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The Glory of the Trenches Coningsby Dawson

God As We See Him

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That's the kind of peep at God we get on the Western Front. It isn't a sad peep, either. When men die for something worth while death loses all its terror. It's petering out in bed from sickness or old age that's so horrifying. Many a man, whose cowardice is at loggerheads with his sense of duty, comes to the Front as a non-combatant; he compromises with his conscience and takes a bomb-proof job in some service whose place is well behind the lines. He doesn't stop there long, if he's a decent sort. Having learnt more than ever he guessed before about the brutal things that shell-fire can do to you, he transfers into a fighting unit. Why? Because danger doesn't appal; it allures. It holds a challenge. It stings one's pride. It urges one to seek out ascending scales of risk, just to prove to himself that he isn't flabby. The safe job is the only job for which there's no competition in fighting units. You have to persuade men to be grooms, or cooks, or batmen. If you're seeking volunteers for a chance at annihilation, you have to cast lots to avoid the offence of rejecting. All of this is inexplicable to civilians. I've heard them call the men at the Front "spiritual geniuses"--which sounds splendid, but means nothing.

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If civilian philosophers fail to explain us, we can explain them. In their world they are the centre of their universe. They look inward, instead of outward. The sun rises and sets to minister to their particular happiness. If they should die, the stars would vanish. We understand; a few months ago we, too, were like that. What makes us reckless of death is our intense gratitude that we have altered. We want to prove to ourselves in excess how utterly we are changed from what we were. In his secret heart the egotist is a self-despiser. Can you imagine what a difference it works in a man after years of self-contempt, at least for one brief moment to approve of himself? Ever since we can remember, we were chained to the prison-house of our bodies; we lived to feed our bodies, to clothe our bodies, to preserve our bodies, to minister to their passions. Now we know that our bodies are mere flimsy shells, in which our souls are paramount. We can fling them aside any minute; they become ignoble the moment the soul has departed. We have proof. Often at zero hour we have seen whole populations of cities go over the top and vanish, leaving behind them their bloody rags. We should go mad if we did not believe in immortality. We know that the physical is not the essential part. How better can a man shake off his flesh than at the hour when his spirit is most shining? The exact day when he dies does not matter--to-morrow or fifty years hence. The vital concern is not when, but how. The civilian philosopher considers what we've lost. He forgets that it could never have been ours for long. In many cases it was misused and scarcely worth having while it lasted. Some of us were too weak to use it well. We might use it better now. We turn from such thoughts and reckon up our gains. On the debit side we place ourselves as we were. We probably caught a train every morning--the same train, we went to a business where we sat at a desk. Neither the business nor the desk ever altered. We received the same strafing from the same employer; or, if we were the employer, we administered the same strafing. We only did these things that we might eat bread; our dreams were all selfish--of more clothes, more respect, more food, bigger houses. The least part of the day we devoted to the people and the things we really cared for. And the people we loved--we weren't always nice to them. On the credit side we place ourselves as we are--doing a man's job, doing it for some one else, and unafraid to meet God.

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The Glory of the Trenches
Coningsby Dawson

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