On Palm Sunday, around four in the afternoon, returning from a mission termed “routine” on the papers presented to the Senegalese authorities, destroyer escort 322 entered the port of Dakar. It stayed no more than five minutes, just long enough for its launch to put the captain ashore—-one Commander de Poudis—then skirted around the harbor and turned back out to sea. (Let’s note, for the record, that four days later, destroyer escort 322 was back riding at anchor off Toulon. Quarantined, crew confined on board, no visitors allowed, total radio blackout …) In Dakar, an unmarked auto, naval attaché in mufti at the wheel, whisked Commander de Poudis off to the airport. A French Air Force Mystère 30 was waiting on the runway. Six that evening, the air base at Villacoublay. The captain, in civilian clothes, got out of the plane, walked some ten yards, and disappeared into another unmarked car. With him, Undersecretary Jean Perret … Down the highway, through the Bois de Boulogne, up Avenue Foch, to the Élysée Palace. And into the President’s office, spirited in through the back, instead of the usual anterooms and chambers. There, alone, standing up to greet him, the President of the Republic: “Captain, I’m so glad to see you! I’ve been waiting. . - You understand, I’m sure. I felt a coded message wouldn’t do, no matter how detailed. We really had to bring you in from Dakar in person. Under the circumstances, it’s not so much the facts we’re after, as the … how shall I put it? … the general atmosphere…”

“Yes, monsieur, I understand.”

“Now then, I’ll try not to let myself get carried away I want you to take your time, and be perfectly frank. Just tell us what you. know, as simply as you can. We can skip the big words and fancy phrases that usually hide the truth hereabouts. Please, sit down … No, here, in this big chair. . - Make yourself comfortable … Can I offer you a Scotch?”

“Thank you. That would help.”

“Yes, you’re right. In these Third World discussions, I find that a good shot of whiskey is the only official response that makes much sense. It’s the one I invariably turn to. These people! They rant and rave at the UN, they treat themselves to jets, and coups d’etat, and wars, and epidemics. And still they reproduce like ants. Not even their deadly famines can seem to keep them down. It’s frightening! … Well, here’s to their health! Figuratively speaking, of course! Though I’m afraid the three of us may need another drink when we hear what you have to say.”

“Yes, monsieur, I’m afraid so too.”

“Monsieur Perret here will take a few notes while we chat. In this whole Ganges affair, he’s the only one I trust. All the rest (The President gave a vague little flip of the hand.) “Well, let’s just say we’re quite alone.”

“More alone than you realize, monsieur,” replied Commander de Poudis, simply.

“Before you begin, Captain, there’s one essential point you can clarify for me, if you will. It’s about the makeup of your ship. When I decided on this mission, it was all we had in the area, close at hand. The admiral tells me we couldn’t have hit on a better one. All career men in the crew. Crack officers. Right?”

“Well, more or less, monsieur. Out of a hundred sixty-five petty officers and seamen, only thirty-two were drafted, forty-eight are on five-year enlistment, and the rest are specialists. In for life. Bretons, mainly. A really first-rate crew, much more spirit and discipline than you usually find. Of course, it’s not like it was in my own midshipman days. But still, with the way things are today, an old navy man like me can’t complain …”

“You understand, Captain, if I ask you about them, it’s only because I go back a ways! I remember a few things. Like how we lost Algeria , for instance. There were dozens of good reasons, but the most important was that we sent our draftees. Except for the paratroopers and the Legion, it was really no army at all. Just a bunch of ghosts, not sure why they were there, full of hidden motives. A shadow of an army. Why, I can still hear one of my predecessors in this very office. I was a young man, just starting out. Minister of this or that. And he took me aside, and he said: ‘The army? Forget it! Is there still any kind of war you can get them to fight in? Ideological war? Lost cause. Popular war? Civil war? Certainly not. Colonial war? Racial war? Even less. Atomic war? You don’t need the army for that! You don’t need anyone! Old-fashioned national war? Maybe, but I’d be surprised. Besides, before long there won’t be any national wars. So what good is an army of draftees, will you tell me? All it does is turn people against the military, and fatten up the pacifists’ conscience. Not to mention the excuses it gives for all kinds of subversive behavior! No,’ he told me, ‘if ever you find yourself in my place, I only hope you won’t have to turn to the army. Except maybe to march in parades on Bastille Day! And even then, you’ll see.

