Can Man Abolish War? - I

By Harold Begbie

[The North American Review, May 1917]

All those social virtues, all those noble qualities of human character, which manifest themselves in a nation under the scourge of war, are not the fruits of war. They are the witnesses to an immediate and natural reaction of the human spirit against war. The fruits of, war are massacre and murder, wounding and death, destruction and ruin, mourning and lamentation, rapine and rape, desolation and despair, hatred and the legacies of hate. Those things which quicken the beatings of our hearts, which pulse through the national life in waves of strengthening enthusiasm, namely, the valor, of the soldier, the devotion of doctor and nurse, the self-sacrifice of the whole people, and the stoic silence of the mourner, these things are but the manifestation of a spiritual reaction against war. War is Satan let loose up on the earth. All the splendor that we associate with war is humanity's instinctive reaction against Satanism.

If there be any man left in Europe who still cherishes the tradition of Treitschke, or who still finds a more wholesome manhood in Nietzsche than in Christ, let us be sure of this: that he is far from "the bath of blood"—and far beyond the utmost range of the guns. To those who make War, whose bodies are shaken by the shuddering thunder of the shells, whose bayonets are red with human blood, whose eyes have seen the blanching terror of a crouching enemy, whose days are spent in earth burrows, whose nostrils are filled with foulness, and whose hearts are heavy with home longings, war is hell. And to those millions who mourn, to these also war is hell.

This contention needs not to be argued. But that which comes from it, namely, the urgency of our question, Can Man Abolish War? this needs to be pressed upon the attention of reasonable men. For in no hour, except the dreadful hour of war, can it be asked with hopefulness. In times of peace men are so set upon their own affairs that they will not listen to the idle idealist, and nations are so consumed with the politics of the State that they shove out of their way the man who would interrupt them with the politics of the world at large; and as for governments, they are so convinced of the continuity of their perilous diplomacy that they regard only with amusement the idealizing layman who presumes to trespass on their everlasting ground. But in times of war there is on all sides a different mood. Death suddenly springs into the homes of men, seizing the well-beloved and dragging him through torture to the grave; panic, sweeping all the ancient freedoms aside, as suddenly presides over the discussions of senate and forum; and blood is splashed on every trembling parchment of the diplomatists. Horrible beyond the reach of language is war—yes, but only in times of war.

Can man abolish this Fury who devastates the world, who slays youth by the million, and who fills the homes of men with unutterable agony? We are not now thinking of war as an abstract idea, as a far-off contingency, as something of which in times of peace heroic men sing manful songs and coward men twitter their shivering fears. We are thinking of this actual war, this war that has killed our son, blinded our brother, crippled our friend, and maddened our neighbor, this beastly war that stinks under heaven like some colossal fungus rotting in a wood that nature made for poets and lovers, this ruinous war that has destroyed the accumulated centuries-old wealth of Europe in a few months, this malignant war which has made men hate each other with such an acrid bitterness as has destroyed even the chivalry and ceremonial of the battlefield, this war which has dragged delicate women, defenceless children and poor, decrepit old age into its steel net of blood and death—this war, can it be abolished so that never again will it destroy a peasant's cottage or break the heart of a mother?

Let us make no mistake of the urgency of this question. It is now, in the hour of death, that we must make answer. Let us wait till "Peace" returns, and it is like to be only that false peace which brought this very war to our hearts. But now, while the precious blood of youth is still draining into the cesspits of death, now if we ask ourselves this question then such a peace may we make as shall outwinter all the journeys of the earth. But we must ask with an agony of the heart, a determination of the mind, and a longing of the soul, as if we were drowning men to whom a rope has been thrown out of the darkness that engulfs us.

The answer I make to this question, Can Man Abolish War? is a swift, an unhesitating, but not, I hope, an immodest affirmative—not immodest, because my answer is a tribute to the good sense of humanity, and does not run before any remedy that I think I have discovered for the securing of peace. Yes, man can abolish war, as he has abolished the duel, smallpox, slavery, feudalism, ecclesiastical tyranny, the rack, the thumbscrew, and many other ills which afflicted him in years gone by, and which he bore wit patience, taking them for dispensations of nature, till they came something too violently for his patience. Man is by nature conservative; it is only his sufferings which drive him into reformation. Easeful bondage, for many, is better loved than Milton's strenuous liberty; and not until "God shakes a Kingdom with strong and healthful commotions" does truth become a passion to mankind. Such a shaking, God knows, is the whole world enduring now, and in this strong and healthful commotion there must be many in all lands—men of rare abilities, and more than common industry not only to look back and revise what hath been taught heretofore, but to gain further and go on some new enlightened steps in the discovery of truth"—many such men in all lands who are now saying, war shall be no more.

