24: Lest We Grow Too Fond of It

“I returned and saw, under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” — Ecclesiastes 9:11

Early one morning I awoke with a start. I saw the King’s daughter who had befriended me; she was rattling the bars of my cage. “Good news!” she said. “Yesterday the council ended the war with King  . I think I can create an opportunity to get you out while our monarch and all his subjects are busy arranging things.”

“What?” I quickly interrupted. “A war? Do the princes of this world have quarrels like the ones in our world? Well, then, could you please tell me how they fight?”

She continued: “Referees appointed by the two sides set the time for taking up arms and for marching. They specify the number of combatants and the date and place of the battle. They make sure that everything is so equal that neither army has a single man more than the other. The physically handicapped soldiers are attached to a single company on each side. When the two armies come together, the battle marshals make sure that the companies of the handicapped are matched with one another. Companies of giants face colossi; fencers face the nimble; the valiant face the courageous; the awkward face the weak; the indisposed face the ill; and the robust face the strong.

“If anyone tries to strike someone other than his designated opponent, he must be able to prove it was an honest mistake or be condemned as a coward. After the battle, the killed, wounded and prisoners are counted. There are no deserters. If the losses are equal on both sides, they draw straws to see who wins.

“But even if a king defeats his enemy in battle, that still doesn’t settle anything. There are other, less numerous armies of philosophers and scientists, and their contests determine the true triumph or defeat of nations.

“One scholar is matched with another; one creative mind with another; and one judicious temperament with his counterpart. A victory won on that field counts for three won by force of arms. Once a nation is declared the winner, the meeting is adjourned. The winners choose as their king either their own or the enemy’s.”

I could scarcely keep from laughing at this scrupulous manner of waging war. I cited the European example as a much more forceful policy. A monarch is careful not to overlook any advantage for victory. She had some questions about that: “Tell me,” she said, “do your princes have no other pretext for war than might makes right?”

“Yes,” I answered, “the justice of their cause.”

“Why, then,” she continued, “do they not choose to be reconciled by impartial judges? And if it is determined that both sides are in the right, then why not maintain the status quo? Or why not play a game of gin rummy for the town or province they’re arguing over? But no, while they cause the death of four million men who are better than they, they stay in their strategy rooms making light of the way the poor fellows are being massacred. But I’m wrong to criticize the valour of your brave men. It’s important to die for one’s country when it means being the subject of a king who wears a ruffled collar or a pleated one.”

“But,” I asked, “why do you go to so much trouble in your ways of fighting? Isn’t it enough that the armies are equal in numbers?”

“You haven’t thought it through,” she answered. “Do you really believe that you would have honestly defeated an opponent you met on a battlefield, one on one, if you were armored and he were not; if he had only a dagger and you, a sword; and if he had only one arm and you had two?

“But with all the equality you recommend so highly for your gladiators, they never fight as equals. One will be tall; the other, short; one will be skillful; the other will have never handled a sword; one will be strong; the other, weak. And even if these discrepancies were equalized so that each soldier were as tall, skillful and strong as his opponent, they would still not be the same, because one of them might be braver than the other and not consider his peril; he might be more determined, daring and stout hearted; he might have all the qualities that make up courage. It’s like a weapon his adversary does not have: he fiercely charges his enemy, frightens him, and kills the poor man who foresees danger, whose energy is stifled in his blood, whose heart is too big to concentrate the spirit necessary to melt the ice called cowardice. You praise a man for having killed his enemy by means of an advantage; and by praising him for boldness you praise him for a sin against nature, because boldness leads to destruction.

“You should know that a few years ago a proposal was made to the War Council to regulate combat more carefully and conscientiously. The scholar who gave the presentation said this:

‘Gentlemen, you think you have made combat equal when you have chosen opponents that are both strong, both tall, both skillful, and both courageous. But that is still not enough, because the victor must then win by skill, strength or good luck. If by skill, he must have struck where his adversary did not expect him to, or more swiftly than seemed possible, or after feinting on one side he attacked on the other. All that amounts to deception and cheating, and it ought not to be esteemed by a truly brave and noble man. If one wins by strength, will you consider his enemy vanquished because he has been overpowered? No, of course not, no more than you would say that someone has lost a battle when he fell off a mountainside, because he could not possibly prevail. Likewise, the one who has been overpowered has not been defeated, because he was not in a position to resist the strength of his adversary at the time. If he lays his enemy low by chance, then Fortune — not he — deserves the victory, because he added nothing to it. In the end, the vanquished is no more at fault than someone who rolls 17 in a game of dice and loses to someone who rolls 18.’

“Everybody admitted that he was right but that it did not seem humanly possible to solve the problem. It was better to put up with one small inconvenience than to consider endlessly a thousand matters of greater importance.”

This entire episode turns on the 17th-century meaning of the word généreux : “magnanimous,” “big-hearted,” “brave,” “of good quality”; that is, “noble” in the best sense of the term. The word has become sadly enfeebled as times have changed: like “generous” it now means only “magnanimous” or “copious.”

Cyrano lived 259 years before the time that historian Raymond Aron would aptly call “the century of total war” and that Albert Camus would call “the century of fear.” And yet Cyrano — himself a combat veteran of the Thirty Years War — knew as well as anyone that war proves its own futility except to those who have grown too fond of it.

In the end, how does war prove the measure of the individual? The War Council of the Moon regretfully concludes that it does not and that there is no way to rationalize it. Cyrano knew from his own experience that the battle is not to the strong nor yet riches to men of understanding, but time and chance happens to them all.