On that Easter Monday morning, the sun rose at 5:27. Between the last word of the President of the Republic (ten after midnight) and the first rosy glimmers of dawn on the water, five hours and seventeen minutes, exactly, hung over the West.

No “Marseillaise” had followed the address, contrary to custom—a custom continued throughout the years, for some bizarre reason, despite the droll anachronism of its stirring lyrics mouthed by the flabby new breed of “enfants de la patrie.” Instead, in Rouget de Lisle’s rightful place, more Mozart. Just like that. All of which prompted Colonel Dragasès to conclude that France, in her panic, was showing a little tact at last, and that maybe, for all her faintness of heart, would loathe herself less. When man finally conquers his false self-image—be it only a dim and time-worn reflection of an all-but-vanished shadow, left lingering faintly in the back of his mind— there’s nothing much to do but play him his taps. There were two men, that night, who came to the same conclusion.

First, Monsieur Jean Orelle, in Paris, with a telephone call to the station to air the Mozart Requiem again. It was clear from the President’s dramatic finale that his will was no longer his own. Well, if all was lost, why not face the fact squarely? During his long career, the minister had lived through too many disavowals, he had witnessed too many defeats, all touted as triumphs to the gullible public, or as noble self-sacrifice, or national redemption. He had heard them all followed by pompous hymns, whose flood of words succeeded in washing away their shame. May as well die a dignified death when you’ve lived too long, turned so many pages— intelligently, of course, but without the slightest notion that these were the last in a drawn- out tale—and suddenly stumble across the words “The End,” words you thought were way off in the distance, haloed in justice, perfection, and universal love. Words ablaze, in fact, with nothing but hate, and looming up so quickly that they deal you a deathblow straight to the heart. Could humanity have lost its way somewhere inside the maze? Did you shut too many doors? Doors you should have kept open, whatever the cost, instead of digging pitfalls and traps to catch the blind? How many escapes did I help to block off? Myself, Jean Orelle? The whole world read me, listened to what I said, discussed me devoutly, turned me into a sage, heaped me with honors, bowed and scraped, drank in my words and lived by my deeds, transformed my life into a royal road, straight as an apostle’s conscience and fair as a prophet’s holy vision, while Truth, with her bruised and bleeding feet, wandered, lost and rejected, among the thorns and brambles of a tortuous path. … How many gates did I help to fling open? Gates to delusion! Ah, I should have been more careful. I knew, after all. I knew that Truth always goes her way alone. If the masses join in, if they fall in step behind her, it’s a sign that she must have sold herself out. But I let myself be fooled. Monsieur Jean Orelle … Requiem! Yes, let everyone hear it! Maybe some will understand! … The minister carefully examined the revolver. The 1937 Soviet model. His hand fell once more into long-forgotten gestures: defense of Madrid (Spain), liberation of Paris (France), capture of Chungking (China), attack on Salisbury (Rhodesia), ghetto revolt in Atlanta (U.S.A.) … This time the old revolver didn’t jam. They found the minister sitting slumped at his desk, his head in a pool of blood, as if his mouth had spat it out and were trying to suck it back in. Just before dying, he had scratched out this curious phrase: “Impure or pure Since he always had reveled in obscure pronouncements—and even more so late in life, when he took almost senile delight in excessive abstruseness—people groped far afield in their search for the meaning. His many biographers racked their brains on the posthumous puzzle. One hit it quite close, when he saw in the phrase a reference to blood, and, more abstractly, to Orelle’s pure—or impure—motives at the moment of death. Strangely enough, to the best of our knowledge, no one grasped the connection with the “sang impur” of our old “Marseillaise,” that vile enemy blood to be spilled in the cause of freedom. (Of course, the national anthem was changed not long after. And about time, too …)

As for Colonel Dragasès, he had little taste for Mozart. It was all right in principle. But there had to be some more military way of confronting oblivion. And so, he hounded his staff: “Get me some bugles and drums, goddammit! If there are any left …” A call went out the length of the front. (As a result of which, by the way, it was learned that in the five minutes following the President’s address, five more units had slipped off into the night, or joined the ranks of Panama Ranger.) The marine commandos saved the day. Four strapping specimens in camouflage suits, crosses dangling against their hairy chests, went crawling on their bellies over beaches and rocks, yelling “shit” at each verbal offensive from Panama Ranger’s pacifist crew—invisible in the darkness, but the front was alive with them, you could feel them in the air, like insects burrowing under the skin, or some gangrenous rot—and, with drum or bugle, as the case might be, slung over their shoulders, they made their way to the headquarters in the villa.