They don’t even march right anymore!’ Unfortunately, Captain,” the President added, “I’m afraid I need the army now…”

“I know exactly what you mean, monsieur. My crew was mainly career men. And the few draftees there were never stepped out of line. Maybe a handful who read La Grenouille or La Pensée Nouvelle, but no more than in other units. No conscientious objectors disguised as medics. No anarchist militants. At least, not that I know of. Certainly no more than anywhere else. And no chaplain on board, you can be sure! … Still, even with a crew like that, things were a little rough. Believe me, monsieur, they were rough!” “Tell me about it.”

“Well, to begin with, I had no trouble finding the fleet on radar. Five minutes past eight that morning, twenty degrees latitude, a hundred forty-two miles off the coast of Mauritania. I could have found it just as easily by the smell. The whole ocean was like one big festering sore… Anyway, I pulled up behind that squadron, if you can call it that, ready for my first maneuver. The instructions said: ‘Contact Ganges fleet. Initiate confrontation.’ Now, I wasn’t too sure just what that meant I should do. ‘Confrontation’ can mean a lot of things. So I checked in the dictionary. (I always keep one handy. They’re very helpful in the navy, when you want to say something in a couple of words…) For ‘confront,’ one of the meanings was, ‘To bring face to face, to subject to lengthy examination.’ That seemed like a good one. So I started examining. With my glasses I could begin to make out a lot of details. And believe me, what I saw set me back on my heels. Even someone like me, who’s rubbed elbows with every race on earth, and seen all the worst there is. It was pretty clear to me then, monsieur, what the spirit of my mission was supposed to be. So I got the whole crew out on deck, over toward starboard. Except for maybe twenty or so who had to stay below and make sure the engines kept running, and the electricity, and all. Then I pulled within fifty yards of them, to our right, and we sailed up the line, alongside, from the last one all the way up to the lead boat. An old steamer, the India Star. They were doing ten knots. I was down to sixteen. And still, it took us better than an hour. It was like a review! The whole of the Ganges fleet, sailing by like one of those dioramas, you know? … Well, monsieur, that’s what I assumed it meant by a ‘lengthy examination.’ And that’s how I ‘confronted’ them …”

“Yes, well done. You understood precisely. I’m big on the dictionary too … Please, go on.”

“What we saw … It’s impossible to describe it. How should I begin? The over-all effect? Each separate detail? Maybe first just the numbers… Believe it or not, my executive officer stood there the whole time counting heads. He made a mark for every thousand. At the end of an hour he was out of his mind: he had nine hundred marks … And then, when we got a good look, up close! Like those old Pasolini films, remember? Starvation on every face. All skin and bones. Pale, glassy-eyed stares… Now and then, other figures rising from the heap. Tall, proud-looking athlete types, standing there calmly, staring us down. And scratching. Yes, scratching. Until they would bleed. To mortify the flesh, I suppose… My duty officer was standing next to me. I heard him mutter: ‘Gladiators … A pack of naked gladiators! … Like Spartacus!’ Yes, they were naked, all right. Almost all of them. Well, not the way you might think. I mean, not really without anything on. Like in a morgue, or on the beach, lying in the sun. Much more casual. Suddenly a body moves, a tunic comes open, and the flesh gets a breath of fresh air. No shame, no shock. No one cares, one way or the other. Not as if they’re showing themselves on purpose. Just the natural way, I guess, after a thousand years of free and easy sex … An old woman bends over, and her scrawny breast brushes the deck… A bandage full of pus comes loose, and you see a knee half eaten away… A pair of shoulders. An old man’s? A child’s? Who knows?… Two rattleboned children, so skinny you can count their ribs. Boys or girls? Who can tell? Then you see them get up to piss, and you know they’re one of each. Pretty little faces. Smiling at each other, then back down on deck… A woman, dragging through the pile of bodies. A dwarf, with her two heavy breasts barely bobbing above the heap … Someone sitting. Two thighs, gnarled like stumps. And I wondered at the time if he’d sat like that, stock-still, all the way from the Ganges delta… Another woman, flat on her back, gazing up at the sky. Never blinking. She was dead. I could tell because, the moment we sailed alongside, two men came and grabbed her by the hands and feet, and tossed her overboard, just like that. She couldn’t have been very heavy. Up on the bridge, I saw my Breton crewmen cross themselves for all they were worth. … And bellies, and butts, and everywhere, sex. Everywhere you looked … I remember one young woman, picking between her thighs, through the thick, black wool, looking for lice, I imagine … Not to mention all the ones with their tunics pulled up, squatting down with their rumps in the air, not giving us a second thought. Who were we, after all? We didn’t exist. Not for any of them, in fact … Still, don’t think it was all sheer horror. Not really. There were lovely bodies to look at too. Perfect bodies. Lots of them. Quick glimpses, flashing by. Maybe all the more striking just because of the ugliness and misery around them. I really can’t explain it. … Like something I saw on the Calcutta Star, up toward the front of the line. A back. A magnificent naked back. Up by the bow, away from the, crowd sprawled on deck. With stunning black skin, and hair streaming down, and a white sari draped on the hips. Then the sari fell, and the girl turned around to pick it up. It must have been some kind of game, I suppose, because right near by, a horrible little monster was laughing his head off. The girl stood up, and five seconds later she was wrapped in the white cloth, from head to foot. But for those five seconds I couldn’t stop staring. I’ve never laid eyes on such a beautiful body. And she looked at me too. The only one out of all those thousands and thousands. It just lasted a second. But the look on her face made me wish she had never turned around… Well, so much for details, monsieur. The over-all impression hit me even harder. It was deeper, tougher to fathom. I can’t really express it without sounding trite. All that teeming, steaming squalor. Absolute squalor. The countless souls, the depths of despair, the nightmarish visions. Flesh for the taking, sex on the loose. One swarming, miserable mass. But beautiful too … A whole other world passing before our eyes. But that doesn’t tell half the story. I’m afraid we weren’t in much shape to judge it. …Well, monsieur, you see what it did to the captain. You can guess what it did to the crew, career men or no! I brought a few pictures, if you’d like to have a look. We developed them on board …”

