwell to Arms,  are standard reading for American, and I’ve heard, German,  high school students.  Under Fire  by Henri Barbusse (French) and Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel [German] were widely read in their time. Historical work from Paul Fussel, The Great War and Modern Memory, the contrarian Niall Ferguson’s, The Pity of War: Explaining World War One, and John Keegan’s, The First World War, have recently brought new scholarship and analysis to the keystone events of the century that followed.  Hochshild’s inclusion of those who resisted the swelling strains of honor, glory and easy victory, at great personal sacrifice, is a welcome and long over due perspective.

Undeservedly left out of lists of powerful fictional treatments of “The Great War”  is Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory. When it was published in 1935 it stayed at the top of best-seller lists for weeks; a play was written from it and Cobb was hired as a Hollywood screen writer on the strength of it.  Perhaps the horrors of WW II came too soon afterwards.  Remarque and Hemingway had both published in 1929, in the “sweet spot” between the two wars.  Perhaps also, the unmitigated condemnation of the officer corps, a view shared by fellow Canadian soldier Charles  Yale Harrison’s 1930 Generals Die in Bed, was enough to bury it away from the rising “necessary” militarism of the 1940s.

In fact, Cobb’s view was too harsh even for Stanley Kubrick — or his producers– when he chose the story for his 1957 debut film by the same name.  While still a remarkable film, with strong war-as-stupidity themes, Col Dax — Kirk Douglas– who in both book and film  is the Regimental Commander, is turned in the movie from a decent officer who protests and then shuts-up over the summary court martials of three soldiers into their outraged defender.   He is made to turn down a promotion in return for silence, with a thundering rebuke to his commanding general.   Kubrick, in the general bleakness of the story, had to offer a stronger counterpoint of an honorable and morally sensitive officer.  Not so Cobb.

Even with the strengthening of Dax’s role, the movie came under strong fire in France, Germany and Spain for its anti-military content.  Release was delayed in all three countries until the furor died down.

The plot is a simple one.  Because a German hill, in the way of a French advance — called “the pimple,” in the novel, and “the anthill,” in the film — had been mistakenly reported as taken, it has to be taken — despite the exhaustion of the troops, and the “within bounds” protests of Dax and other officers. The assault takes place.  Many French soldiers and junior officers are killed.  The French do not even get to the no-man’s zone between the two lines.  When Assolant, the General of the Division of which Regiment 181 is a part, understands the looming failure he orders his artillery to fire on his own men to drive them out of the trenches towards the Germans. The Artillery officer refuses, unless a written order, signed by Assolant is received.  The attack fails.  In a rage, and in fear of being judged weak by his superiors, Assolant wants entire squads from each company to be shot for cowardice and refusal to go forward under enemy fire.  Eventually he is talked down into one man from each of the four companies — to be chosen by the Company Commanders.  One refuses, one does it by lottery, and two simply pick men.  The men go on trial, defended by an ineffectual Captain and consoled by an ineffectual, and unwanted, chaplain.  They are found guilty, summarily, tied to stakes at the head of a parade ground, and shot, with all troops in formation to observe, and learn.

The closing lines of the novel, far from the merely sad, and reflective close of the Kubrik film, are deadly and  final.  After the volleys of the firing squad die away, the Sergeant-Major of the Division is given the task of administering the coup-de-grace.

It must be said of Boulanger that he had some instinct for the decency of things, for, when he came to Langlois, his first thought and act was to free him from the shocking and abject pose he was in before putting an end to any life that might be clinging to him.  His first shot was, therefore, one that deftly cut the rope and let the body fall away from the post to the ground. The next shot went into the brain, which was already dead.

 Through this skeleton of the idea, Cobb has written a cast of characters, many of whom — and their dialogue– can only have come from his own time at the front with the Canadian army.

In the opening pages an older soldier is explaining to a young recruit why, in battle, diarrhea — from fear–  isn’t the problem;  constipation is.

“The Germans have got all our trench latrines registered.  And we’ve got theirs, too.  No a soldier doesn’t like to go to a place that’s registered. What’s more he doesn’t like to take his breeches down because when his breeches are down he can’t jump or run. So what does he do? He bakes it. I’ve been out on this front for two years now and I haven’t seen a case of diarrhea yet.”