“You know how to play taps?” the colonel snarled.

“Commando specialty, Colonel! That’s what we use to go over the top. Works even better than the cavalry charge. Chad! Guiana! Djibouti! Madagascar! Pam-pa-paam, pam-pa-paam … Very impressive. Objective? Slaughter! … By the way, the captain sends his regards.”

“Fine. Give me a round of taps, and try not to flub any notes!”

They stood by the five tanks of the Second Hussars, Chamborant Regiment, lined up in the garden outside the villa, under the pines. Two drummers, two buglers. Not much of a band. But there in the darkness they were loud as an army. Picture the scene. Moments after midnight, taps blaring out by the light of the moon. Pure theater! “Oh, that tugs at the heart!” moaned Undersecretary Perret, half in jest. The colonel was smiling too. A big, broad grin. Jubilation all around. The ones who truly love their traditions don’t take them too seriously. They march to get their heads shot off with a joke on their lips. And the reason is that they know they’re going to die for something intangible, something sprung from their fancy, half humor, half humbug. Or perhaps it’s a little more subtle. Perhaps hidden away in their fancy is that pride of the blueblood, who refuses to look foolish by fighting for an idea, and so he cloaks it with bugle calls that tug at the heart, with empty mottoes and useless gold trim, and allows himself the supreme delight of giving his life for an utter masquerade. That’s something the Left has never understood, and that’s why its contempt is so heavy with hate. When it spits on the flag, or tries to piss out the eternal flame, when it hoots at the old farts loping by in their berets, or yells “Women’s Lib!” outside the church, at an old-fashioned wedding (to cite just some basic examples), it does so in such a grim, serious manner—like such “pompous assholes,” as the Left would put it, if only it could judge. The true Right is never so grim. That’s why the Left hates its guts, the way a hangman must hate the victim who laughs and jokes on his way to the gallows. The Left is a conflagration. It devours and consumes in deadly dull earnest. (Even its revels, appearances notwithstanding, are as grisly an affair as one of those puppet parades out of Peking or Nuremberg.)

The Right is different. It’s a flickering flame, a will-o’-the-wisp in the petrified forest, flitting through the darkness …

“That’s fine!” said the colonel. “Good job! Now get back to your unit. And tell the captain thanks … Oh yes, on the way, you can check out the barbed wire and call in a report.”

No sooner had he finished his sentence, than Panama Ranger sent back his reply to the bugles and drums. A studied cacophony, a jumble of everything more or less “in”: The Ballad of Man’s Last Chance, on guitar, voices spitting slogans, or singing songs—like Khaki, Bye-Bye!, or Nini the Hooker, or The Case of the Motorized Crabs—and all to a background of sputtering motors, of hoots and horns, of squeals of delight from girls being felt up and asking for more, even a neoliturgical hymn, some old spiritual changed for the occasion. It varied according to where the sounds came from, each one of the houses sharing in the racket.

“Pretty, huh?” mumbled the colonel. “It reminds me of all those New Year’s Eves, when we were stationed in Tarbes. It used to drive my men up a wall. Me too, on boring nights like that. But I tried not to show how much it pissed me off to see the people having their fun. Just press a button, and boom! You see what you get!”

What they were getting just then, in fact, struck the general staff in the villa with its volume. The night wasn’t even half over, and already the troop strength had shifted. How many did Panama Ranger have now? Twenty thousand? Twenty-five? And the army…? They took another count, unit by unit: no more than six thousand, at the very outside. Not to mention, of course, group number three, the Third World contingent: almost a million refugees, biding their time, waiting for daylight on their grounded ships, and caught in the rhythmic sweep of a giant searchlight, mounted on the roof of the villa, like the culture the biologist checks in his microscope now and again, to make sure his microbes are still alive and kicking. (We can forget the fifty-five million Frenchmen, stunned by the noxious gases of modern thought, paralyzed where they stood, in grotesque positions, as if some director had frozen the background action on stage, to emphasize only the essentials.) The one common quality all three forces possessed was a consummate scorn. Could that be one explanation? …

“We’re losing a thousand men every hour!” said Commander de Poudis. “And no one’s even fired a shot.”

“So what?” replied the colonel. “I see things from a different angle. The way I figure, if the hemorrhage keeps up like this, by five twenty-seven this morning I’ll still have four hundred fifty men. More than I expected. With the undersecretary’s permission (He was looking at Jean Perret. Both men seemed to enjoy still playing the roles of soldier and statesman. ) “… I’m going to get rid of all those fancy toys you had them send me. I mean all those rubber bullets, fire hoses, tear-gas grenades, lead-weighted nets, and all the other fun and games we’d use on a mob of Latin Quarter kids. We’ll load up with live ammunition, that’s all.”