There were twenty or so. The President flipped through them, without a word.

“If it weren’t too late for pranks,” he said, finally, “I’d have one of the Garde Républicaine hop on his motorcycle and run these over to our friend Jean Orelle, with a note. A few words like: ‘These are your guests. I hope you enjoy them when they visit you in Provence!’ … Oh, I see you got a picture of that creature, too! The one on the India Star, with the cap! I was sent one just like it about six weeks ago. It was snapped by the photographer from Associated Press, just past Ceylon. Unfortunately, not many papers bothered to print it.”

He slipped the photo into the frame of the big Louis XVI mirror above the fireplace, between the glass and the wood. The monster child took on a new dimension, as if he had just come in and joined the three of them in the office. “There,” said the President. “My colleague from the Ganges! … You know, they say that back in World War Two, in the North African campaign, Montgomery kept a picture of Rommel. Never parted with it. And before every big decision, he would study his face long and hard. I guess the trick worked. But a lot of good it’s going to do me! What on earth can you read in a face like that! Cap and all! Believe me, I’ve had my share of motorcades up the Champs Elysées, with ugly jokers in fancier caps than that! But this time I need more to go on!”

Then, changing his tone:

“Good God, what a horror! … Please, Captain, continue. Tell me about your crew. How did they react?”

“Badly, monsieur! At least, from our point of view, yours and mine. I had put all the officers and mates I could spare up on deck, and had them mix in with the seamen. That way I could get a pretty clear idea. As we passed alongside the first boat, suddenly you couldn’t hear a sound. Then one man piped up, as if to be funny: ‘Boy, take a look at that! They sure don’t give a damn what they do over there!’ A few moments later, the same one again, but this time his voice was very different: ‘Poor devils!’ And for the next hour, that’s all you seemed to hear on board. Things like, ‘I can’t believe it!’ or ‘My God, those poor bastards!’ or ‘Lieutenant, what are we waiting for? Why don’t we get those buggers some food?’ or ‘What’s going to happen to all those little kids?’ There was only one man with a different reaction, a simple old salt, with the lowest IQ on board. I know, because I checked out his papers. ‘Lieutenant,’ he said, ‘is it true that gang is heading our way for a little rest and recuperation?’ He must have found that hard to swallow. By the time we got up to the India Star, the ship with the biggest load of all, you didn’t hear a word. The crew stood rooted to the spot. And that was that. End of confrontation… Then I did what I was supposed to for the second phase of the mission. I called for all hands to man their battle stations. I’m sure you know the signal, monsieur: a series of short, sharp blasts over all the loudspeakers on board. It makes for a pretty dramatic effect. Really insistent. But I never saw the crew so upset. Some of them began to swear. Others asked questions that my officers had orders not to answer. Strictly a reflex action, I imagine. But there I was, in command of a warship unlike any other, with a crew that, I’m willing to bet, despised its captain, its uniforms, the navy, themselves, and everything else to boot!”

