Where All Paths Lead
David G. Mitchell
Humphrey Cobb, an American, volunteered and served with a Canadian unit on the Western front during the First World War. He watched countless men thrown into the meat grinder only to spit out as unidentifiable pieces of flesh. For the young men of his time, experiences at places like Verdun and in the battles of the Marne would indelibly mark the way that they would see the world, and themselves, for the rest of their lives,.
Cobb kept a diary while he was at war, a diary that he read once in 1919 while he was nostalgic for the glory of being a soldier. He would read it again fifteen years later as he prepared to write a novel about the war. There is a catharsis in writing, and in the organization of thought that must accompany it. Cobb, however, did not choose to write a memoir about his experiences. He really did not even write about military conflict. Rather, he wrote a story about men caught in a conflict that was far greater than any one of them, or all of them, and of the suffering that blind adherence to hierarchical authority, the fickleness of circumstance and the arrogance of human pride can inflict.
In Paths of Glory, Cobb tells the story of the French 181st Regiment immediately before, during and after what would prove to be a senseless, futile attempt to capture a heavily fortified German position during World War I. The attack was mandated when rear echelon officers prematurely announce that the German position (called by the troops, the “Pimple”) has already been overrun and captured. Rather than withdraw the communiqué that announces the successful but fictitious achievement, the 181st is ordered to make the fictional success a reality.
That the attack is doomed to failure is recognized by all as the orders are passed down the chain of command but vanity, duty, and dumbfounded obedience combine to bring the three thousand men of the 181st to their objective. The attack is to be spearheaded by the regiment’s first battalion. When the moment of the attack arrives, Cobb describes a tragic scene of withering fire from the German troops that cuts down innumerable members of the first battalion and drives the rest back to the safety of their trenches.
The tragedy of the 181st grows only more surreal in the aftermath of their failed assault. The commanding General (Assolant) is appalled by the first battalion’s failure to advance and determines that extreme punishment is required. The absurdity of his decision is defined in his exchange with the regiment’s Colonel (Dax) and another General (de Guerville) in which he essentially demands the executions of dozens of his own men.
“Will you stick to the point, Dax, which is that your First Battalion failed to advance as ordered and that, as I’ve already repeated several times, I’m going to have one section from each company executed. I call that lenient. The whole battalion should by rights—”
“Lenient, you cannot mean it, sir. And the men did advance. By God, we had almost fifty percent casualties . . .”
“Yes, in our own trenches, Dax. For that many, we should have been on the other side of the Pimple.”
“It seems to me, Assolant,” de Guerville put in, “that the casualties prove the fire was heavy, even if most of them happened in the jumping off point.”
“Yes,” said Assolant, “but the point is that the men failed to advance. They should have gotten themselves killed outside the trenches instead of inside.”
“They weren’t choosing where to be killed,” said Dax. “The Germans were doing that for them.”
After some negotiation, General Assolant finally agrees that one man from each of the four relevant companies in the battalion will be court-martialed and then, it is clear, executed, but that none of the condemned could be officers (as Dax had offered himself up).
What follows is a morality play in which each of the four company commanders must select one man to be court-martialed for cowardice in the face of the enemy and, implicitly, to be executed. How those company commanders determine who will be sacrificed to assuage Assolant’s ego is in many ways the core of Cobb’s exploration of the randomness of conflict. One commander stands on principal and will not offer up anyone because he knows that none of his men behaved as cowards. One resorts to self-interest and eliminates an enlisted man who he does not like and who has witnessed the commander killing one of his own men in a fit of terror muddied by alcohol while in combat. The third commander resorts to the crutch of philosophy and selects one of his best soldiers, who is also one of the more heinous criminals in his command. The fourth commander is unwilling to make a decision and so resorts to drawing lots.
The pathos of Paths of Glory is heart rending. One cannot read of the hopelessness of the men who are court-martialed, or of the rest of the regiment, without being inspired to pity. At the same time, Cobb brilliantly captures the experience not only of soldiers during wartime, but of every person who faces a hopeless task because it is demanded by a third party. The men of Paths of Glory are tired, homesick, frightened and numbed by the experience of World War I’s trench warfare. Soldiers in Bastogne or Bougainville a generation later were no different.
For all the suffering that the men of the 181st experience, however, Paths of Glory is not an anti-war book even though Cobb very clearly loathed the memory of the carnage that he experienced in the trenches. Rather, it is a tribute to the soldiers who endure unimaginable hardship in the name of duty and an indictment of leaders who do not lead but only command. It is also a poignant portrayal of man’s inhumanity to man and how it is played out when one man demands inhumanity of another. When Assolant demands four lives, he does so solely to soothe his bruised ego since he had assured his superiors that his men would take the Pimple and their failure, despite overwhelming casualties, was his failure. Dax knows this but is powerless to overrule his commanding general.
“May I inquire, sir,” said Dax, speaking through clenched teeth and tight lips, “which four men you want executed?”
