Introduction: Paths of Glory by Humphrey Cobb

I was honored to be asked to write an introduction to the Penguin Classic edition of a reissued “Paths of Glory,” one of the great literary legacies of the First World War and a novel that remains essential reading, I believe, in this new century.  I also had the chance to meet and shake the hand of Mr. Cobb’s lovely grand-daughter.  What follows is reprinted with the permission of Penguin’s editors. —DS

Humphrey Cobb gave us our last, failed century in a single, basic narrative. He told us of men devoured by the very institutions 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.

To say that Paths of Glory is a novel ahead of its time is problematic, however. Cobb’s careful representations of the state of humanity, the use of institutionalized terror, and the savagery of modern war making are all appropriate reflections on what he experienced as a young man in the trenches of World War I. His novel was right on time; it’s the rest of us who have been late to its implications.

An American who was an early volunteer for the Great War’s western front with Canadian forces, Cobb comes to his story with a veteran’s wary eye and with little of the flummery and sentimentality that accompanies so many war narratives. He rightly suspects even the most earnest antiwar literature of harboring the sustaining seeds of heroism and nationalism in their depictions of quotidian suffering:

“Where all these Journey’s Ends and All Quiets fail utterly as anti-war propaganda, indeed where they become pro-war propaganda is in the stoicism, the self-abnegation, the idealism and romantic nobility which they portray,” wrote Cobb in early 1933, only two years before the publication of his own masterwork. “How the actors hate war, etc. but Christ, how nobly they suffer! And a regiment marching down a street behind a good band—everybody knows what that does to your reasonableness and logic. The only available effective anti-war propaganda that I know is photographs of butchered bodies—the more horrible the better.”

Cobb’s own words do not waste themselves on pathos or the stoic heroism of the everyman. No, he is about the practical facts, and Paths of Glory has its focus on the chain of command. The target is the army itself as an institution, an unwieldy and unyielding organism that lurches from one murderous horror to the next, guided only by whichever combination of ambitions and vanities are in play at any moment. No human presence is larger than the institution; none has agency enough to transcend it. Sudden, inevitable death is the great constant in Paths of Glory, its omnipresence mitigated only by random chance.

This is indeed a book for a world in which men fly airplanes into buildings and think of themselves as religious martyrs, in which beheadings and car bombings are grist for YouTube video making, in which the flick of a switch thousands of miles distant sends a missile into a village market or wedding party.

Despite all of our warm, humanist hyperbole, this is the fundamental outcome of the twentieth century. Mass exterminations and total wars have made a mockery of the Napoleonic Code and the Geneva conventions; venture capital, an international corporate culture, and modern automation have brought organized labor to its knees. And while the lucky and talented among us are, perhaps, worth more than ever, the average human soul has never been more expendable than it is right now.

Human beings, Cobb’s work argues, are worth less every day.

This singular truth suffuses the experience of World War I and its aftermath, and it is this truth from which Cobb, writing in dry, crisp sentences, refuses to turn. The debacle of the Great War laid bare the fraud behind so many institutional ideals. Nationalism was a butcher; religion, even more useless amid the unending horror. And the institutions of state to which one might appeal for a reprieve—the government, its diplomats, its ministers, its army commanders, its clergy—were all complicit in granting normalcy, even a certain inevitability, to the daily cavalcade of violent death.

In Paths of Glory, Cobb finds the proper allegory to drive this point home. He uses the true story of the Corporals of Souain, in which four corporals of the French 136th Regiment were executed at random “pour encourager les autres” following the failure of a March 1915 attack against a hill near Souain in Champagne. The senselessness of the action, coupled with the callow ambitions of those in command, is indeed ripe with portent for the century ahead—an epoch in which barbarity would fall as much on the civilian occupants of a Warsaw, a Dresden, or a Nagasaki as upon armed combatants. As the generals bicker over the number to be shot in order to cover their own failure, we can already hear the cold calculations a century hence, the arithmetic of terror that is in play every time a suicide bomber steps onto a Tel Aviv bus, or, for that matter, every time a helicopter fires a missile into a crowded Gaza street.