“Go on, Captain,” Perret interrupted. “This was all my idea. I remember exactly what your orders were: ‘Simulate combat alert. Proceed in utter earnest until the moment before you would normally open fire.’” “There too, monsieur,” the captain replied, “I think I understood what was expected. I gave my men the full treatment. Imagine you’ve got a helmet on your head and a lifebelt around your middle, and you’re doing your damnedest to load the torpedoes into the tubes. Or you’re clinging to the rocket launchers, too tight to let go, or your eyes are glued to the sights of the big guns, and the gun crew is yelling out the elevations, getting ready to fire. And the whole time the ship is shaking like mad, creaking in every joint of her armor, full speed ahead at thirty-five knots … Well, at times like that, believe me, you turn into a different person! Isn’t that what you were wondering, monsieur?”

“Very true,” the President answered. “We were wondering … But that’s not the same as hoping, now is it? Just what were we hoping? … Nothing, I imagine. What was there to hope for?”

“Nothing, you’re right,” said the captain. “The machine worked to perfection, just like on maneuvers. After all, we’re a first-class ship, the cream of the fleet! But there’s just one catch: on a combat vessel, the last thing you do before opening fire is to raise all the artillery to the proper elevations. And even if the men only have to push a button, when they’re up that close they know damn well what it is they’ll be shooting at. Well, that was the moment, monsieur, when I found myself with a full-blown mutiny on my hands. The men were in tears, they went all to pieces. Polite, respectful… But still, it was a mutiny. My act was too convincing! They really thought I meant to fire! Up on the bridge, it was one call after another. From every battle station on the ship. Messages that left no doubt. Words no combat captain had ever heard before! ‘Turret, here, Captain. We’re not going to fire! We’re sorry, we can’t!’ ‘Forward machine guns, here. Don’t give the order, Captain. We can’t obey it! We won’t!’ Of course, with a machine gun I can understand. You can see what you’re killing. … Just one consolation. They sounded really torn. Like poor, lost children! So I picked up the mike and went out over the intercom: ‘Drill concluded, men. Drill concluded.’ Not quite by the book. But, frankly, I was as shaken up as they were…"

“One other thing, Captain. There was a third phase, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Yes, monsieur, I was coming to that. Unfortunately! … Fifteen minutes later, I went out over the intercom again, as per your instructions. This time I had a little more leeway. I did my best. What I told them was something like this: ‘Men, this is your captain speaking. The drill you’ve just taken part in was a psychological test, unlike anything before in all our naval history. For that reason, none of you will be held responsible for your outbursts of insubordination. They’ve already been forgotten. Which is only right, since, in a sense, they were part of the test. I’ll try to explain … We’re faced with a situation that’s also unlike anything before in our history. I mean this fleet full of refugees from the Ganges, sailing toward Europe, peacefully enough, but with nobody’s permission, after all, and nobody’s invitation. You’ve all had a chance now to see them close up, and maybe even judge for yourselves. Your job, men—our job—is to sound the fleet out. Destroyer escort 322 is going to be a kind of guinea pig. We don’t know what they’re up to. This might well be some new, sophisticated form of warfare: a pathetic enemy, who attacks without firing a shot, and who counts on our pity to protect him. If so, we have to work out our defense. And that, men, is the mission of destroyer escort 322 … Let’s imagine that the fleet has decided to land in France. For reasons that may well have become clear a few moments ago, and that the government is obliged to consider, it’s possible that our naval forces could be ordered to board these ships and reroute them toward Suez, and back to India, where they should have stayed in the first place. Obviously, any such move on our part would be carried out with all the humanitarian precautions you would certainly want to see. … Now, in case the government decides—as it very well might—that our country’s security is at stake, and that we do have to intercept the fleet, we’ve been asked to carry out another very sensitive preliminary maneuver, one that would serve as something of a test. In fifteen minutes, a force of marines and commandos will attempt to board one of the ships in the fleet as peacefully as possible. If the operation succeeds, the task force will leave the occupied ship at once, and no further action will be taken. It will be a kind of dress rehearsal …’ Well, that’s more or less what I told them, monsieur,” Commander de Poudis continued. “I finished up by saying something like, ‘I’m counting on all of you, men…’ Pretty dull, I know! But what else could I say? Can you imagine the usual military talk making sense with the kind of enemy we were facing? Besides, monsieur, military talk doesn’t make much sense at all anymore. Nowadays it just makes everyone laugh, military men included …”

“I know,” the President replied. “And not only military talk! Why, today, when I pay my respects to the nation, they almost make fun of me right to my face! What used to be clear, and concise, and from the heart, has turned into one big, ludicrous cliché. … Well, enough of that. Let’s get on! Tell me, Captain, how did the operation conclude?”

