This passage relates the horrors and madness of World War I, a horror from which we have yet to draw the appropriate conclusions:
He had read The Star Rover not long ago, a recent novel by Jack London. London had described a prisoner bound tightly by a device not unlike the one he had about himself now. The severity of his constriction forced the character in the novel to turn inwards, explore the universe within and find liberation. Whether it was insanity or revelation, he felt his capacity to rise above the body Dr. Crenshaw had sought to restrain.
Some part of Doug knew the causes for his mental state. It was some mixture of hypnotism, drugs, electric shock, and the constriction of the jacket. But the combination was squeezing him out of the body he was intended to inhabit.
Free from any identity, he was more aware of a larger consciousness. He was more than an individual. He sensed the group consciousness that existed within the asylum, like the blood of a community that dripped from solitary souls and coalesced in a draining pool.
A mass of traumatized soldiers existing in an institution that sought to cure what it did not understand. All the power of the analytical mind attempting to understand its shadow, the unconscious. The cold, calculating logic of science seeking answers to the random death and destruction of modern warfare. To that end they applied powerful drugs and electrical currents to force men to conform to the rules science sought to apply to realms it had no business contemplating. Doug could feel it, the effects of war upon the human psyche, upon its very soul. It was an illness, a bacteria that fed upon the spirit, spread like a plague throughout humanity. It tore apart men’s psyches as it did their bodies. It was not merely a phenomenon but a living, screeching demon.
And doctors sought to understand it! Better they should send witch doctors to help mend soldiers whose souls were blackened by war, men sent to deal with the problems of a world incapable of solving its own spiritual darkness.
He felt it, isolated cells containing truths no one wanted to know. For the world to hear what they had to say would be to admit the truth of its own sins. These inmates were the sacrificial lambs sent to the holocaust to appease an unholy god. They alone looked into the darkest depths of humanity’s soul, they alone were not permitted to look away. They found what redemption they could in the love of their comrades, and when they came home no one wanted to know what revelations they had seen.
He felt it, a thousand souls in anguish, augmented with the insanity that had existed at Barrett Greens Asylum since its inception. He felt, sensed it, saw it and smelled it. My God, the smell. He was surrounded by the hell experienced by others. The collective consciousness of those who had been bathed in war and would forever carry its stench.
He was floating again, gazing down upon a scene created from the synthesized subconscious of those residing in the asylum. He stared at what appeared to be a deep gash of a wound with vast amounts of blood spilling from it. Then the picture slowly altered so that the slit was the opening of a mouth, surrounded by red lips that smiled at him. The smile was terrifying, a red laugh of one whose lips were stained by blood. The mouth seemed to open and he felt himself falling towards it as it waited to devour him as it had so many others. Within the mouth he could see the desecrated bodies of others it had already chewed up and ingested.
As he neared it he saw he was falling to the earth, as if the earth itself meant to swallow him up. At last his senses adjusted until he understood what it was he saw, a trench hastily dug into the earth, a field of red poppies in bloom about it.
His senses floated slowly downward, until like fireworks exploding, they shattered into myriad pieces and fell to earth. Each of them an individual in the vast war machine that sought to grind them into the same pulp.
He was a thousand soldiers, each experiencing the same hell, each intent on survival at all costs, like gladiators in an arena. He was an underage boy who had lied to a draft board that was willing to look the other way in order to meet its quota. He was a father of seven children, who had joined in order to provide the steady income he could not find at home. He was a million men, each with a story and a reason for living. Each of them called to him, wanting to tell him his story, a story they dared not even tell themselves. The voices pulled at him, overwhelmed him until he accepted their invitations to look for a moment from each of their eyes.
Nearby birds chirped, while somewhere down the line distant artillery could be heard. The heat of a mid-morning sun had already started its work of drying the muddy ground and puddles that formed in the
His clothing was soaked from last night’s rain, unbearably sticky in the sun’s rays, his feet rotting in boots that never dried.
In front of him, had he dared look, were the bodies of his comrades who died in their last attempt at overcoming the enemy, their bodies not yet retrieved from the battlefield. So thickly did they line the ground he felt he could walk from his trench to the enemy’s without ever stepping foot on bare earth. Behind him, not more than twenty yards, were the graves of those buried from the attack before that. The trench itself had been dug through some previous graveyard, so that here and there in the trench a rotted limb or scrap of clothing could be seen in the wall, dead comrades still unable to flee the battleground.
A cloud of flies rose and drifted its way toward him in the stagnant air. They carried with them the stench of the corpse they had been feasting upon. Upon the dead soldiers armies of insects fed and bred. Flowers grew upon the shallow graves, receiving nourishment from the dead. Rats too feasted and grew fat on the carnage. Everywhere those that fed on death ate at soldiers whose lives were wasted on futile attacks.
Further down the line, where the sound of shelling was deafening. Soldiers gripping their legs tightly, the noise so loud that communication with one another was impossible. Each soldier was left alone with his own thoughts, each as isolated from each other as if they were locked away in dank dungeons. There was no action to perform to increase one’s chance of survival, one only had to endure. Looking at other soldiers he noticed them all shrunken within themselves, crying like children with no mother to comfort them.
Still further down. The call to go over the top is given, and thousands crawl out the trench they had up until then been afraid to peer over. They run into a barrage of machine gun fire, a hundred yards away from the enemy trench. They run until they drop one by one or dozens at a time. They run until all that they are is a single soldier who by some miracle of fate is left standing. He runs alone until he is caught in the barbed wire in front of the enemy’s trenches. There he sits, unable to move, awaiting the bullets that will silence the terror that is screaming in his soul.
His consciousness is in touch with the stories of all who have experienced the horror of it all. One after another they seek to tell their tale. Each screaming to be heard, to be free from the isolation the war has inflicted upon them, each a private hell. No one can understand except those who have been there, those who know. No one would ever permit themselves to understand, no one would ever willingly look.
The stories played themselves out in his mind, one after another, a limitless supply of witnesses to the ultimate madness. Each vying for his attention, each wanting to bear witness to what he had seen, voices crying out in an attempt to make themselves heard over the exploding bombs.
The noise inside his head increased. He could hear the screaming of soldiers until it became as loud as the artillery, until it became the artillery. The fear that welled up inside helpless individuals became so strong that it created a means of making itself heard. It created institutions to give itself voice, and these institutions contrived the weapons that gave them power.
But the weapons that gave power to some became the instruments of torture to those who had to face such weapons, until an ecosystem of death, not life, was created. Here the blood of soldiers dripped from bodies to collect in shell holes. Here was a chaos without explanation—one could experience but never give meaning to it. One could never understand why one’s brother died while another survived.