But, you will reply to me, How can such men entertain a purpose so impossible when a war is yet raging which has blown, with the lives of youth and the happiness of parents, all the fine theories of idealists into the vast derisive silence of the universe? "What, you will exclaim, are you proposing to "speak to us of Grotius and Kant, Franklin and Channing, Bloch and Angell at a time when every word they uttered is being ground under the wheels of war's chariot into blood and nonsense? Neither the horrors of modern warfare nor the grabbing hands of the international financier has had strength to stay those terrible wheels. Liquid fire and smothering gas have been loosed, gigantic shells have exploded in the streets of peaceful cities, bombs have been dropped out of the dark skies upon the cradles of sleeping children, torpedoes have torn open the steel plates of ships painted with the Red Cross, all these things are now shocking the soul of humanity; and with these direful things, starvation begins to stalk through Europe, and money is manufactured inexhaustibly by the printing press, money which vanishes in smoke and death as fast as it is printed, money which men will have to labor for many centuries to make current coin, but still the war goes on— how, then, can you speak of the abolition of war? Tell us, in one word, what is it you seek to say.

All this is true. Neither the horrors of war nor the financial exhaustion of war have power to end war. Pacifism is learning in the midst of this universal ruin the lesson taught by Mahan: "So far as the advocacy of peace rests upon material motives like economy and prosperity, it is the service of Mammon, and the bottom of the platform will drop out when Mammon thinks that war will pay better." Peace does not belong to Mammon. It belongs to God. And the condition of peace is goodwill.

Here, then, is my answer in one word. It is the word will. Can Man Abolish War? Yes. Will Man Abolish War? And again I say, Yes. But in this case, a condition must be added. Yes, man will abolish war when he realizes with Grotius "that he is Man—"a creature most dear to God."

To encourage you to have faith and hope in this matter let me speak at the beginning of something which is a greater bar to faith and hope than all the vanished theories of the pacifists, I mean that dreadful spirit of hatred which is now abroad in the world. Men cannot think that peace is possible because their hearts are so full of hate. The German, believing that England encircled his country and set France and Russia upon him, who sees his women and children suffering deprivations because of England's sea policy, hates the Englishman with a passion which looks as if it must be eternal. An Englishman, thinking of German atrocities in Belgium and France, rehearsing to himself the deadly philosophy of Treitschke, and hearing every day of ships sunk without warning in the midst of the sea, feels in his heart such a bitterness of hatred towards the German as he swears shall never so long as he lives give place to forgiveness.

How can we hope for peace if such is the condition of feeling between England and Germany? We must, I think, begin by warning ourselves against "the shortness of thought" which Bishop Butler saw to be a main danger in forming rational opinions. We must encourage ourselves to take an historical view of this great matter. For example, do we realize that our present alliance with France would have been unthinkable to Nelson? There is not a man in England who does not now love France, who does not thrill at the thought of her valor, who does not bow in reverence before the patience of her long-suffering, and who does not feel that France is England's natural comrade and eternal friend. But to Nelson, France was the most hated enemy of this same England, nay, the most hideous enemy of human civilization.

"There are three things, young gentleman," said Nelson to one of his midshipmen," which you are constantly to bear in mind; First, you must always implicitly obey orders, without attempting to form any opinion of your own respecting their propriety. Secondly, you must consider every man your enemy who speaks ill of your King; and, thirdly, you must hate a Frenchman as you do the devil." And again, "Down, down with the French! is my constant prayer." And again, "Down, down with the French! ought to be written in the council-room of every country in the world; and may Almighty God give right thoughts to every sovereign, is my constant prayer." And when our Minister at Naples proposed to send a confidential Frenchman to him with information, he made answer: "I should be very happy to receive authentic intelligence of the destination of the French squadron, their route, and time of sailing. Anything short of this is useless; and I assure your Excellency that I could not, upon any consideration, have a Frenchman in the fleet, except as a prisoner. I put no confidence in them…I believe they are all alike...not a Frenchman come here. Forgive me, but my mother hated the French."

And in like manner the French hated the English.

"If you say that all this is more than a hundred years ago, let me remind you that less than twenty years ago there was hatred between the two nations almost as strong and certainly as virulent. Mr. Joseph Chamberlain advocated an alliance with Germany against France, Mr. Cecil Rhodes was for friendship with Germany, for a like reason, and a newspaper of such popularity as the Daily Mail urged that France should be fought, that her colonies should be taken from her, and that those colonies should be given to Germany. In one of his lectures delivered in America ("The Dangers of Half–Preparedness") Mr. Norman Angell said:

It is a favorite thesis with the "trust-everything-to-force school" just now, that if only England had taken Lord Roberts's advice and adopted conscription twenty years ago (when the advocacy of that measure first became active in England) all would have been well. There would have been no war, we are told. Well, do you know the purpose for which conscription was advocated in England about twenty years ago? For the purpose of fighting France!

