Humphrey Cobb was born to American parents, talked his way into the Canadian army and fought in World War I in , two years before the U. Published in , five year Paths of justification I suspect that many people who are familiar with Stanley Kubrick's classic film 'Paths of Glory' are unaware that it was based upon a novel by an author who is mostly forgotten.
Published in , five years after 'All Quiet on the Western Front,' Cobb's novel contained a cynicism that probably did not sit very well with Americans that were just recovering from that war only to contemplate the even greater, looming threat of Hitler and the Nazis. The narrator is omniscient and, God-like, enters the minds of multiple characters and renders the mental processes and rationalizations that each character tells himself, even the vainglorious commander who dreams up the insane idea of attacking an impregnable German fortification—the 'Pimple'.
In that sense he is much like Tolstoy, in 'War and Peace, who similarly rendered very vividly the subjective experience of various participants in war. The Commander, Assolant, hopes that this attack will bolster his reputation and convince French soldiers that they are breaking a stalemate in the fighting.
Meanwhile, the ones more directly involved in the fighting i. Colonel Dax, the commander of the regiment, lodges a futile protest, but must follow orders and lead the attack. As expected, the assault is suicidal. As though beating a horse with a broken leg and ordering him to get up and keep galloping, Assolant urges French artillerymen to fire shells on their own men, to spur them into action.
As a way to avoid taking responsibility and bearing the shame of failure, Assolant contends that the men were cowards. If the fort was really impregnable, the dead bodies of all of them would be the proof.
Paths of Glory by Humphrey Cobb (2010, Paperback)
The fact that soldiers survive is evidence that they were cowards and did not press the attack. The wave of bureaucratic buck-passing results in an order for company commanders to select one person from each unit to be charged and tried for cowardice. Cobb delves into the consciousness of each of these company commanders to explore the labyrinths of their mental processes for determining who they would submit as a sacrifice for the company.
One commander refuses to comply, stating that none of his men were cowards and all acted bravely. His punishment for refusal is never explored but we know that he will pay for his defiance in some way. This leaves three men. The account of how each of them is chosen is fascinating and leads into a rumination on how each commander handles 'playing God.
Unsurprisingly, the trial is a farce. One decision Kubrick made with his film which not only rendered the story more cinematic but streamlined the plot and allowed the viewer to follow one protagonist, was by making Dax both reluctant commander of the assault and defense attorney for the accused. In the novel, the attorney is another character, Etienne, who says all the things Dax says in the film, pulls out all his defense strategies, realizes he has fought a lost cause and disappears from the action. The Christian overtones of an innocent being sacrificed are not lost on Cobb.
The parallels with a crucifixion are noted by one of the condemned as he sees that there are three posts resembling crosses to which each man will be tied and executed by the firing squad. This is no spoiler to anyone who has seen the film or knows much at all about this story. The inevitable conclusion becomes apparent as soon as Assolant tries to justify his decision and gets support from upper level command to conduct a court-martial for cowardice. I am mystified as to why this novel not only fell out of print but failed to be considered an existential meditation on a level of 'The Stranger' or 'The Trial'.
I don't know enough about its publishing history or its author to speculate intelligently about the lack of enthusiasm for this powerful novel, especially in the wake of the highly acclaimed film. It certainly deserves to continue to be read by anyone who feels drawn to consider the convolutions of military reasoning that is universal regardless of a specific war.
Paths of Glory
Apr 30, Barbara rated it it was amazing Shelves: The action in this literary one-hit-wonder, written in , takes place in the French army during World War I. An exhausted regiment is charged with the task of seizing an impregnable German stronghold.
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The book can be divided into two distinct parts, separated by the disastrous at The action in this literary one-hit-wonder, written in , takes place in the French army during World War I. The book can be divided into two distinct parts, separated by the disastrous attack. During the first phase, the author presents different characters' back stories and points of view.
We see the dreamy, and naive, aspirations of new recruits, the jaded perspective of seasoned veterans who have lost friends and family, and the officers' hunger for medals. War is ugly, random violence, showing no favor or discretion, and Cobb provides graphic descriptions of the wounded and dead. The army's hierarchy is clearly established during the early portion of the book, and its machinery goes into action during the second part. Someone must pay for the the thwarting of the general's ambitions: Stephen Tabachnick's afterword is an intriguing analysis of the book - praising both its intricate crafting and its cautionary message about the dangers of institutional power and control.
Cobb had a somewhat embittered view of human nature and the armed forces that was clearly shared by other writers, victims of the same war: This book totally surprised me. I found it at a used book store and didn't know anything about it. Honestly one, if not the best, book about war and its absurdities that I have read. There was nothing extraneous or unnecessary. I can't believe it was written as long ago as it was.
This book sneaks up on you. As powerful a war book as I have ever read. If "Charge of the Light Brigade" were a whole book, this would be it. Aug 11, Realini rated it really liked it Shelves: Stanley Kubrick is one of the best five directors ever, with achievements such as: The cost of any maneuver, for any centimeter of advancement towards the enemy lines was measured in hundreds of thousands of lives lost.
General George Broulard is talking with another general, Paul Mireau about an operation that the commanders have in mind, which would be dangerous- actually will mean the death of many- but would gain a promotion for the latter officer.
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In the first place, Gen. Paul Mireau talks about the eight thousand men that he is responsible for and that he would rather not let them down than gain honors, decorations, but pretty soon changes his speech and talks about artillery support. On a visit in the trenches, this general meets with the effects of war, talking with a soldier who is evidently absent and unaware of what is going on and his comrades explain that he is shell shocked, an explanation refuted by Paul Mireau. He has a conversation with Colonel Dax, who is the officer responsible for the planned attack that will result in more than half of his men being killed, according to ruthless estimations made in advance of the reckless manoeuver.