“You do,” Perret countered, “and you won’t even have your four hundred fifty. You’ll have fifty if you’re lucky. Unless they decide to call it a day, and shoot you in the back.”

“Well then, I’ll die like an old-time sergeant, stuck away in our African battalion. That’s not a bad death. A bullet in the back, and no one’ll know who did it. What the hell’s the difference? When you’re dead, you’re dead. … Well, are we ready? They’ve shot their mouths off long enough! What say we shut them up?”

“Good idea, Colonel!” Commander de Poudis agreed. “My ears can’t take it! Let me volunteer …” “But Colonel,” Perret interrupted, “the real enemy is in front of you, out on those boats. It’s not that gang of loudmouths behind you!”

“Oh, you think so, monsieur?” the colonel objected. “I can see you’ve never done much fighting. In war, the real enemy is always behind the lines. Never in front of you, never among you. Always at your back. That’s something every soldier knows. In every army, since the world began. And plenty of times they’ve been tempted to turn their backs on the enemy—the so-called enemy, that is—and give it to the real one, once and for all. In the good old days you could even see two armies at each other’s throats, in some stupid war or Camp of the Saints 72 other, and all of a sudden they’d call it quits, and each one would pull a coup and take over at home. I’m sorry I wasn’t around to see it! … No, my friend, in war the soldier’s real enemy is seldom who you think.”

“And when there are no more soldiers?”

“Then there’s no more war. At least, not worthy of the name. Which is just what’s going to happen this morning, by the way. When my last hussar runs out on me, you’ll see. The country will be at peace. What kind of peace? I really can’t say. I don’t want to live through it, that much I know. Let the rest of them wallow in their peace! It’s what they’ve been yelling for all these years, without the slightest idea what it was! If you ask me, they’ll get what’s coming to them, that’s all. … Are you still volunteering, Captain?” “Yes,” Commander de Poudis answered. “You want me to shut them up?”

“Nothing would please me more!” replied the colonel. “They’re not quite what I had in mind for the future of the nation. Take my tanks and get going! … The whole of our armor, in the hands of a sailor! Kind of funny, don’t you think?”

Yes, of course! They both thought it was funny. The captain was laughing out loud. The colonel’s eyes were alive with delight. They had understood each other. Every military man loves war. The ones who claim they don’t are liars. Either that, or they should be chucked the hell out, sacked without pay, because they’re really only civilians in disguise, like post office clerks. Both men had felt that the Ganges fleet was hardly the perfect enemy for their final fling at war. Now they had found themselves another, one that truly measured up, proper motive and all. And one that could even fight back. What more could you ask for?

And fight back they did… Since every young idiot’s dream is to make like the Warsaw rebels—as long as there’s no real risk that the grown-ups will mix in with more than a slap—five tanks, groping along in the dark, with no infantry support, are a windfall for ten thousand drunk and drugged heroes, sitting around all night making Molotov cocktails (first swilling the rotgut and wine, to be sure), in a wild hue and cry that made the madcap free-for-alls of the old Paris Commune clubs seem like pretty small potatoes. The girls in particular, vastly gifted in the ways of popular culture, took it into their heads to turn each occupied town into people’s living theater. One big, live sex show, left and right, but only for the best of patriotic reasons. (Their brand, that is. Patriotic in reverse.) For making one Molotov cocktail: a blow job. For two: a first-rate lay, no holds barred. For digging one tank trap: a gang-bang for all the diggers … Since it had gone on like that for three days, bedding down each night in a different place after each of their highway “encounters,” the troops of Panama Ranger had a hefty share of those clapped-up pissers that no revolutionary army worth its salt could possibly exist without. Now, if we think for a moment of the refugee fleet, and picture its even heftier share—complete with its assortment of pus, scab, and chancre—condemned for the last two months to a monumental daisy chain of sodomy and sex, then we have to admit that the union of these two races—not to mention the others—is bound to produce a result well worth watching. At long last, that famous and fundamental doubt (“Would you let your daughter marry a …?”) will burst like a bubble. Outside of that, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. After centuries of struggle with bacterial odds, the white race, finally, had cleansed its genes of the old-fashioned pox and its nasty results, zealously passed down over the years, but weaker and weaker with every generation. Now we’ll have to start from scratch, that’s all. Though, of course, we’ll have plenty of time …