Need I remind you further that not many years ago Russia was an enemy, and the unspeakable Turk a friend, that our word, jingo, had its origin in hatred of Russia, and that Palmerston declared the real object of the Crimean War to have been, the protection of "German civilization against Russian barbarism?"

This present hatred between Germany and England will pass. It belongs to a generation; it is born of a period that will retire. I confess that it is a deep and terrible hatred, hat it looks lasting, and that it has a spiritual quality not very discernible n the past hatreds of European countries. But I am convinced it will pass, as these other hatreds have passed. We Englishmen shall see that what we hate is not the German peasant or the German child at its mother's Breast, but a system of government which is called Prussianism. If someone had brought to Nelson a French child or an old gracious French priest, he would not have exploded with anger; he would have known that his hatred was for Napoleonism, not for the French people. Do we not feel it to be irrational that the Irish Irreconcilable should visit upon our heads the sins committed against his ancestors by Cromwell's soldiery? And as we have repented for those terrible sins, and the far later sins of our forefathers against the starving peasantry of Ireland, so we may hope that there are those in Germany who will repent of the crimes committed by the Prussian Government, and who will come to see, as the French have come to see in their views of Napoleonism, that England is fighting their battles as well as the battles of Belgium and France.

I speak with particular emphasis on this score, because my whole argument turns upon good will, and where anger is, and hatred, and bitterness, good will is impossible. If you think that the present hatred which sunders England and Germany is of a lasting kind, then put out of your head all thought of peace, and prepare your back for such a load of parliaments as will presently crush you to the earth. For you cannot impose peace, you cannot make peace as you make war, you cannot force peace down the throat of an enemy. Peace is a state of the soul, not a condition of the political world. There has never been peace in the world only because it has not been recognized as a state of the soul. From the greatest writer on sea-power, and not from any pacifist, comes the wisest word ever uttered on this subject: "So far as the advocacy of peace rests upon material motives like economy and prosperity, it is the service of Mammon. The service of Mammon! But peace belongs to God, and to serve both God and Mammon is impossible. Why, then, dream of any mechanic means for securing peace, when your hearts are filled with hatred and you are longing with all your souls to destroy your enemy? Can Man Abolish War? Nay, but War can abolish Man! Man is a creature most dear to God, but if Man make himself a child of the devil, then assuredly will the devil destroy him.

I beg you to look this matter full in the face. We shall discuss presently the best political means for securing the peace of the world, but our discussions will come to naught, like "the exploit of that gallant man who thought to pound up the crows by shutting his park gate," if we do not rigorously hold fast to the fact of man's spiritual nature. There is nothing can bind Satan but the power of God. You may devise another Holy Alliance, you may have such a League of Nations as before was never known, you may set up an International Court, with just judges and a military force behind it to execute its decrees, but you will never have peace unless there exists between all the nations of the earth the saving spirit of good will. There is a sacred connection between these two things, and it is well worthy of reflection that a new era in the history of humanity was ushered in, by these very words, peace and good will. That era had for its master-word the word of Love, but before He, who was destined to breathe that mystic word, had breathed word any kind, it is said that angels of God sang to the earth of Peace and Good Will.

The time draws near the birth of Christ;
The moon is hid; the night is still;
The Christmas bells from hill to hill
Answer each other in the mist.

Peace and goodwill, goodwill and peace,
Peace and goodwill, to all mankind.

Yes, but this same poet, when Bright and Cobden protested against a war which all Englishmen now condemn, was so little mindful of the holiness of peace, so little aware of the connection between good will and peace, that he rapped out a bitter poem with the inglorious taunt, "We are not cotton-spinners all!" It is most easy for the very elect to deceive themselves.

War is a great realist. Let us be equally real at this blood-drenched turning-point in the history of the world, When we use the word "peace" let us be sure that we mean peace, and when we speak of "good will" let us try to understand what the term signifies. Do we earnestly and truly desire peace? That is to say, not a truce to present hostilities, not an end to these contemporary massacres and mutilations, but the Peace of God; do we, earnestly and truly, desire this Peace upon earth? It means that we must cast out of our hearts much selfishness, out of our minds much egoism, out of our souls much hatred and bitterness. Are we prepared for this self-sacrifice? It means that we must do unto others as we would they should do unto us, that we must be more willing to give than to receive, that we must love our enemies. Are we prepared for this exercise of our highest nature? Good Will signifies an absence in our minds of all prejudice and all selfish intolerance: it signifies a desire to help, to be friendly, to serve and to sacrifice. Are we conscious in ourselves of the motions of this great spiritual quality? In vain are all the contrivances of statesmen and politicians if in the life of mankind there is not this god-like disposition of the will.

