By Boris Vian
(English translation: Gilles d'Aymery)
[ed. Paul Faber (1886-1962) was, among various occupations (PR man, head of a pharmaceutical company), a councilman for the city of Paris, France. In January 1955, Mr. Faber managed to have Le Déserteur censored on radio broadcasting. Boris Vian addressed him in an open letter... The French text can be found on borisvian.fr (Click on "Divers"). The letter is apparently included in the Third Volume of les Oeuvres complètes de Boris Vian, published by the Editions Fayard, Paris, France. Reading Vian's wit brings to mind Sheridan's aphorism (The School for Scandal, 1783), "The malice of a good thing is the barb that makes it stick."]
(Swans - May 21, 2007)
You've been kind enough to draw the limelight on a very simple and unpretentious song. Le Déserteur, which you heard on the radio and of which I am the author. You've felt necessary to pretend that it constituted an insult to our veterans of all past, current, and future wars. You have asked the Prefect of the Seine region that this song not be broadcast on local radios. This confirms, for whoever wants to listen, the existence of censorship on the airwaves, a detail worth knowing.
I am sorry to have to say it, but this song was cheered by thousands of fans, at the Olympia Theater (for three weeks) and at the Bobino Theater (15 days) since Mouloudji has been singing it. Some people, I hear, have found the song shocking: They were very few and I am afraid they did not understand it. Here are a few explanations for their enlightenment.
Either way, veterans, do you fight for peace or for your gratification? If you were fighting for peace, which I dare to hope you were, do not get after someone who's on your side, and ask yourselves the following question: If one does not oppose a war during peace, when does have one the right to oppose it? Or you enjoyed the war, and you fought it for your enjoyment? This is an assumption that I would not make, for, as far as I am concerned, I am not aggressive. Thus this song that fights what you have been fighting; do not attempt, playing with words, to make it be what it is not. This is not a good war.
Because there are good wars and bad wars -- although the relationship between "good" and "war" is shocking to me, to me and many others, at the outset, like the song might have shocked you at the outset. Will you call a good war that which we tried to make French soldiers fight in 1940? Badly armed, badly guided, poorly dressed, often having for all defense a rifle with cartridges that would not even set in the barrel (among many, this happened to my older brother in May 1940), the soldiers of 1940 gave the world an intelligent lesson by refusing to fight: those who were able to do so fought -- and fought very well. But the beau geste, which consists of being killed for nothing, is no longer acceptable nowadays as we kill mechanically. It does not even have a symbolic value, if one can consider that it might have had one to at least impose to the victor the respect of the defeated.
Moreover, to die for one's country is swell, but still not all ought to die, because then where will the country be? It is not the land -- it's the people. The country (I think General de Gaulle won't contradict me) is not the soldiers. It is the civilians we are supposed to defend -- and the soldiers cannot wait to become civilians again, for it means that the war has ended.
In any case, if this song looks like its indirectly aimed at some kind of people, these are certainly civilians. Would veterans be active military people? And could you explain to me what you mean by a veteran? Is it "a man who regrets to have been forced to resort to arms to defend himself," or "a man who regrets the time one had to fight" -- if it's "the man who's proved himself as a fighter," it shows an aggressive propensity. If it's "a man who wins a war," it shows a bit of vanity.
Believe me..."veteran" is a dangerous word; one should not boast to have fought a war. One ought to regret it. A veteran knows better than anyone to hate war. Almost all real deserters are "veterans" who have not had the strength to see the end of combat. And who will throw the first stone at them? No...if my song may be unpleasant, dear Mr. Faber, it's not to a veteran. It may only be to some kind of career officer; until further notice I consider that a veteran is a civilian who's happy to be one. There are career officers who consider that war is an inevitable plague and endeavor to shorten it. They are wrong to be soldiers because it's a way to be already disheartened and to acknowledge that this plague cannot be prevented -- but these soldiers are honest men. Fools but honest. And they too could not feel disparaged; actually, some have congratulated me for this song. Unfortunately, there are others. And those, I am delighted if I have shocked them. It's about time. Yes, dear Mr. Faber, you better believe it, some career officers consider that war has no other aim than killing people. General Bradley, whose war memoirs I've translated, says it in black and white. Between you and me, ninety percent of the people have misperceptions about this kind of career militarist. History as it is taught is filled with stories of their useless deeds and their barbaric destruction; I'd prefer -- and we are a few to think thus -- that schools taught the life of Eupalinos or the story of the construction of Notre Dame rather than Caesar's life or the tales of clever exploits by Genghis Khan. The swaggerer has always known how to force a civilized person to pay attention to his uninteresting self; when the attention is not natural it must be enforced, which is easily achieved when one is armed. These problems cannot be solved in ten lines; but, if I may point this out to you, Switzerland, one of the most civilized countries in the world, has solved them by creating a citizens' army; for each of them war has only one meaning: self-defense. This kind of war is the good war -- or at least the only inevitable war...that which is imposed on us.