“Badly, monsieur! Very badly! The ship I chose for our operation was a broken-down old torpedo boat, not too big, not too small, something I thought my men would be at home with. I figured she was good for the test, because they’d be more comfortable with a warship, even one that was out of commission. … Anyway, she had about two thousand people on her. My strike force was a pair of motor launches, three officers, and forty men armed for close action. But with strict orders not to kill or wound anyone, except in selfdefense.

Besides, even if I’d ordered them to, they never would have obeyed. … Well, for a minute I thought it was going to be easy. The men moved right in, without a hitch, and took up positions at the foot of the bridge. The crowd just fell back and stood there, watching. But when they started for the hatchways that led up to the bridge and the engines, all of a sudden the crowd tightened up— ’crammed together like a solid wall of flesh,’ one of my officers told me. The men tried to grab a couple and elbow their way in. Impossible. They would have needed three thousand arms to wade through that mass. So the officer in command had the men take aim. Then the usual orders, very slow and deliberate. Something you can understand in any language … Well, the crowd didn’t give an inch. And all those submachine guns, aimed just high enough to point at a sea of children’s faces, staring wide-eyed, not even afraid… The crew seemed to appreciate the importance of its mission. In fact, we went farther than I ever thought we could. We even shot off a volley. Over their heads, of course. But still, we were taking a risk! Believe me, monsieur (The captain flashed a sad little smile.) you can be proud of your navy! What training, what discipline! No one like them when it comes to firing off the target! A great deterrent, this navy of yours! But deterrents only work when both sides know the rules. And our friends from the Ganges don’t. Not even a trace of panic. They didn’t so much as flinch! Far from it. Instead, that wall of flesh began to move forward, and close in on my unit. My men punched, and kicked, and fought them off with the butts of their guns. And the others didn’t even fight back. They just pushed and swarmed ahead. Two thousand swarming bodies! Against forty-three! The ones that my men knocked down were swept up into the crowd. In no time others took their place. To hold their ground my men would have had to fire. Really fire, I mean, and kill them … By some kind of miracle, they made it back to the ship. All but two seamen, that is. And those two were thrown overboard, dead. Not a sign of violence on their bodies. No stab wounds, no choke marks. Just trampled to death, that’s all. Not by anyone in particular. But by everyone in general, which amounts to the same thing. Drowned in a flood of flesh and bone. Yes, drowned, that’s the word… Well, that’s about all I can tell you, monsieur, except that from now on you’d better not count on destroyer escort 322. She’s a sick ship. A body without a soul, I’m afraid …”

“And her captain?”

“Not much better, monsieur. It’s driving me crazy just thinking about it. We have to make a choice. Either we open our doors to these people and take them in. Or we torpedo every one of their boats, at night, when it’s too dark to see their faces as we kill them. Then we get out as fast as we can, before we’re tempted to save the survivors, and we put a bullet through our brain. Quick and clean. Mission accomplished.”

“The pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima died quietly in his bed at eighty-three.”

“Maybe, Monsieur Perret, but those were different times. The armies of the West have learned a lot about guilt since then …”

“Captain,” the President interrupted, “if I gave you that order, would you carry it out?”

“I’ve given that question a lot of thought, monsieur. My answer would have to be no. But I suppose that’s part of the ‘psychological test’!”

“Yes, quite… Thank you, Captain. Be sure to take a few days’ rest before you rejoin your ship in Toulon. It goes without saying, this is all in the strictest of confidence.”

“Believe me, monsieur, it was bad enough living through it. I don’t much feel like talking about it too. You see, one of those seamen was Marc de Poudis. He was my son …”

He got up and left the room. “Well, Monsieur Perret, what do you think?”

“That you’re going to have to fight without a navy. And since the home front deserted you long ago, it’s going to be up to the army. I suppose if we stir up a few of the regular units—career men, I mean—there may still be a chance.”

“‘Career men’? You saw just now what happened to ‘career men’!”

“Yes, but we should be able to find a hundred thousand or so who aren’t built to go all to pieces. The army must still have a few good tough battalions. Or maybe the police? The important thing is to change the nature of the confrontation. If you publicly and solemnly deny the refugees permission to land, then, the minute they set foot on our shores, unarmed or not, they’ll be committing an act of aggression. At least, that’s how the army will see it. The enemy will change from a hypothesis to a fact. On the water he’s on his own, we can’t touch him. But once he lands, he’ll have gone too far.”

“You think so? “Well, I’m not really convinced, but it’s worth a try.”

“Monsieur Perret, I’m giving you a free hand. Contact the general staff as soon as possible. Draw up your plans. Feel out all the major unit commanders. And don’t breathe a word to the press. The public mustn’t know. According to the admiral’s figures, we’re lucky if we have a week. Keep me informed. My door is open to you around the clock …”


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