Such is every war.
-The Voice before the Void
“A Good War”
from Unhappy Far-off Things
Nietzsche said, “You have heard that a good cause justifies any war, but I say unto you that a good war justifies any cause.”
A man was walking alone over a plain so desolate that, if you have never seen it, the mere word desolation could never convey to you the melancholy surroundings that mourned about this man on his lonely walk. Far off a vista of trees followed a cheerless road all dead as mourners suddenly stricken dead in some funereal procession. By this road he had come; but when he had reached a certain point he turned from the road at once, branching away to the left, led by a line of bushes that may once have been a lane. For some while his feet had rustled through long neglected grass; sometimes he lifted them up to step over a telephone wire that lolled over old entanglements and bushes; often he came to rusty strands of barbed wire and walked through them where they had been cut, perhaps years ago, by huge shells; then his feet hissed on through the grass again, dead grass that had hissed about his boots all through the afternoon.
Once he sat down to rest on the edge of a crater, weary with such walking as he had never seen before; and after he had stayed there a little while a cat that seemed to have its home in that wild place started suddenly up and leaped away over the weeds. It seemed an animal totally wild, and utterly afraid of man.
Grey bare hills surrounded the waste: a partridge called far off: evening was drawing in. He rose wearily, and yet with a certain fervour, as one that pursues with devotion a lamentable quest. Looking round him as he left his resting-place he saw a cabbage or two that after some while had come back to what was a field and had sprouted on the edge of a shell-hole. A yellowing convolvulus climbed up a dead weed. Weeds, grass and tumbled earth were all about him. It would be no better when he went on. Still he went on. A flower or two peeped up among the weeds. He stood up and looked at the landscape and drew no hope from that, the shattered trunk of a stricken tree leered near him, white trenches scarred the hillside. He followed an old trench through a hedge of elder, passed under more wire, by a great rusty shell that had not burst, passed by a dug-out where something grey seemed to lie down at the bottom of many steps. Black fungi grew near the entrance. He went on and on over shell-holes, passing round them where they were deep, stepping into or over the small ones. Little burrs clutched at him; he went rustling on, the only sound in the waste but the clicking of shattered iron. Now he was among nettles. He came by many small unnatural valleys. He passed more trenches only guarded by fungi. While it was light he followed little paths, marvelling who made them. Once he got into a trench. Dandelions leaned across it as though to bar his way, believing man to have gone and to have no right to return. Weeds thronged, in thousands here. It was the day of the weeds. It was only they that seemed to triumph in those fields deserted of man. He passed on down the trench and never knew whose trench it once had been. Frightful shells had smashed it here and there, and had twisted iron as though round gigantic fingers that had twiddled it idly a moment and let it drop to lie in the rain for ever. He passed more dug-outs and black fungi, watching them; and then he left the trench, going straight on over the open: again dead grasses hissed about his feet, sometimes small wire sang faintly. He passed through a belt of nettles and thence to dead grass again. And now the light of the afternoon was beginning to dwindle away. He had intended to reach his journey’s end by daylight, for he was past the time of life when one wanders after dark, but he had not contemplated the difficulty of walking over that road, or dreamed that lanes he knew could be so foundered and merged, in that mournful desolate moor.
Evening was filling fast, still he kept on. It was the time when the cornstacks would once have begun to grow indistinct, and slowly turn grey in the greyness, and homesteads one by one would have lit their innumerable lights. But evening now came down on a dreary desolation: and a cold wind arose; and the traveller heard the mournful sound of iron flapping on broken things, and knew that this was the sound that would haunt the waste for ever.
And evening settled down, a huge grey canvas waiting for sombre pictures; a setting for all the dark tales of the world, haunted forever a grizzly place was haunted ever, in any century, in any land; but not by mere ghosts from all those thousands of graves and half-buried bodies and sepulchral shell-holes; haunted by things huger and more disastrous than that; haunted by wailing ambitions, under the stars or moon, drifting across the rubbish that once was villages, which strews the lonely plain…
The cold wind blew over the blasted heath and bits of broken iron flapped on and on.
And now the traveller hurried, for night was falling… He went on eagerly but with infinite sadness. Over the sky-line strange rockets went up from the war, peered oddly over the earth and went down again. Very far off a few soldiers lit a little fire of their own. The night grew colder; tap, tap, went broken iron.
And at last the traveller stopped in the lonely night and looked round him attentively, and appeared to be satisfied that he had come within sight of his journey’s end, although to ordinary eyes the spot to which he had come differed in no way from the rest of the waste.
He went no further, but turned round and round, peering piece by piece at that weedy and cratered earth.
He was looking for the village where he was born.