Parachute Woman: Simone Weil’s Front-Line Nurses Proposal
“Everything that is subjected to the contact of force is defiled, whatever the contact.”
— Simone Weil
How is that force to be countered? In 1939 and thereafter, the answer was to respond by force… and in time by atomic force. Killing, after all, is the answer to killing. That is a given, a brutish Hobbesian truth – the law of necessity.
While France struggled to combat the German enemy, U-boats patrolled the Atlantic, Luftwaffe squadrons blackened the skies, and “Blitzkrieg” Panzer tanks leveled everything in their paths. Meanwhile, Hitler’s SS, the elite guard of the Nazi Reich, sought a yet grander victory: the conquest of the minds of a horrified world. No evil was too great; no massacre too wholesale; and no holocaust too unthinkable. The myth of the Aryan master race ruthlessly claimed people and property for Deutschland, the motherland. In the process, this superiority myth inspired legions of soldiers under Hitler and Himmler’s command. Supremacy, as in supreme beings with supreme powers, was the Hitlerian mindset. Both Hitler and Himmler understood that the domain of force needed to be undergirded by a psychological power, one as petrifying to the mind as physical barbarity was to the flesh.
Thus did such force terrify and overpower, thus did it enslave those it did not murder. To wield force with abandon was to be intoxicated by the evil it was, by a power that knew no limit save a force of greater magnitude. While the allies were busy trying to buttress their military might, Simone Weil focused her attention on combatting the Nazi psychological powerplay. To that end, Weil had an idea, at once operational and aspirational. It was an idea, as she put it, born out of a “peculiar type of imagination.”
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Against all odds, men go to war and fight in ways that would otherwise be deemed suicidal. When they do, their deeds are hailed as heroic, no matter how unlikely the chances of survival. The living and the dead alike are honored for their bravery, and even more so if their courage held firm in the face of certain defeat. War, as Aristophanes dramatized in Lysistrata, is a man’s pursuit, no matter how much it destroys the rest of the human race. That, at least, is the history of most wars. Thus, when women are not part of that equation, the tendency is to judge their roles differently, with men in the forceful foreground and women in the peaceful background. That was as true in France in 1940 as it was in Greece in 1194 BC. Hence, when a woman proposed a plan to counter the psychology of evil perpetuated by Nazism, it met with instant disapproval. But should it have been dismissed so?
Enter Simone Weil (the daughter of a doctor who once administered medical care on battlefields) with her front-line nurses plan. The seeds of that idea were planted, in a different incarnation, in March of 1939 when German troops and tanks plowed through Prague’s Wenceslas Square. By October a student resistance movement was well underway; by November the Nazis had brutally crushed the uprising sparing neither lives nor dignity. In an essay penned about that time (“Reflections in View of an Assessment”), Weil saw the need for direct action, her pacificism notwithstanding. In the process, her pacificism gave way to active resistance, both as a physical and conceptual matter. “Everyone feels only too acutely that Europe now finds itself in a tragic situation,” is how she expressed it. “Tragic moments,” she added, “naturally paralyze intelligence; and yet they impose upon us, more than any others, a duty of clearly evaluating the entire situation, both for the sake of safety and of honour.” With her hopes for negotiation and her pacifist ideals eclipsed by Hitler’s aggression, Weil attempted to organize a mission, in which she would partake, to parachute soldiers and weapons into Czechoslovakia. Nothing came of it. What, then, to do?
“It would be nearly impossible to overestimate the importance of [her nurses plan] to Weil. Its moral significance had captured her conscience.”
— Eric Springsted
Simone had another but related idea, one that she sought to present to the French Army Commission of the Senate at the War Ministry. It was titled “Plan for an Organization of Front-Line Nurses.” The 1940 plan, at once novel and perilous, was premised on the “inspirational value of a feminine presence in the thick of battle” – i.e., determined women “with a maternal solicitude” combined with a “courage not inflated by the impulse to kill.” One of the main aims of the plan was to “strike the imagination more than any of Hitler’s conceptions have done.” Beyond military warfare waged by men, what Weil had in mind was a certain kind of psychological warfare waged by women motivated by “a religious inspiration” but “not in the sense of adherence to any definite church” yet one clearly attentive to the “essential role played in the present war by moral factors.”