 The anti-brass attitude rises early, as does the soldierly notion that getting or not getting a medal has little to do with actual courage, but with the spin of the wheel .

A courier on a motorcycle refuses the offer of a drink from the recruit and veteran soldiers and takes off  “with a roar from his cut-out, and a skid.”

Whew!  What a tornado!” said Duval. … “D’you think the Boche have broken through somewhere, or what?”

“My God, no.  It’s probably an invitation to our Old Man to dine at the Divisional Mess.  Or maybe it’s a flock of medals for the lottery…”

“So that’s how you got yours, eh, in the lottery?” said Duval, expecting a prompt denial  and slightly shocked when it didn’t come.

“Practically, yes.  Listen, young fellow, don’t get the medal bee in your bonnet.  It makes you do foolish things, and if you’re patient you’ll probably get a medal anyway without doing foolish things for it.  Don’t look so indignant.  What else can it be but a lottery?  All those men deserve medals, if you’re going to give medals at all, for what they stood at Souchz.  But only some of them will get them.  So it’s a lottery, isn’t it?”

“Well, you’ve been pretty lucky, drawing down your croix de guerre with two palms, not to mention your medaille militaire.  You shouldn’t complain about it.”

“I’m not.  I simply say it’s a lottery.  But it’s different from the usual lotteries in this way — your chance of winning prizes increases each time you win a prize.  Anyway, that’s the way it seems to work.  Or perhaps it’s more like making money.  After the first million, the rest come easier… Say, it’s getting late.  Let’s shove off.”

Some of these conversations, and critical eye at the brass appear in most war novels, I imagine.  The most recent in my memory are in Karl Marlantes’ excellent, and troubling Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War.  Marlante’s would appreciate  Cobb’s observation that “rarely does a soldier see with his naked eye … but always through a lens … which is made of the insignia of his rank.”

It is not only the opinion of the foot soldier Cobb is interested in, but in that of the commanding General:

The general walked along the road enjoying the cool and fragrant moring. Now and then a whiff of a less fragrant smell would filter through the bristles of his nostrils, and he enjoyed that too, in a way. Casualties were a part of war. Where there were no casualties there was no fighting. It would be unthinkable not to have fighting under a fighting commander. The smell of the dead reassured him on this point.”

Cobb’s understanding of the foot soldiers and the interplay of courage, cowardice and fatalism isn’t matched by his handling of language.  Much of it seems awkward:

Reason, however, was not uppermost.  Feeling was.  And feeling was too strong to take heed of the paradox it engendered.

Not good in a war novel.  His scenes of men in their varying deaths however, is quite at the level of any fiction, anywhere.

Paolacci began to feel the pain in his shoulder. He also felt a lump between his shoulder blades. He realized he wanted to get up and climb out of the pit, then waited for the desire to become more impelling. While waiting his right hand began to move in exploration. It came in contact with the obstruction wedged against his cheek. He pushed it, and it gave way, the smell of horse dung receding with it. It was his own boot, unmistakably . But how did it get near his face? He formulated the will to straighten his leg out, but there was no response…he groped for his thigh and couldn’t find it. Instead his hand entered an enormous, sticky cavity which seemed lined with sharp points…

 Those of you who might read the novel, or recommend it as a companion to All Quiet on The Western Front, for a youngster entering such readings, won’t be disappointed.  Not a great novel in some ways, but raw, and true and memorable in many.  Should you chose the film, the uplifting of Dax to a noble fighter for his men won’t affect the powerful opening scenes of bombardment, whistling death and gray eyed fear.  The trial scenes, as intended by the script writers and director, use the trope of the trial and justice maligned to enforce the view Cobb had in the book, though in a different manner than he chose.

As added interest to some of you, the screen play for the film was co-written by Jim Thompson, the famous pulp novelist. [  The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters, Pop. 1280] It has been cited by David Simon, the creator of the well regarded TV series, The Wire, as one of the guidepost films which propel his work, which as any viewer knows, is a tapestry of corruption in the highest places.  The novel, or the actual events that inspired it, are also said to be the seed of Faulkner’s moderately regarded “A Fable,” a story about a Christ-figure of a soldier who refuses the order to move 3,000 men against an impregnable enemy.

More on Hochschild’s To End All War, later, a book that will complement, I think, these realities composed in fictions of Cobb, Remarque, Barbusse and Junger.