But let’s get back to the front, and our heroes. And let’s give credit where credit is due. Panama Ranger was anything but chicken. When four of the five tanks, submerged in a deluge of human flesh, like Gulliver in Lilliput, blew up in the joint attack of hundreds of Molotov cocktails, he stood up alone in the red-glowing darkness, and barked, “Leave the last one for me!” Behind him, his house was a pile of rubble. Buried inside, a few of his braves, caught napping where they lay. Commander de Poudis had launched the offensive, and Panama Ranger was playing the scene like a Western. Lit up by the fire, a bottle in each hand, he stalked forward, step by step, against his foe. The wild steel beast stopped dead in its tracks, as if cowed by his look. It’s still far from clear what prompted the captain to open the turret and poke head and shoulders up out of his shell. Most likely to know who it was he was fighting. Or rather, to see. To take a good look. That physical need any real soldier feels, trapped in the pushbutton army, and faced once again with the timeless truth of man-to- man combat. What he saw there amazed him: a tall, slender young man in the middle of the road, standing calm and determined, feet spread wide. A smile on his face, eyes fixed in a blue, unblinking gaze. Alone—by choice—yet the picture of power. Strength and manly grace combined. “Are you having fun?” Commander de Poudis shouted. “A ball!” came back the reply. And it struck them both that they were laughing together. “I’m going to count to three!” the captain warned. “Me too!” was the answer. Which set the navy man musing on how much life had changed. “Time was,” he thought, “man used twenty-year-olds like this conquering angel to build him his empires and amaze the world. Today we only use them to destroy—ourselves included—and for nobody else’s amazement but our own.” Then he thought of his son, Marc de Poudis, killed off the coast of Mauritania, with no smile on his lips, no chance to do battle. In the light of the thousand years soon ending, hadn’t the poor boy chosen the wrong side somehow? … “Three!” shouted Panama Ranger, as he flung the two cocktails with deadly precision. One set the captain on fire, like a torch. The other exploded at the rim of the turret, and sent its flames shooting down inside the tank, blowing it sky high in no time at all. Panama Ranger gave a flick of the hand, like a friendly wave good-bye. … If we’ve gone into rather a lot of detail over this unique encounter, it’s because in the dismal mass of firsthand documents for historians to ponder, this one alone leaves a different impression. Yes, there’s loss of life, to be sure. But still, it stands out like a flourish of trumpets, sharp and clean. Finally! In the welter of actors and spectators caught in the whole tragic drama, now there’s someone to be proud of. One man is dead, one man is still living, but that’s not the point. The two were worth all the rest put together. Break up the pair, and the twin that’s left serves no further purpose. Their clash, at long last, sparked the first heroic glimmer in the whole mucked-up mess. The historian turns the page and reads on. He’ll feel little more than a twinge of nostalgia. But only the vaguest, since such timeworn feelings are really beyond his ken. At any rate, this encounter was the last one that night, and indeed the last one on that whole crumbling front …

“Well, it looks like I have no more armor,” the colonel noted simply, as he heard the fifth explosion.

“I must say, you don’t seem awfully concerned!” Jean Perret observed.

“And why should I be? They died a beautiful death. What more do you want? Death like that is a blessing! Why else do you think I sent them out there?”

“But a few hours from now, when the invasion begins, even five tanks could have helped you stop it!”

“Come now! You still think my men are going to shoot at that pack of miserable niggers? I’m not even sure I can do it myself.” “I just don’t understand you, Dragasès! Why all the fuss then? Why that mad rush over the road to get here? Why all the trouble to stir up the army—or what little was left? Why even accept the assignment in the first place?”

“You’ll understand soon enough, Monsieur Perret. As long as I manage to work things out to my own satisfaction. And I think I can.”

“To your satisfaction?”

“Quite. Mine. And yours too, I imagine. And a few others like us. That’s the main thing, isn’t it? All the rest (He gave a casual toss of the hand.) “The important thing, really, is not to botch our exit, especially since it’s for keeps. I’m sure it’s going to work out fine.” It was just then that the radio crew in the villa received a message from the marine commandos: “Barbed wire cut all over, Colonel. Infiltration possible up and down the front.”

“Well, what are you waiting for? Get out there and fix it.” The reply was concise. They had barely enough men on hand to keep up their patrols and maintain communications. But certainly not to go stringing barbed wire. That was for sure.

“Fine, fine!” said the colonel, and he gave the impression that he actually meant it.

A few more minutes, and it would be three in the morning …


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