I remember a Christmas in the artillery. It was the first Christmas of the war; no question yet of oranges, cigars, nor bottles of wine. Still, we had money and links to headquarters through liaison officers who came to make observations from our gun emplacements, from which we had the finest views of the enemy’s movements. So we were able to celebrate and sing gaily of the most beautiful news ever received by the human world. At the moment of midnight, central European time, the captain, an imaginative man, ordered twelve shells to be fired in succession at the nearest village beyond no-man’s land. His language was well understood. About an hour later, at midnight our time, twelve shells fell upon us, causing more noise than harm. The moon shone gently on the ruins. The ancients, I said to myself, were worth more than their gods. We, who have better gods, are we any worse than Achilles or Diomedes? In all, nothing’s changed; it’s always raining blood.
At that point, I dreamt that Christmas appeared to me, old, white haired as he is, after nineteen hundred years, after so many vain hopes. « It’s something, » the old man said, « if evil has come down from the sky to the earth. At least you recognise it. It’s very close to you. It’s no longer mixed up with astronomical fates which you cannot change. It’s not Jupiter launching the thunder at you now. Only take care not to weave another fate, for yourself and your fellow men. You ask if men are wicked; this proves that you have yet to make another discovery, which is that the cruel passions are erased from earth as in heaven. Not completely erased, but too rare and too dispersed to maintain this mechanical massacre. So pay attention and keep yourself from hate. There isn’t one wicked man in a thousand on either side of this disputed stream. I’m not speaking only of the men that are the colour of the earth, who at best are only obeying. These men would live according to right and peace for centuries; the virtues they display are sufficient proof and you have well understood this. But the leaders, on either side, aren’t blood-thirsty killers. They are men of order who have the misfortune to exercise a power that human nature cannot bear. You know how, in peace itself, they are always eyeing the axe. And how could it be otherwise, whether they love this intoxicating power, or whether they make it their duty to keep this weapon shining and rust-free, just as it was given to them? So they are employing noble passions, and not without a mixture of virtues, to keep this huge killing machine ready and well oiled. After that, just as a man with a grudge can easily resolve his anger, if he finds a trigger under his finger, when the crime is reduced to one small gesture, so, in the same way, with the single movement of a pen on paper, everything bursts into flame, explodes and the hills smoke like volcanoes. There is not one wise man who can hold this huge pistol without danger of death to each and everyone. Too much power, my friend; too much obedience. Of course, this soldier with his pack catching his train at the appointed hour would make Achilles laugh. And yet, what is Achilles’ anger beside this massacre without anger? You are singing of Christmas; but for me, your song is too quiet. Good for rocking a child to sleep. It’s time to awaken the human being. »
English translation copyright © Michel Petheram