Weil’s “experiment” (and it was very much that) aimed to penetrate the mindsets of men; it sought to do so by confronting soldiers with a psychology of humanity, one designed to counter Hitler’s military psychology predicated on a master race ruthlessly exercising murderous force. Her plan was a longshot, more likely of failure than success in operational terms. To be sure, some experiments fail, especially the riskiest ones. She knew that, and her proposal made that clear: “The project may appear impracticable,” she conceded; she also understood that her squad of nurses would be at the “points of greatest danger.” Then again, “[r]isk is an essential need of the soul,” is how she conceptualized it in a lengthy report drafted in the early months of 1943. Such risk, she added, stems from an awareness of a “definite obligation [that] forces man to face it.” By that measure, risk “represents the finest possible stimulant.”
Risk thus informed the operational details of Weil’s front-line nursing plan, which were rather straightforward:
- “the formation of a special body of front-line nurses” consisting of “ten women of sufficient courage”;
- the selection of women with a “cool resolution” combined with “virile resolution”;
- such women would need no more than “[a]n elementary knowledge of nursing”;
- their job would be to dress wounds, apply tourniquets, and “perhaps” administer injections”;
- they would “comfort men’s last moments by receiving messages for their families”; and
- “they would mitigate by their presence and their words the agony of waiting, sometimes so long and so painfully, for the arrival of stretcher-bearers.”
If one were to stop the conceptual frame there, it is understandable that her brother André urged abandoning the plan. One might even appreciate General De Gaulle’s impatience with the idea and its author: “she’s insane” he quipped after reading it. Judged by its operational criteria, the plan was more a perilous mission than a viable medical one. Moreover, there was the machinery of war (tanks, airplanes, bombs etcetera), which made the killing enterprise quite impersonal. That fact made her nurses plan appear all the more impractical. Thus understood, while the women who volunteered for this mission might be seen in some quarters as heroic, they would also might be viewed as foolhardy.
Still, Weil struggled on; she was tenacious when it came to discovering a way to implement her ideas to find a place in the war fighting for her beloved France. “I have the feeling that by leaving France,” she wrote to Maurice Schumann in 1942, “I have committed an act of desertion.” She had to do something, which is why she was so invested in her nurses plan, among other things. Simone turned to Jacques Maritain, the French philosopher and political thinker who was also then in the states and active in the war effort. Perhaps he could help in directing her plan to the attention of President Roosevelt? (As evidenced by what she wrote in The Need for Roots and elsewhere, Weil had her philosophical differences with Maritain.)
De Gaulle’s assessment notwithstanding, she was confident of her purpose and believed that others in places of authority agreed. After all, her proposal had been favorably received by the “Senate armed forces committee to the War Ministry in France in 1940. The rapidity of events,” she added at the outset of the formal proposal, “put any attempt to enact it out of the question.” She had been assured as much by a senator – this after her parents had arranged for a meeting with their daughter. Unknown to Simone, it was all feigned approval. The senator never endorsed the plan and it had never been submitted to the War Ministry.
The problem with familial and professional assessments is that Weil’s proposal was never intended to be evaluated simply in light of its operational mission; her front-line nurses plan had another far more important objective. To dismiss that objective was much more difficult.
All of this notwithstanding, and despite the conventional view about the absurdity of Weil’s proposal, it is important to note that her ideas were not too far of the mark of what would soon be set in motion with a corps of American Army nurses. In February of 1944, for example, a select corps of nurses set out to offer medical and moral care during the fierce German bombardment at Anzio, Italy. These women – including Mary Roberts (1LT), Elaine Roe (2LT), Virginia Rourke (2 LT), and Ellen Ainsworth (2LT) – bravely cared for the wounded and injured. Though there were plans to evacuate the nurses from the war zone, those plans were dropped. Why? One answer was their very presence proved to be an important “morale factor for the wounded” men.
