Paths of Glory
Humphrey Cobb's 1935 novel Paths of Glory has been unjustly forgotten. While other World War I novels such as A Farewell to Arms and All Quiet on the Western Front are firmly lodged in the literary canon, Paths of Glory has gone out of print repeatedly. It is remembered chiefly for a highly acclaimed 1957 movie adaptation directed by Stanley Kubrick. But Cobb's slim, powerful book now has another chance to make its mark: Penguin Classics recently reissued it, with an introduction by David Simon.
In the book, an exhausted French regiment is ordered to assault a heavily guarded German position, one it has no chance of taking. The attack is a failure, with many casualties. Afterward, several commanders decide they must make an example of someone. Three men, chosen essentially at random, are dragged before a kangaroo court, where they are condemned to die. Cobb portrays a power structure that is, in Simon's words, "an unwieldy and unyielding organism that lurches from one murderous horror to the next, guided only by whichever combinations of ambitions and vanities are in play at any moment."
The book is written in crisp, restrained prose, but is nevertheless emotionally searing. Cobb is, for instance, a master at conveying the shockingly mundane nature of death in war. In one scene, we are walking along with Capt. Charpentier, who is worrying about a blister on his foot which was "sore enough . . . to have taken almost complete possession of his mind." The next instant, the captain is decapitated.
Cobb's narrative has both the visceral reality of a war diary and the allegorical feel of a Kafka story. He distinguishes between "the spattered mud of the roads" and "the caked mud of the trenches," and his characters discuss such banal matters as whether the front line causes diarrhea or constipation. But the book also explores how human beings talk themselves into ignoring their consciences, and how easily they can do so given the proper motivation. One tactic the 21st century is all too familiar with is that of thinking about casualties in terms of numbers. "It was all a question of percentages," as one general puts it. Another is to restrict oneself to a job description, even in the face of injustice. "He had made his arrangements with competence," the sergeant-major who oversees the executions thinks to himself, "and now . . . he was giving his orders with precision."
But the true tragedy in Paths of Glory belongs to those with good intentions. Col. Dax, for instance, protests both the fruitless assault and the subsequent executions, but he has no power to stop them. He is thwarted not only by the cruelty of his superiors, but by the intransigent bureaucracy he serves. In the end, he realistically and none too heroically gives up. Sadly, Cobb's book resonates now as much as it did 75 years ago. The weapons and the enemy may have changed, but human nature--and the tendency to tolerate injustice when institutions demand it--has not.