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WAR ever offers a magnificent theme for the meditations of men and one that is incessantly renewed. It remains certain, alas, that most of our efforts and inventions are always converging towards it, making of it a sort of diabolical mirror in which the progress of our civilisation is reflected upside down.
I propose to-day to look at it from only one point of view, in order once again to establish the fact that the more we triumph over the unknown forces the more we yield to them. No sooner have we perceived in the obscurity or the apparent sleep of nature a new glimmer, a new source of energy than we often become its victims and nearly always its slaves. It is as though, thinking to free ourselves, we freed formidable enemies. True it is that, in the long run, those enemies end by allowing themselves to be led and render us services wherewith we could no longer dispense. But hardly has one of them made its sub- mission before, in the very act of passing under the yoke, it places us on the track of an infinitely more dangerous adversary; and thus our fate becomes more and more glorious and more and more uncertain. Moreover, among these adversaries are some that seem quite indomitable. But perhaps they remain refractory only because they know better than the others how to appeal to those evil instincts of our heart which delay by many centuries the conquests of our intelligence.
This is notably the case with the majority of the inventions that relate to war. We have seen this in recent monstrous conflicts. For the first time since the beginning of history, entirely new forces, mature at last, have emerged from the darkness of a long period of experiment and probation and come to take the place of men on the battlefield. Until the late wars, these forces still hung back, held themselves aloof and acted only from afar. They were reluctant to assert themselves; and there was still some connection between their mysterious action and the work of our own hands. The range of the rifle was not greater than that of our eye; and the destructive energy of the most murderous gun, of the most formidable explosive still preserved human proportions. To-day, we are overwhelmed, we have definitely abdicated, our reign is ended; and behold us, as so many grains of sand, at the mercy of the monstrous and enigmatic powers whose aid we have dared to invoke.
It is true that the part played by man in battle was never preponderating or decisive. Already in the days of Homer, the divinities of Olympus mingled with mortals on the plains of Troy and, wrapped in their silvery cloud, which rendered them invisible without hampering their action, protected, dominated or struck terror into the warriors. But these divinities had a limited power and a limited mystery. Their intervention, although superhuman, still reflected the form and psychology of man. Their secrets revolved in the narrow orbit of our own secrets. The heaven from which they issued was the heaven of our conception; their passions, their sorrows, their thoughts were but little juster, loftier or purer than our own. Then, as man developed, as illusion fell from him, as his consciousness increased and the world stood more plainly revealed, the gods that went with him became greater, although more distant; mightier, though more obscure. With his increase of knowledge and comprehension, the unknown flooded his domain; and, as he organised and extended his armies, perfected his weapons and, with his growing science, mastered natural forces, so do we find the fortune of battle ignoring the captain and heeding only the group of undecipherable laws which we term chance, or hazard, or destiny. Consider, for instance, the admirable picture, so palpably true to life, which Tolstoi draws of the battle of Borodino or the Moskowa, a type of one of the great battles of the Empire. The two chiefs, Kutusoff and Napoleon, are so far away from the scene that they perceive only the most insignificant details; they know hardly aught of what is happening. Kutusoff, like the good Sclavonic fatalist that he is, is aware of "the force of circumstance." Sprawling outside a hovel, on a bench over which a carpet has been spread, the unwieldy, one-eyed Russian drowsily awaits the result, giving no orders, content to say "Yes" or "No" to the suggestions that reach him. Napoleon, on the other hand, believes himself able to govern events of which he is not even the witness. He has dictated the arrangements of the battle on the night before; and, from the very first onslaught, owing to that same "force of circumstance" to which Kutusoff pins his faith, not one of these arrangements has been or could have been carried into effect. But he clings none the less to the imaginary plan which reality has shattered; he believes that he is issuing orders, whereas, in truth, he is merely following -- and that too late -- the mandates of chance that everywhere arrive in advance of his haggard, hysterical messengers. And the battle pursues the course that nature has traced for it, like the river that flows on its way without heeding the cries of the men on its banks.
And yet Napoleon, of all the generals of our later wars, remains the only one who preserved the semblance of human direction. The external forces that seconded and already dominated the efforts of his troops were still in their cradle. But, in our day, what could he do? Would he be able to recapture one hundredth part of the influence which he was able to exercise on the fate of battles? For, to-day, the children of mystery have emerged from childhood; the gods are other that press on our ranks, break our lines and scatter our squadrons, sink our ships and wreck our fortresses. These gods have no longer a human shape; they issue from primitive chaos, far beyond the home of their predecessors; and all their laws, their power, their intentions must be sought outside the circle of our own life, on the other face of our intelligent sphere, in a world that is closely sealed, the world most hostile of all to the destinies of our species: the raw, formless world of inert matter. And it is to this blind and frightful unknown, which has nothing in common with us, which obeys impulses and commands as incomprehensible as those which govern the most fabulously distant stars; it is to this impenetrable, irresistible energy that we confide the exclusive attribute of what is highest in the form of life which we are alone to represent in this world; it is to these undefinable monsters that we entrust the almost divine mission of establishing the right and separating the just from the unjust. . . .