Such women were the kind of nurses that Simone Weil hoped to recruit for her own plan for her beloved France, which brings us to her main objective – the move from men’s morale to the role of morality in war.
“[Hitler] hopes for the triumph of evil; his material is the . . . dough. We hope for the triumph of good; our material is the yeast. The difference of materials calls for different methods.”
— Simone Weil (1943)
Her mind was focused on Nazism – how it originated, how it came to power, and how it wielded that power over the minds of men. “Hitler has never lost sight of the essential need to strike everybody’s imagination; his own people’s, his enemies’, and the innumerable spectators.” The Hitlerian idea was to was to “provoke the maximum of psychological disarray” in his enemies and to “astonish and impress” the rest of the terrified world. That is how she couched it in her proposal; and it was that very concern that spoke to the higher principle that most animated her thinking.
Her nurses plan called on military leaders to rethink the imperative that governed their actions: “one must remember,” her proposal stressed, “the essential role played in the present war by moral factors. They count for very much more than in past wars; and it is one of the main reasons for Hitler’s success that he was the first to see” the value of symbolic action of the kind that moves men to sacrifice their all. Hitlerism, what Weil tagged a “religion-substitute,” championed a heroism fostered by “extreme brutality.” Something “resembling a faith or religious spirit” was needed to counter Hitlerian heroism. “We cannot copy these methods,” she insisted. Weil’s call to moral action, to sacrifice, made all this manifest:
- “We ought to create something new. This gift of creation is in itself a sign or moral vitality . . . .”
- “The moral support [this corps of nurses] would bring to all those they assisted would be inestimable.”
- “[T]his inspiration is even more important [as a] factor for victory than purely military ones.”
- “Our enemies are driven on by an idolatry, a substitute for religious faith. It may be that our victory depends upon the presence among us of a corresponding inspiration, but authentic and pure.”
Seen in this light, Weil’s front-line nurses proposal was offered as a way to counter Hitler’s psychology of evil; it was an attempt to redefine heroism. In the process, the hope was that this new heroism might, on the one hand, inspire the allies and, on the other hand, give German soldiers some pause in their murderous ways in the service of “violence, destruction, and conquest.” Might the specter of women, clad in white nurses uniforms, performing life-saving services on the battlefield stay the trigger of at least some soldiers beholden to the Nazi command? Either way, it was a symbol of a new brand of bravery, one not tethered to killing – a special kind of bravery activated by women.
There is also this: For Weil the key issue was, as Eric Springsted has noted, how to “avoid losing one’s soul to force and violence; of how, in the midst of war, one can have any sort of moral center left in order to reflect and to act morally.” This was “her chief rationale for her frontline nurses project.”
There is a photograph, taken in 1936 after her exposure to the front line, of Simone clad in a Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) uniform with a rifle strapped over her shoulder. It is a paradoxical photo given her pacificist leanings and her military naïveté. Still, in time she came to believe, especially after the ascendency of Nazism, that pacificism was no longer a viable option and that engaged action was necessary. In a sense, her front-line nurses plan allowed her to resolve the paradox: she could be engaged in war without engaging in killing. She needed to do something; she was incensed by her inaction, by her separation from her motherland. Ever since she left Marseilles and came to New York and later to London, Simone felt disconnected from the plight of her people: “I want to share in the suffering of the French,” is how she expressed it. Her nurses plan would allow her to return to her motherland and, in the process, engage the enemies on the battlefield, but in a novel way.
Weil’s hope was that a life-affirming principle championed by a few courageous women might triumph over the spectacle of slaughter confronting slaughter (a point evident in her 1940-41 essay “The Iliad or Poem of Force”). In her eyes, it was an example of a moral principle supplanting a murderous one.