“That’s immaterial to me. All I want is four, one from each company to give the others a lesson in obedience and duty.”
“I have no candidates for the honor, sir.”
“Then get somebody else to find them.”
That is not a tale of war. That is a tale of one man abusing his power with absolute effect and of weaker men acquiescing. Indeed, military conflict occupies only a very small part of Paths of Glory, a few pages at most. Assolant could just as easily be a political leader or a corporate leader ordering the political or professional executions of the people beneath them in order to conceal their own ineptitude or to preserve their fragile egos.
In that sense, I would not compare Paths of Glory to other military fiction. It is far more akin to Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose or The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Like Cobb, Rose and Clarke explore the ways that power can be abused, whether by an angry father on a jury, as is the case in Twelve Angry Men, or by an angry mob with a blood lust, as Clark describes in The Ox-Bow Incident.
Humphrey Cobb’s novel was recently brought back into the limelight when Penguin Classics published a new edition, with a forward by David Simon. Simon, creator and executive producer of the HBO series The Wire, offers a completely different reading of Cobb’s work:
Humphrey Cobb gave us our last, failed century in a single basic narrative. He told us of men devoured by the very institutions that they served, without recourse, and for purposes petty, mechanical, and abstract. Indeed, given how little mankind truly learned from the charnel house that was the twentieth century, Cobb may have given us a blueprint for human suffering that will carry us through the next hundred years as well.
Simon draws the conclusion that Paths of Glory is a brilliant anti-war book. While the book is brilliant, I just cannot see it as a brilliant anti-war book. I also cannot understand how Simon can make such a claim because as he explores Cobb’s story, he is exploring the failures of the institutions that wage war—contemporary political systems and the military—and not the failures of war itself. He rails against the carnage of the battlefield but never asks why the battle was fought or considers that in war there is an aggressor and a defender in almost every circumstance, even if history cannot always determine which was which. That is not to say that Simon, or anyone of whom I am aware, should argue that war is a good thing. Rather, it is just that I fundamentally disagree with Simon’s seeming perception that because wars can be poorly planned or managed, the waging of all war lacks good purpose. Simon writes:
It is a century in which we calibrated our most powerful institutions against the very idea of innocence, and Cobb, reflecting on the bloody beginning of that epoch, takes pains to portray the institution of the French army, not as an unfeeling, unthinking monolith but as a living, functioning organism, ever greater than the sum of its parts, moving from certitude to certitude, expediency to expediency, and chewing up lives in the process.
It is a general’s ambition. It is a colonel’s sense of duty. It is a lieutenant’s cowardice. And it is a sergeant’s inability to refuse the most amoral order. It is all of these things, operating simultaneously, sometimes in conflict, sometimes in concert, each small part of the killing mechanism playing its role and no more. But in the end, the death of innocents is the fixed outcome.
To a certain extent, I agree with Simon that when Assolant demands that four soldiers die; when Dax carries out the order; when three of the four company commanders select soldiers to die, it is not war that it is to blame. Rather, it is human weakness magnified by the unnecessary cost in human life that it brings about. War is not the cause of the human drama that unfolds in Cobb’s story. It is merely the backdrop. Simon at least greatly implies, however, that all of the participants in war are somehow equally to blame for the tragedy that unfolds on the battlefield and that is where I either do not understand Simon’s intent or I take great issue with his perspective.
At the onset of the Great War, Germany manipulated many countries and set in motion the dominoes that caused so much of the world to be thrown into conflict. When Germany marched through Belgium and into France, it was Germany that brought England and France into the war. When Germany used its influence in Turkey to cause the dying Ottoman Empire to attack Russia, it was Germany and its allies that both brought Russia into the conflict and set the stage for the Russian Revolution of 1917. To suggest that the French, who are the subject of Cobb’s book and who were invaded, might be at fault for fighting the war, however bloody it may have been, is to suggest that the victim bears the same culpability as an assassin.
It may be that I have misinterpreted Simon’s intent. We do agree that “[Cobb] recognized all of us in those trenches, staring at the shards of our common future, measuring our thinning odds, and enduring, somehow, nonetheless.” That really is the beauty of Cobb’s writing. In reading of the slaughter in a failed assault and then of the executions of brave men on the basis of cowardice, I could not help but find joy in the realization that despite the oppression that men may inflict on each other, humanity still endures.
Cobb took his title from a nineteenth-century poem by Thomas Gray called “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” The relevant stanza reads:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
It is true that the path of glory does lead to the grave but, then again, so do all paths. It is far better to reach the grave in pursuit of duty and country than to shirk duty and country and then be crushed by oppression. Anyone who paid attention to the great war that followed the Great War will recognize that. I think Cobb would agree.
Books mentioned in this column
David G. Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts, and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. David currently has his own law practice. He is also a contributing writer at SavingAdvice.com where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life, and a contributor to Renaissance magazine and Book Page. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle named Biscuit. Contact David.