Is Morality Disappearing from War?

By Havelock Ellis

[The New York Times/Current History, May 1916]

There are some idealistic persons who believe that morality and war are incompatible. War is bestial, they hold, war is devilish; in its presence it is absurd, almost farcical, to talk about morality. That would be so if morality meant the code, forever unattained, of the Sermon on the Mount. But there is not only the morality of Jesus, there is the morality of Mumbo Jumbo. In other words, and limiting ourselves to the narrower range of the civilized world, there is the morality of Machiavelli and Bismarck, and the morality of St. Francis and Tolstoy.

The fact is, as we so often forget, and sometimes we do not even know, morality is fundamentally custom, the mores, as it has been called, of a people. It is a body of conduct which is in constant motion, with an exalted advance guard which few can keep up with, and a debased rear guard, once called the black-guard, a name that has since acquired an appropriate significance. But in the substantial and central sense morality means the conduct of the main body of the community. Thus understood, it is clear that in our time war still comes into contact with morality. The pioneers may be ahead; the main body is in the thick of it.

That there really is a morality of war, and that the majority of civilized people have more or less in common a certain conventional code concerning the things which may or may not be done in war, has been very clearly seen during the present conflict. This moral code is often said to be based on international regulations and understandings. It certainly on the whole coincides with them. But it is the popular moral code which is fundamental, and international law is merely an attempt to enforce that morality.

The use of expanding bullets and poison gases, the poisoning of wells, the abuse of the Red Cross and the white flag, the destruction of churches and works of art, the infliction of cruel penalties on civilians who have not taken up arms all such methods of warfare as these shock popular morality. They are on each side usually attributed to the enemy; they are seldom avowed, and only adopted in imitation of the enemy, with hesitation and some offense to the popular conscience, as we see in the case of poison gas, which was only used by the English after long delay and which the French still deny using. The general feeling about such methods, even when involving scientific skill, is that they are "barbarous."

As a matter of fact this charge of "barbarism" against those methods of warfare which shock our moral sense must not be taken too literally. The methods of real barbarians in war are not especially "barbarous." They have sometimes committed acts of cruelty which are revolting to us today, but for the most part the excesses of barbarous warfare have been looting and burning, together with more or less raping of women, and these excesses have been so frequent within the last century, and are still today, that they may as well be called "civilized" as "barbarous."

The sack of Rome by the Goths at the beginning of the fifth century made an immense impression on the ancient world as an unparalleled outrage. St. Augustine in his "City of God," written shortly afterward, eloquently described the horrors of that time. Yet today, in the new light of our own knowledge of what war may involve, the ways of the ancient Goths seem very innocent. We are expressly told that they spared the sacred Christian places, and the chief offenses brought against them seem to be looting and burning; yet the treasure they left untouched was vast and incalculable, and we should be thankful indeed if any belligerent in the war of today inflicted as little injury on a conquered city as the Goths did on Rome.

The vague rhetoric which this invasion inspired scarcely seems to be supported by definitely recorded facts, and there can be very little doubt that the devastation wrought in many old wars exists chiefly in the writings of rhetorical chroniclers whose imaginations were excited, as we may so often see among the journalists of today, by the rumor of atrocities which have never been omitted. This is not to say that no devastation and cruelty have been perpetrated in ancient wars. It seems to be generally agreed that in the famous Thirty Years' War, which the Germans fought against each other, atrocities were the order of the day. We are constantly being told, in respect of some episode or other of the war of today, that "nothing like it has been seen since the Thirty Years' War." But the writers who make this statement, with an offhand air of familiar scholarship, never by any chance bring forward the evidence for this greater atrociousness of the Thirty Years' War, and while it is not possible for any one who has never studied that war to speak positively, one is inclined to suspect that this oft-repeated allusion to the Thirty Years' War as the acme of military atrocity is merely a rhetorical flourish.

In any case we know that not so many years after the Thirty Years' War Frederick the Great, who combined supreme military gifts with freedom from scruple in policy, and was at the same time a great representative German, declared that the ordinary citizen ought never to be aware that his country is at war. Nothing could show more clearly the military ideal, however imperfectly it may sometimes have been attained, of the old European world. Atrocities, whether regarded as permissible or as inevitable, certainly occurred. But for the most part wars were the concern of the privileged upper class; they were rendered necessary by the dynastic quarrels of monarchs and were carried out by a professional class with aristocratic traditions and a more or less scrupulous regard to ancient military etiquette.

There are many stories of the sufferings of the soldiery in old times, in the midst of abundance, on account of military respect for civilian property. The legend, if legend it is, of the French officer who politely requested the English officer opposite him to "fire first" shows how something of the ancient spirit of chivalry was still regarded as the accompaniment of warfare. It was an occupation which only incidentally concerned the ordinary citizen. The English, especially, protected by the sea and always living in open undefended cities, have usually been able to preserve this indifference to the Continental wars in which their Kings have constantly been engaged, and, as we see, even in the most unprotected European countries and the most profoundly warlike, the great Frederick set forth precisely the same ideal of war.

