Moral cowardice and the custom of submissiveness and quaking, such is the legacy of the barracks.
It is on graduation from the regiment that some men prove themselves capable of becoming traitors to the working class by becoming policemen or scabs.
But the army has a quite separate part to play: it is the nation’s gendarme.
It is soldiers who are sent in during strikes with loaded rifles and fixed bayonets. It is they who rake the streets with gallops and charges when, having been driven out of work by the avarice of the employer, the workers rightly take the view that their place is on the streets.
And it is not only with its rifles that the army rallies to capital’s aid. Soldiers even take the places of workers in strikes. The nation’s army, the army made up of the offspring of the people is in the boss’s service and ranged against the people. The army lends its murderous capacity to the boss and occasionally replaces the striking worker.
Hypocritically, those in government state that the army is guaranteeing the right to work. This is a lie. It is guaranteeing the exploiter’s right over the exploited.
While waiting to serve in a foreign war, the soldier in fact is still and primarily used in the social war. Those in government and those with property never shrink from using force when they fear for their power or for their money. Our history, like that of every other country indeed, is awash with the blood of the evidence of this truth. Let the sons of the people press for a little more freedom and a little additional comfort and the rifle spits their answer. Without going into the greater massacres - like 1830, 1848 or 1871 - when proletarians by the thousands fell to the bullets of the defenders of law and order, not a year goes by but that workers are massacred somewhere or another.
Every time that workers try to strike to secure a few meagre benefits, some minor improvement in their circumstances, the troops are sent in. With every move that he makes the striker runs up against the soldier.
We are proletarians, which is to say that we are the ones who now bear the full burden, all of the sadness of society. The army is the primarily the underpinning of that society. And to cap it all, it draws its recruits from among the most wretched, most afflicted victims of capitalist rule.
On the day when the bulk of the workers, the conscious ones, seek to demand their proper share of society’s wealth, of which they are the producers, cannon, rifle and bayonet will be send against them.
The sons and brothers of workers will turn into murderers unless they find the courage to refuse to open fire, to refuse to get involved in massacre.
Such is the culmination of the highfalutin talk of the Nation and the bombast talked underneath the Flag. When we swallow an imbecilic chauvinism we are merely justifying and consolidating an invincible power turned against us by the exploiters and those in government.
When the bourgeois swoon at the sight of military parades behind banners and bands, when they are moved by the splendid array and the martial bearing, this is only fair, since these good fellows will be standing guard at the entrances to banks, factories, workyards and ministries. They are security for the strongboxes, the survival of privileges which have had their day. How come the owners of the strongboxes and the owners of the privileges do not expose themselves to danger?
But we are mown down on the streets at a yea or nay! As far as we are concerned, the battalion marching past represents slavery. Slavery and shame, for as soon as he dons the soldier’s livery, the man of the people betrays his own, whatever his intentions. The soldier proletarian is a man ranged in defence of the rich and the powerful, a man equipped and armed against his brothers.
Outside of its object, its raison d’être, militarism is odious to us on another count. What it turns us into, what it costs us.
The army is not merely an academy of crime, it is a school of vice, a school of treachery, of laziness, hypocrisy and cowardice. (….)
Young men full of vigour and health, about to be snatched away from your work, your hopes, your loved ones;
Young men about to don the livery of honour (as they describe the livery of slavery or crime) for a three year stretch;
Young men, think about what you must do! Make a decision!
If you think you ought not to endure the vexatiousness, insults, stupidities, punishments and all of the turpitudes that await you in the barracks: Desert! Better that than serving as a source of fun for the alcoholic bourgeois and irate madmen who will be looking after you in the military prisons.
If you think that there is no chance of propagating revolt in the barracks, if you think that such propaganda is not worth the risk involved in its making: and if you think that there is no way that you could serve out your three years without carrying out this propaganda that you reckon is pointless and potentially harmful to yourself: Desert!
Your Unions, your Trades, your Bourses du Travail will do everything possible so that you will have moral and financial support. For their sake you will find a fraternal welcome abroad and you will thereby learn that the Mother-Country is everywhere where there are men who struggle, think, suffer, toil, hope and revolt against society’s injustices.
But should the affection of those around you, should fear of the unknown, of all the irritations and misery that might await you in a land where you know neither the customs nor the language: should other considerations overpower your horror of the regiment: Go to it! But do what you can to retain your manhood there. Rise above your disgust. Make yourself loved by your wretched fellow-slaves and make propaganda to each one individually. Turn the school of crime into a school of revolt. Day to day facts will abet you in this. On your return, you will be able to expose what you will have seen or undergone. By citing facts you will thereby be contributing your courageous blow of the pick to the demolition of this stall upon which the edifice of society largely rests.
Moreover, you will not the first to have done so. Others have already gone before you. (…..)
For three years you have been confined to barracks, removed from the world that produces, the world that gets on with life. You are machines. You must not respond to even the foulest insult from the first imbecile to happen along, should he be wearing one or several stripes. And you must obey even the stupidest orders! All of which is, of necessity, brutalising.
However, do not be disheartened. Go along to the Bourses du Travail, go along to the people’s Libraries and Universities. Only there will you encounter genuine affection and the most fraternal of welcomes. There you will be able to forget barracks life, its vices, its deceit, its ridiculousness, its cruelty.
Furthermore, you will also find a brotherly token of sympathy that binds you to the comrades you left behind. That token is the small regular sum paid out to you from your trade union organisation’s Sou du Soldat (Soldier’s Halfpenny).
We know of course that the sum is not going to help you degrade yourself through drink. But it will relieve your boredom and give you encouragement.
If some day you should be called upon to march against some enemy, your unhappy brethren exploited some other country, you will know how to act conscientiously and do whatever reason dictates you should.
If, some day, you should be called upon to march against comrades struggling against the rapaciousness of the employers, who are pressing for a little more comfort, a little more freedom, you will also know where your duty lies.
Colonel de Saint-Rémy, professional soldier: Colonel de Saint-Rémy, who freely chose the trade of man-killer, of bloody executor of the orders of the Government, found clemency from a court martial which so roughly handles ordinary soldiers, for having refused to obey, on the grounds that his Christian conscience forbade him from mistreating other Christians.
Well then! Comrades your reason ought to forbid you from killing other men, your fellow-men. You will refuse to obey if they try to make murderers of you!
Your conscience as a worker forbids you to fire upon other workers. If they should send you in against strikers: You shall not open fire!
They want to turn you into killing machines? Revolt! And let the trembling be left at last to those who dare to arm you against your brethren, for your enemy is only the one who exploits, oppresses, commands and deceives you!
If they absolutely insist upon your becoming murderers with the weapons entrusted to you, do not be fratricide!
From: The New Soldier's Handbook (Paris 1903). Translated by: Paul Sharkey.