What are the powers to which we have thus abandoned our specific privileges? I think at times of a man whose eyes should be able to discern what is floating around us, able to distinguish all the population of this ether which our glances assure us to be transparent and empty, even as the blind, did not other senses undeceive them, might hold the darkness to be empty that fastens upon their brow. Suppose such a man to pierce the quicksilver of this crystal sphere which we inhabit and which to us reflects only our own face, our own gestures and our own thoughts. Imagine that, one day, passing beyond the appearances that imprison us, we were to attain at last the essential realities and that the invisible which, on every side, confines us, fells us and lifts us, ordains our retreat, our pause and our advance were suddenly to strip the covering from the immense, the awful, the inconceivable images that, in some hollow of space, must inevitably be borne by the phenomena and laws of nature whereof we are the frail playthings. -- Nor should this be looked on merely as a poet's dream; it is now that we dream, when we tell ourselves that these laws have neither face nor form, when we forget so readily their omnipotent and indefatigable presence; we are now dreaming the puny dream of human illusion, whereas then we should enter the eternal truth of the life without limit in which our own life is bathed. -- The spectacle would be appalling: it would be a revelation that would terrify all human energy and paralyse it at the roots of its nothingness. Consider, for instance, among the many illusory triumphs of our blindness, two fleets that prepare for battle. A few thousand men, as imperceptible, as helpless, in their relation to the forces brought into play, as a handful of ants in a virgin forest; a few thousand men flatter themselves that they have enslaved and turned to their purpose, to serve an idea entirely foreign to the universe, the most immeasurable and the most dangerous of its laws. Try to provide each of these laws with an aspect, a physiognomy proportionate and appropriate to its power and its functions! And, if you fear to let your mind dwell on what is impossible and unimaginable, leave out of count the profoundest, the most august of these laws, among others that of gravitation, which the ships obey as well as the sea that bears them and the earth that bears the sea and the planets that support the earth. You would have to seek so far, in such solitudes, in such infinities, beyond such stars, for the elements that compose it that the wildest dream would pause in helplessness, nor the whole universe suffice to lend a mask.
Let us, therefore, take those laws alone which are more limited, if there be any that have limits; those which are nearer to us, if there be any that are near. Let us take only the laws which these ships imagine to be submissively confined in their flanks: the laws which we regard as especially docile and the daughters of our achievement. What monstrous form, what gigantic shadow shall we attribute, to take one instance alone, to the power of explosives, those recent and supreme gods, which have just dethroned, in the temples of war, all the gods of the past? With what family of terrors, what unforeseen group of mysteries shall we connect them? Melinite, dynamite, panclastite, cordite and roburite, lyddite and ballistite, O ye indescribable spectres, by whose side the old black powder that struck terror into our fathers and even the mighty thunderbolt, once held the most awful symbol of divine anger, become mere gossipy, good-natured old women, a little ready to strike, perhaps, but almost inoffensive, almost maternal: of your countless secrets not even the most superficial has been laid bare; and the chemist who composes your slumber, even as the engineer or artilleryman who awakens you, is in total ignorance of your nature, your origin, your soul, the springs of your incredible bound and the eternal laws which you so suddenly obey! Are you the result of things imprisoned since the beginning of time; are you the gleaming transfiguration of death, the awful gladness of the palpitating void; are you eruption of hatred or excess of joy? Are you a new form of life and so ardent that you consume in a second the patience of twenty centuries? Are you a flame from the enigma of the worlds that has found a fissure in the walls of silence that enclose it? Are you an audacious loan from the reserve of energy that supports our earth in space? Do you, for that unequalled bound of yours towards a new destiny, gather up, in the twinkling of an eye, all that has been stored, all that has been gathered and prepared in the secret of rocks and seas and mountains? Are you soul or matter or a third state still unknown to life? Whence do you derive your destructive passion, where do you rest the lever that splits a continent, whence does the impetus depart that exceeds the zone of the stars whereon the earth, your mother, exercises her will?
To all these questions the man of science who creates you will reply gravely that your force "is due to the sudden production of a great volume of gas in a space too confined to contain it beneath the atmospheric pressure." All is now explained, all is clear. We attain at once the very depths of truth; and here, as in all things, know exactly how matters stand. . . .
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