Bertolt Brecht, The Soldier of La Ciotat

Sixteen year-old Australian soldier World War I

[My translation of a Brecht piece from his Kalendergeschichten (Calendar Stories). A story about the Eternal Soldier, perhaps eternally appropriate in this age of permanent war, right wing populism and increasing nationalism/militarism in the US and elsewhere. Around Easter Australia will hold its annual war celebration known as Anzac Day. The photos are from the First World War, and seem almost archetypal: the young enthusiast full of testosterone who enlists versus the reality of soldiers’ lives destroyed…]

Bertolt Brecht: The Soldier of La Ciotat (from: Calendar Stories)

After the first world war in the public square of the little harbour town of La Ciotat in the south of France during a fair celebrating a ship launch we saw a bronze sculpture of a French soldier. Around him a crowd was milling. We drew closer and discovered that it was in fact a living person standing there on a sandstone plinth in the hot June sun, motionless in an earth-brown coat, helmet on head, bayonet in hand. His face and hands were covered in bronze paint. He moved not a muscle, not even an eyelid.

At his feet leaned a piece of cardboard on which was written the following text:

The Statue Man
I, Charles Louis Franchard, soldier of the … regiment, as a result of being buried alive at Verdun, gained the unusual capability of remaining completely immovable and behaving like a statue for as long as I like. This capability of mine has been verified by many professors and diagnosed as an inexplicable illness. Please give freely to an unemployed father with a family.

We threw a coin in the plate next to the sign and, shaking our heads, moved on.

So here he stands, we thought, armed to the teeth, the indestructible soldier of the millennia, he with whom history was made, he who made possible all those great deeds of the Alexanders, Caesars, Napoleons that we read about in the school textbooks. It’s him. He doesn’t bat an eyelid. He is the bowman of Cyrus, the chariot driver of Cambyses whom the desert sands could not bury for ever, Caesar’s legionnaire, Genghis Khan’s lancer, Louis the 14th’s Swiss Guard and Napoleon’s grenadier. He possesses the actually not uncommon capability of remaining stony-faced when all kinds of weapons of destruction are tried out upon him. Without feeling, like a rock he remains (he says) when he is sent to his death.

Spiked by the lances of the most various ages, stone-like, bronze-like, iron-like, run over by the vehicles of war, those of Xerxes and General Ludendorff, smashed by Hannibal’s elephants and Attila’s mounted hordes, ripped apart by the flying iron of several centuries’ ever more perfect guns but also the flying stones from catapults, torn apart by rifle bullets big as doves’ eggs and small as bees, there he stands, indestructible, always and again and again, ordered about in many languages but always ignorant of the why and the wherefore.

The lands he conquered he did not take in possession, just as the builder does not live in the house he has built. Nor did the land he defended belong to him. Not even his weapon or his gear belong to him. Yet there he stands, above him the deadly rain of the aeroplanes and the burning tar of the city walls, below him the mine and the hidden trap, around him the plague and the mustard gas, fleshly bait for arrow and spear, target, squashed tank goo, gas cooker, in front of him the enemy and behind him the general!

Untold the numbers of hands that wove his woollens, hammered his armour, cut his boots! Untold the numbers of coffers that were filled on account of him! Immeasurable the cheers in all the world’s languages that spurred him on. No God that didn’t bless him! Him, the man burdened with the terrible plague of patience, hollowed out by the incurable illness of unfeelingness!

What a truly live burial, we thought, is that which has occasioned this illness, this terrible, monstrous, so exceedingly contagious illness? ‒ Yet could it not, we asked ourselves, be curable after all?

British gas casualties, April 1918

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~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on February 26, 2012.

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