We live by symbols. The front-line nurses plan was an attempt to invest in a symbol of moral courage, one rooted not in the evil of terror but rather in the grace of a higher good, and one capable of responding to the cold-blooded workings of force. It was that good – a moral way of engaging with the reality – that Weil sought to bring to the battlefield in the hope that maybe (just maybe?) it might release men from the chokehold of the mechanics of merciless force. True, it was very risky experiment – an existential sort of experiment reminiscent of Camus’ admonition: “I do not give the human race more than one chance in a thousand, but I should not be a man if I did not operate on that one chance.”
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“[W]e cannot pose a moral problem without putting the concept of character at its center.”
— Simone Weil (1941)
“Nurses.” That was the last word penned in Weil’s last notebook. It was a sentence unto itself. Why that word, why leave the world on that note? There is an obvious answer: Simone’s last days were spent in the company of white-clad women caring for her. Their character was one imbued with dedication and kindness. Hence, it may well have left an impression on her, one that she wished to record for all time. But there may have been more to her “nurses” entry, something that harkened back to those Joan of Arc women she hoped would answer her call to duty.
In her final years, in those wartime years when the fate of humanity hung in the balance, Simone Weil was preoccupied with a terrifying thought: “What guarantee do we have that someday we will not become, despite ourselves, something that we hate, or at least something that is utterly foreign to us?” Her nurses plan was an answer that question, a way of organizing one’s attention toward the good, towards a course of action not premised on lethal force but on compassion of the highest order.
Had Simone Weil lived to see her plan adopted, she probably would have died in effectuating it. That is, instead of receiving the care of nurses, she would have been a nurse caring for others – a courageous counter-symbol to Hitler’s SS. If shrapnel or lead took her, at least she would have died valiantly for her beloved France, someone who made the ultimate sacrifice – that of a nurse!
Simone Weil, First and Last Notebooks, New York, Oxford University Press, 1970, Richard Rees trans., p. 364 (re “nurses”).
—, “Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations,” in Simone Weil, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998, Eric Springsted, ed., p. 133 (re epigraph quote “We hope for the triumph”)
—, “Notes on the Concept of Character” in Weil, Late Philosophical Writings, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015, Eric Springsted ed., pp. 99, 100 (closing epigraph quote & “What guarantee do we have”)
—, “The Romanesque Renaissance” in Weil, Selected Essays: 1934-43 , New York: Oxford University Press, 1962, Richard Rees, ed. and trans., p. 49 (re epigraph quote “Everything that is subjected”).
—, “This War is a War of Religions” in Weil, Selected Essays: 1934-43 , New York: Oxford University Press, 1962, Richard Rees, ed. and trans., p. 218 (re epigraph quote “[H]itler hopes for”)
—, Seventy Letters, New York: Oxford University Press, 1965, Richard Rees, ed. and trans., pp. 144-153 (July 30, 1942 letter from SW to Maurice Schumann with nurses plan as an addendum)
—, The Need for Roots, Boston: The Beacon Press, 1955, Arthur Wills trans., p. 34 (re risk).
Eric Springsted, Simone Weil for the Twenty-First Century, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2021, p. 216 (re “as Eric Springsted has noted”).
Jacques Cabaud, Simone Weil: A Fellowship in Love, New York: Channel Press, 1964, pp. 176-179, 181-182 (re SW’s father), pp. 182-83 (re “Reflections in View of an Assessment,” 299, re “I want to share”). Joan Dargan, “The Proposal for Front-Line Nurses” in Dargan, Simone Weil: Thinking Poetically, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999, pp. 115-136.
Jane Doering, Simone Weil and the Specter of Self-Perpetuating Force, Notre Dame, ID: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010, pp. 45-50 (re “Reflections in View of an Assessment”).
Max Lerner interview with Albert Camus, 1945.
Springsted, Simone Weil for the Twenty-First Century, cit, p. 123 (re “It would be nearly impossible”).
“WWII AN Silver Star Recipients,” Army Nurses Association (4 American nurses)