The Colonel appears to be the only superior officer that really cares for his men and does everything he can to protect them, throughout the battle and then in the court martial trial, quoting Samuel Jackson to his superior: Lieutenant Roget is on a reconnaissance mission when he gets too scared to continue and abandons one man and is responsible for the death of another, sending the surviving soldier to be executed in the aftermath of the ill-fated attack. The plan to attack the enemy was destined to be a catastrophe right from the start, the only reason for launching such a mass suicidal mission being the vainglory, desire for fame, power and applause that generals had.
When the vicious, murderous general sees that the some of the soldiers cannot even go out of their trenches, faced with a terrible barrage of artillery, he orders repeatedly that his own guns fire upon their own troops. The inhuman general, when faced with the result of his orders wants ten men from each company to be executed for the fiasco that was his and his superiors responsibility and he talks about insubordination and their refusal to attack which his contradicted by Colonel Dax who says that they obeyed orders but could not make any headway.
A flash court martial is organized to demonstrate that the accused did not advance but retreated when fighting the enemy, which was the only possible thing to do, short of committing suicide and walking straight into exploding projectiles. Colonel Dax is the only honorable, just, compassionate, positive, brave, decent, responsible officer and he is right when he expresses his disgust in court, as he defends the accused, a task that he had asked for: But this Court Martial is such a stain, and such a disgrace.
The case made against these men is a mockery of all human justice. Gentlemen of the court, to find these men guilty would be a crime, to haunt each of you till the day you die. I can't believe that the noblest impulse for man - his compassion for another - can be completely dead here.
Therefore, I humbly beg you Jan 10, Kelsey rated it it was amazing Shelves: I absolutely loved this book--it's a new favorite that I'll definitely re-read. First of all, I have to say that I fell in love with the actual book the physical object before I read it. Its shape is more square than typical paperbacks, the paper is thicker and the cover is good.
I realize that's a vague and subjective thing to say. I just liked the cover! I'm not giving away anything when I say this is "the story of three men executed to save a general's dignity. It's based on real events in the French army during WWI. In an author's note at the end, Cobb points to several reports mostly in French that detail actual occurrences that I can't believe actually happened. Part of the power of this story is that you know what's going to happen though you're not sure exactly how from the get-go.
Especially if you read the blurb on the back.
You know that three men are going to be killed for absolutely no reason at all, and you have to watch it happen. It's like investing yourself in a relationship that you know is going to end very soon. The thing is, I liked getting to know these guys. I didn't feel like it was a waste of time. There are a few twists along the way, so it isn't entirely straight-forward. At the beginning of the novel, we have no idea who the three men will be. As the novel progresses, the possibilities narrow and the reader has to watch the traps around them tighten as their escapes are closed shut.
Another part of its power is its simplicity. The afterword said that the novel fell out of popularity fast, partially because it was considered too simplistic. Yet I really feel as if it accomplished more by understating what was obviously senseless killing. Not only the executions, but also all the numerous casualties along the way.
The violence is described as if it were commonplace because it is commonplace--in war. You can tell me "his head exploded" and I'll get the picture and find it horrifying. You don't have to spend a page describing metaphors of what it looked like to make sure I understand how terrible it is. Though that's a valid technique, too! So, the simplicity of the story, in my opinion, lends it credibility and also anchors it in reality. There aren't a million metaphors though there are plenty of good ones in there , but there are realistic-sounding descriptions that simply bring the violence into focus without commenting on it.
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I think it would be over-the-top if it were more dramatic. While reading some parts, I wished that I had a better understanding of military strategy and terminology. It didn't push me out of the story, but sometimes I wasn't sure exactly what had just happened. All I knew was that something had gone wrong and now a bunch more men were dead. Similarly, I got confused about rankings. These things didn't bother me much. One thing I enjoyed was the narrative bird's eye view that managed to show the chain of events unfolding in different locations among different ranks without seeming too jumpy, abrupt or disorienting.
There was a time for being inside a specific man's head, and there was a time for being a fly on the wall listening to two officers discussing serious things. Cobb shifts between the two with clear sentences that let the reader know where he's going. When the attack fails, an inquiry into allegations of cowardice indicts a small handful of lower-ranked scapegoats whose trial exposes the farce of ordering ordinary men to risk their lives in an impossible cause.
A chilling portrait of injustice, this novel offers insight into the tragedies of war in any age. Looking for beautiful books? Visit our Beautiful Books page and find lovely books for kids, photography lovers and more. Other books in this series. Letters from a Stoic Seneca. Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad. Eichmann in Jerusalem Hannah Arendt. Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte. Twelve Angry Men Reginald Rose.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra Friedrich Nietzsche. The anti-war masterpiece that became an iconic motion picture-now with a foreword by the creator of the acclaimed HBO tm series The Wire Familiar to many as the Stanley Kubrick film starring Kirk Douglas, Paths of Glory explores the perilous complications involved in what nations demand of their soldiers in wartime. When the attack fails, an inquiry into allegations of cowardice indicts a small handful of lower-ranked scapegoats whose trial exposes the farce of ordering ordinary men to risk their lives in an impossible cause.
A chilling portrait of injustice, this novel offers insight into the tragedies of war in any age. He attended boarding school in England during his childhood. Cobb was kicked out of an American… More about Humphrey Cobb. Simon Introduction by James H. About Paths of Glory The anti-war masterpiece that became an iconic motion picture-now with a foreword by the creator of the acclaimed HBO tm series The Wire Familiar to many as the Stanley Kubrick film starring Kirk Douglas, Paths of Glory explores the perilous complications involved in what nations demand of their soldiers in wartime.