Paths of Glory, Irvin S. Cobb

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Two years back when I was doing a course in journalism, one of my instructors said the following about effective writing: describe mundane events dramatic words, and intense events with simpler words. (Not her exact words, but something like this)

As World War I breaks out, journalist Irvin Cobb visits a town in ruins (one of many he passes through) after a skirmish between German soldiers and the Belgians. Houses have been burned down and gutted with shells. Later, Cobb and the group of journalists he is travelling with come across this sight:

“In a beet patch beside one of the houses was a mound of fresh earth the length of a long man, with a cross of sticks at the head of it. A Belgian soldier’s cap was perched on the upright and a scrap of paper was made fast to the cross arm; and two peasants stood there apparently reading what was written on the paper.”

A freshly dug tomb—the most rudimentary of its kind—on a vegetable patch. Cobb’s book is full of such quiet juxtapositions: a sheltered domestic environment against the unavoidable violent collateral damage of war.  An odd silver spoon lies alone on a dusty seat of an abandoned family-carriage. As the group turn to go back towards the town, cob notices a child’s rag doll lying flat on the road with its head crushed by wheel. Cobb is not compelled to dig out these images to evoke the gritty stinking parts of the war. For him, “the effects are all there, ready-made, waiting to be set down.”  Our instructor would have rather handed out copies of this book to the class to make her point about effective reporting.

I came across Irvin Cobb’s Paths of Glory quite accidentally. I was looking for the far more popular Paths of Glory by Humphrey Cobb—the one brilliantly adapted in to a motion film by the cinematic genius Stanley Kubrick. Both the Cobbs are not related, by the way, except for the same last name and a common book title. A simple pure coincidence and an honest mistake on part of Amazon led me to Irvin Cobb’s book. (An aside: there are three books with the title Paths of Glory: Irvin Cobb’s nonfiction work based on World War 1, Humphrey Cobb’s fictional work based on World War 1, and Jeffrey Archer’s suspense fiction not based on any war.)

What I was looking for in Frank Moore’s A Journalist’s Note-book, I found in Cobb’s chronicle of World War I: a peek in to the incisive mind of a journalist, not just any, but a war correspondent. Originally published in 1915 by George H. Doran Company, New York, Paths of Glory is a account of Irvin Cobb’s experiences as a war correspondent working for the American magazine The Saturday Evening Post during the First World War.

Along with five other American journalists, Cobb sets out to report the outbreak of the war in Belgium, Germany, France and England by following the Germans who were “beating down the sod of France with their pelting feet.” The group pursues the action happening at the battle front by travelling in a taxicab, a horse carriage and later when they come face  to face with the German army they are almost held imprisoned in the Belgian town of Beaumont. As they are transported to Aix-la-Chapelle, Germany, by a train carrying injured soldiers, the stark reality of the war hits them with the fetid stench of dried blood and rotten flesh and millions of flies flying about.

War can be a tricky subject to write about. There is a risk of the work becoming propaganda, especially when it is produced in the middle of the historical event. And the during the World War, propaganda was easy to come across. The German army in desperate need of good publicity invites a group of American journalists to witness their operations in the Belgian and French bases.

Cobb, who was a part of this elite journalists group, gets a close glimpse or rather a bird’s-eye view of the war, from atop a hot air balloon. Earlier treated as an inconvenience, Cobb is now given all-pass access to the best of German hospitality. Is he impressed enough by them? Or is he critical about them? Yes, Cobb is impressed by the clockwork precision with which the German Army worked through the war. He is in awe with the perfect symmetry of the German army as it marches with a mechanical discipline through the towns of Belgium and France, not a single soldier out of place.

24523156593_2de183d23b_zYet, there runs an undercurrent of utter abhorrence for war throughout his narrative. However, Cobb refrains from passing moral judgments against any of the warring sides. This is mostly because of the United States’ neutrality towards the war. If war is a factory, the men fighting at the battlefronts are the commodities, completely dispensable and easily replaceable. Thus, for Cobb from the hot air balloon, the German infantry look like “insignificant toy-figures” firing blindly from trenches and disappearing suddenly under the smoke of shells. The dead soldiers lying motionless remind him of “pica plugs lying on the printshop floor.” As Cobb watches the lively marching soldiers come back maimed, mangled and or lie dead under the trenches, he eludes to the Thomas Gray poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard , albeit with pragmatism: “It was as though they marched into a fiery furnace, treading the crimson paths of glory—which are not glorious and probably never were, but which lead most unerringly to the grave.”

War is a universal concern. The motives, the intentions, the purpose of war still remains the same as it was before. The strategies and weapons have become more complex, it is no longer confined to battlefields and trenches. Yet, the wanton wastage of human lives under the garb of collateral damage, the destruction of towns and cities and villages “more than a nation itself” remains the same as before. What Irvin Cobb saw a hundred years ago in war-torn Europe is still relevant today, sadly it has become more endemic and hits closer to home for each one of us.

I saw enough to cure any man of the delusion that war is a beautiful, glorious, inspiring thing, and to make him know it for what it is—altogether hideous and unutterably awful.

-Irvin Cobb, Paths of Glory

Images: Tyne Cot Cemetery by Thomas Quine and “Tommy” statue/sculpture at Seaham by Durham DundeeFlickr.

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