The fact seems to be that while war is nowadays less chronic than of old, less prolonged, and less easily provoked, it is a serious fallacy to suppose that it is also less barbarous. We imagine that it must be so simply because we believe, on more or less plausible grounds, that our life generally is growing less barbarous and more civilized. But war by its very nature always means a relapse from civilization into barbarism, if not savagery. We may sympathize with the endeavor of the European soldiers of old to civilize warfare, and we may admire the remarkable extent to which they succeeded in doing so. But we cannot help feeling that their romantic and chivalrous notions of warfare were absurdly incongruous.

The world in general might have keen content with that incongruity. But Germany, or more precisely Prussia, with its ancient genius for warfare, has in the present war taken the decisive step in initiating the abolition of that incongruity by placing warfare definitely on the basis of scientific barbarism. To do this is, in a sense, we must remember, not a step backward, but a, step forward. It involved the recognition of the fact that war is not a game to be played for its own sake by a professional caste, in accordance with fixed rules which would be dishonorable to break, but a method, carried out by the whole organized manhood of the nation, of effectively attaining an end desired by the State.

If by the chivalrous method of old, which was indeed in large part still their own method in the previous Franco-German war, the Germans had resisted the temptation to violate the neutrality of Luxemburg and Belgium in order to rush behind the French defenses, and had battered instead at the gap of Belfort, they would have won the sympathy of the world, but they certainly would not have won the possession of the greater part of Belgium and a third part of France.

It has not alone been military instinct which has impelled Germany on the new course thus inaugurated. We see here the final outcome of a reaction against ancient Teutonic sentimentality which the insight of Goldwin Smith clearly discerned forty years ago. Humane sentiments and civilized traditions, under the molding hand of Prussian leaders of Kultur, have been slowly but firmly subordinated to a political realism which, in the military sphere, means a masterly efficiency in the aim of crushing the foe by overwhelming force combined with panic-striking "frightfulness." In this conception that only is moral which served these ends. The horror which this "frightfulness" may be expected to arouse, even among neutral nations, is, from the German point of view, a tribute of homage.

The military reputation of Germany is so great in the world, and likely to remain so, whatever the issue of the present war, that we are here faced by a grave critical issue which concerns the future of the whole world. The conduct Of wars has been transformed before our very eyes. In any future war the example of Germany will be held to consecrate the new methods, and the belligerents who are not inclined to accept the supreme authority of Germany may yet be forced in their own interests to act in accordance with it.

The mitigating influence of religion over warfare has long ceased to be exercised, for the international Catholic Church no longer possesses the power to exert such influence, while the national Protestant churches are just as bellicose as their flocks. Now we see the influence of morality over warfare similarly tending to disappear. Henceforth, it seems, we have to reckon with a conception of war which accounts it a function of the supreme State, standing above morality and therefore able to wage war independently of morality. Necessity—the necessity of scientific effectiveness—becomes the sole criterion of right and wrong.

When we look back from the standpoint of knowledge which we have reached in the present war to the notions which prevailed in the past they seem to us hollow and even childish. Seventy years ago Buckle in his "History of Civilization" stated complacently that only ignorant and unintellectual nations any longer cherished ideals of war. His statement was part of the truth. It is true, for instance, that France is now the most anti-military of nations, though once the most military of all. But, we see, it is only part of the truth. The very fact, which Buckle himself pointed out, that efficiency has in modern times taken the place of morality in the conduct of affairs, offers a new foundation for war when war is urged on scientific principles for the purpose of rendering effective the claims of States policy. Today we see that it is not sufficient for a nation to cultivate knowledge and become intellectual, in the expectation that war will automatically go out of fashion. It is quite possible to become very scientific, most relentlessly intellectual, and on that foundation to build up ideals of warfare much more barbarous than those of Assyria.

The conclusion seems to be that we are today entering on an era in which war will not only flourish as vigorously as in the past, although not in so chronic a form, but with an altogether new ferocity and ruthlessness, with a vastly increased power of destruction, and on a scale of extent and intensity involving an injury to civilization and humanity which no wars of the past ever perpetrated. Moreover, this state of things imposes on the nations which have hitherto, by their temper, their position, or their small size, regarded themselves as nationally neutral, a new burden of armament in order to insure that neutrality. It has been proclaimed on both sides that this war is a war to destroy militarism. But the disappearance of a militarism that is only destroyed by a greater militarism offers no guarantee at all for any triumph of civilization or humanity.

What, then, are we to do? It seems clear that we have to recognize that our intellectual leaders of old, who declared that to insure the disappearance of war we have but to sit still and fold our hands while we watch the beneficent growth of science and intellect, were grievously mistaken. War is still one of the active factors of modern life, though by no means the only factor which it is in our power to grasp and direct. By our energetic effort the world can be molded. It is the concern of all of us, and especially of those nations which are strong enough and enlightened enough to take a leading part in human affairs, to work toward the initiation and the organization of this immense effort. In so far as the great war of today acts as a spur to such effort it will not have been an unmixed calamity.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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