No, Mr. Faber, do not look for an offense where there is none and if you find one know that you will have invented it. I clearly say what I want to say, and never have I had the desire to offend the veterans of both World Wars, the Resistance fighters, among whom I have many friends, and the casualties of war, among whom I had many others. When I want to insult someone (and it does not happen often) I do it frankly, believe me. Never will I offend people like me, civilians, who have been put in uniform to be killed like simple objects, as they are brainwashed with empty orders and fallacious reasons. To fight without knowing why one fights is a proof of foolishness, not of heroism. A hero is one who accepts to die when he realizes that his death will serve the values he defends. The deserter in my song is just a man who knows not; and who explains these reasons to him? I don't know of which war you are a veteran, but if you fought in WWI, acknowledge that you were better gifted for war making than for peace; those who like me were 20 in 1940 received a strange birthday present. I do not portray myself as one of those brave people: Dispensed because of my heart condition, I did not fight. I was not deported, I did not become a collaborator -- I remained for four years an underfed idiot among so many -- one who could not understand, for to understand one needs to be explained. I am 34 years old today and let me tell you: If it's a matter of dying at random in an abject battle under a rain of napalm, an obscure pawn in a mêlée led by political interests, I refuse and run to the hills. I'll wage my own war. The entire country rose up against the war in Indochina when it finally understood what it was all about, and the youths who died there because they believed they were serving a higher purpose -- they were told so -- I do not insult them, I cry for them. Among them, who knows, were talented painters, wonderful musicians, and, certainly, honest people.
When a war can end in one month due to the will of one man who did not for once deliver empty and glorious speeches, one is led to think, if it had not yet been understood, that that war at the very least was not inevitable. Ask the veterans of Indochina -- ask Philippe de Pirey, for example (Opération Gâchis [Operation Waste] Julliard) -- what they think of that war. It's not me who's telling you; it's someone who comes back from there -- but perhaps you do not read. Obviously, if you are only listening to the radio you are not well served in regard to information. As a means of cultural expansion, the radio is an excellent tool in theory; but it's not used wisely.
Moreover, I could squabble with you. Who are you to take me on thus, Mr. Faber? Do you consider yourself a role model? A point of reference? I surely would like to believe it -- although it would help if I knew you. I'll be quite glad to meet you, but you underhandedly slander me just like that, without first listening to me (because I could have explained the meaning of this song, since you need to have it spelled out). I'll be happy to follow you if I can ascertain your admirable qualities, which I do not doubt, but which until now are not evident since all I know of you is an act of hostility toward a man who tries to make a living by composing songs for other people. Me, I'm happy to follow Faber, but the people of my generation are tired of receiving lessons; we prefer examples. Till now I have limited myself to people like Einstein -- hold on, here is what Einstein wrote about the militarists...
. . . . This issue brings me to talk about the worse creation: that of armed masses, of military regimes, which I hate; I deeply despise those who can, with pleasure, march in orders and formations, following music: it can only be by mistake that they were granted a brain; a spine would suit them enough. We should erase as quickly as possible this civilization's shame. Heroism on demand, the foolish facts on the ground, the deplorable spirit of nationalism, how much I hate all this: how much I judge war ignoble and despicable. I'd rather be cut in pieces than become a part of such a miserable act. Above all, I have so much esteem in humanity that I am convinced that such recurrence would have disappeared a long time ago if the common sense of the people had not been systematically corrupted through schools and the media by the beneficiaries of the political and business world.
Will you go after Einstein, Mr. Faber? Let me tell you, it's riskier than going after Vian. And do not tell me that Einstein is a fool. The militarists themselves take after him because they acknowledge his superior mind (cf. the atomic issue). They are not endorsed by Einstein, as you can see -- they are poor students. And Einstein is not responsible for Hiroshima or the poisoning of the Pacific [islands]. They look up to his recipe and forget about how to apply it. The above shows that it was not written for them. You have ignored the recipe of my song, Mr. Faber; but I harbor no grudge. I am open to swap Einstein's model if you can show what's in it for me. But show me your cards, I don't buy something I haven't seen first.
There is yet another point that I'd rather not have raised because it does not do you honor, but you started the hostilities publicly. You are the aggressor.
To be honest, I find your cheap attack on me very shoddy.
A scandal-maker (for people who disregard racial harassment), a turncoat engineer, a past jazz musician, a past anything ex-whatever-you-will (see the recent press), I carry no weight compared to Mr. Paul Faber, a city councilman. I am an easy target. You do not risk much of anything. And yet, you can see that far from deserting, I try to defend myself. If you define war that way, obviously it is an operation without dangers to you. But then what about your diatribes? Anyone can call upon the court against anyone less, even if the latter has received the consent of the majority. It's the grumpy minority that generally objects -- and the court usually concurs, as you know. You play it safe. You see, I am not even sure that France Dimanche [ed. e.g., The New York Post in US modern times], to which I am sending this letter, will publish it. What venue will remain to me to fight your calumnies? Don't take the low road, Mr. Faber, and trust me: If I face a coward, I shall never pull back from an opponent, even if he is much more powerful than I am; for it is I who claims the preeminence of mind over matter and intelligence over cruelty. It belongs to me to make the case -- and if I fail, I'll fail with no glory, like all the poor guys who are six-feet under whose death has not helped to give the survivors a taste of peace. But good gracious, do not pretend that you believe that when I affront the ignominy that war is, I insult the poor souls who are its victims: those are well-known rhetorical techniques used by those who act as if they do not understand; and rather than consider you a hypocrite, I'd hope that in truth you had not understood anything and that this letter will hopefully clear up these shadows of ignorance. One last advice: If radio broadcasts bother you, turn the radio off or give it away. That's what I've been doing for the last six years. Choose as you please, but let people sing and listen as they so please.
It is the freedom that you defended when you were fighting -- right? -- or the freedom to think like Mr. Faber?
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