It is a century in which we calibrated our most powerful institutions against the very idea of innocence, and Cobb, reflecting on only 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 write his great tragedy, Cobb needed no archvillains, no great evils. As the machine guns and poison gas of the new century bring forward the possibilities of mass extermination, the story requires only ordinary ambitions and commonplace vanities in order for good men to die. And it is not so much a solitary and vile decision by any one scoundrel that condemns the innocent, but the absence of a decision by so many others. The inertia of the modern, layered bureaucracy is immutable. The institution demands blood, and then, by and large, the individuals that comprise that institution simply shrug, incapable of resistance or rebellion.

This is not to say that Cobb was ready to absolve from blame the architects of his war. In describing the Chateau L’Aigle, where his novel reaches its climax, the author dances a few half steps from the ordinary plotting to name names. Citing the mansion’s history, the author is pointed in saying that von Kluck, John French, and Foch had stopped there, not to mention Joffre, who had “dined there, silently but with gusto, and then gone to bed and slept undisturbed by any nightmares of Verdun. Haig had sat his charger at the lodge gates and had taken the salute of the Canadian regiments on the way up to the Passchendaele butchery. . . .”

And yet Cobb knew that what he had witnessed in the war was too diffuse, too nuanced, to rest solely on the Great Men of History. In his own writings, he expresses his own complicity and that of his fellow veterans in the savagery:

“I have often had the feeling that a man writing a personal war book was editing it into conformity with post-war fashion and post-war trend,” he wrote in 1933. “It is pathetic in a way because it expresses so clearly the feeling of shame at having, whether as a victim of deception or not, made a jingoistic ass of oneself, of having been awfully gullible. What I feel and have felt for some years is pride in my physical and mental stamina, shame in my mental blindness, in my ignorance.”

Nor does Cobb’s outlook spare the bystanders to the Great War, the multitudes who were able to pick up their ordinary lives as if something extraordinary had not happened to humanity in the trenches of the western front:

“Saw some war pictures—movies taken at the time,” he wrote in 1933. “I was glad that several shots of dead and mangled bodies were shown. I went out of the theater inwardly very angry at war, and all the more so because I have been reading—saturated as they are with pettiness, lousiness, and bickerings—of the men who sent those other poor devils to that frightful butchery. But I went out of the theater right into the Broadway crowd, the pasty, unhealthy fishy eyed throng of pimps and chorus men and I wished they could all be mowed down by a fine clean rattling machine gun.”

An angry fellow, and rightly so, given what he had seen. But Cobb’s contempt for what humanity had done to itself never reads white-hot on the pages of his novel. Indeed, it is in its restraint that Paths of Glory finds its clarity and, indeed, its passion.

No wonder that a fourteen-year-old Stanley Kubrick would read the book and remember it deeply enough to return to its story. No wonder that Kirk Douglas—an actor with most any part for his asking—would risk his own money to bring it to the screen.

It is no slight to Cobb’s creation that Kubrick and his screenwriters managed to tease out even more political implication than the novel itself offers. It is the 1957 film version of Paths of Glory in which the lieutenant is compelled to face, in the last moments, the man he has sent to his death. And it is the film version that parses between the generals, with one turning on the other as the unlawful order to fire French artillery on French positions is revealed. These were nuances upon nuances—the gamesmanship of ambition and command brought to even greater heights by an auteur operating against the darker strain of the cold war.

Similarly, it was Kubrick who would use the character of Colonel Dax as the moral center of the tale, allowing Kirk Douglas his star turn, and making it possible for him to both lead the doomed charge against the German position and then defend his men passionately in the ensuing court-martial.

Tellingly, Cobb offers no such overarching hero in his original telling. No grand villains, no epic heroes; just the slow tyranny of a self-preserving, self-aggrandizing institution. When asked why he had made an antiwar film, Kubrick reportedly said he hadn’t. He had made a political film, a film about authoritarian ignorance.

And of the few liberties that Kubrick took in adapting Cobb’s masterwork to the screen, there is no arguing with his extraordinary final scene, in which dog-faced French soldiers first jeer and mock a captured German girl’s song, only to see their cruelty dissipate into grief and empathy. Cobb did not write that moment, but every line in the film version of Paths of Glory tells us that Cobb would have recognized himself in those worn, sad faces. Indeed, he recognized all of us in those trenches, staring at the shards of our common future, measuring our thinning odds, and enduring, somehow, nonetheless.

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