But before you say, "This is impossible; this is a millennial dream," reflect upon that which is a prosaic fact touching your life at every point and threatening with foulest murder the life of your children. War must be ended. If war is not destroyed, civilization will be destroyed. You cannot contemplate any such end to the present carnage as marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars or the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. You dare not think of an embittered Europe, staggering on the edge of bankruptcy with the armaments of revenge on her back. You dare not think of the temptation presented to Asia by such a mad and ruined Europe. You must see that our only hope of salvation in this war lies in making it the end of war. You must perceive, surely, that the taxed democracies of Europe will not have strength enough to support in greater weight than ever the old burden of armaments with which statecraft has hitherto loaded them. It is not now an academic question which militarist and pacifist may debate forever, but a matter of life and death, which does not tarry for an answer. As we decide this question, so will be the future of Europe, a future either of peace or destruction.

Idealism, then, is forced upon you. Do not fear it, do not dismiss it. With the knowledge in your heart that materialism has failed you, that your trust in materialism brought you into this place of massacre and mutilation, have the courage, have the honesty, have the willingness to examine idealism. It may be that only in idealism is there safety for mankind, and that idealism is more closely related to practical politics than politicians and journalists have yet discerned. In any case, it cannot damage our understandings to inquire of idealism what it has to teach us in this great concernment of human life. I think it is the only way to peace, as it is the only way to God. And I think, too, that nothing is so dangerous and unpractical as materialism, nothing is so eminently sane and practical as idealism.

International arbitration has been tried. It has succeeded whenever good will came to the tribunal on both sides, as in our disputes with America, but it has failed whenever national dignity and national jealousy presented its case.

Something stronger (men are now saying) is wanted than a Hague Tribunal. I reply, something even weaker than the Hague Tribunal might suffice if you had good will among men. And when you say to me, How are we to get this good Will? I make answer, By faith. But we must not faintly trust the larger hope. We must have the courage, the resolution, and the fighting strength of Milton. For to gain such peace as that of which I write there must needs come a revolution in the human mind.

Do not let us imagine, because we have almost the whole world on our side against Prussianism, that therefore we, the Allies, after our necessary vindication of the public law of Europe, can dictate any semblance of peace which shall abolish war from the earth.

"All history," says Norman Angell—since the last Congress in Vienna in 1815 and that of the hundred years which preceded it, and which preceded the previous great European treaty— shows that when you have managed to form a group of nations for the protection of some great human need, they begin to break apart, to harbor illusions connected with the desirability of stealing each other's territory or to quarrel over something of that sort. We are likely to repeat that history unless we take care. Are we going to take care?"

Materialism will pursue us and overthrow us again, if we persist in our worship of Mammon. Peace has no more to do with materialistic politics than purity or reverence or love. It is because men have so regarded it that the world has never yet known peace. Let us assure ourselves of that. There have been truces on the earth, cessations of carnage, suspensions of massacres, an armistice between slaughter and slaughter; but there has never been peace on earth. War has always been standing at the anvil of preparation, biding his chance to strike. This is not peace on earth. It is what the politician, or even the historian, may call peace, but God would call it by another name.

"So far as the advocacy of peace rests upon material motives like economy and prosperity"—have Kings and statesmen ever sought it for any other motives than these?—"it is the service of Mammon, and the bottom of the platform will drop out when Mammon thinks that war will pay better."

But hear the full words, of Admiral Mahan:

I believe with full intensity of personal conviction, that when moral motives come to weigh heavier with mankind than do material desires there will be no war, and coincidently therewith better provision of reasonable bodily necessities to all men. But the truth still remains as stated by Jesus Christ twenty centuries ago, that between material and moral motives men and nations must commit themselves to a definite choice; one or the other—not both. We cannot serve God and Mammon. The question is not of the degree of the devotion, but of the service chosen—of the Master. This will be either the moral motives stemmed up in the phrase Kingdom of God or, the material. So far as the advocacy of peace rests upon material motives like economy and prosperity, it is the service of Mammon, and the bottom of the platform will drop out when Mammon thinks that war will pay better. The common-sense of mankind recognized the truth of this affirmation. We speak of mixed motives; but we know that to one alone belongs the title "Master."...

And he concludes: "I believe that the time is coming when conviction of this truth will take effect in practice, and that indications of its distant arrival can be seen."

You remember the words of Milton: "Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks. Methinks I see her as an eagle mewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam: purging and unscaling her long-abused sight at the fountain itself of heavenly radiance; while the whole noise of timorous and flocking birds, with those also that love the twilight, flutter about, amazed at what she means, and in their envious gabble would prognosticate a year of sects and schisms."

The brotherhood of the world is at hand—if we will have it so.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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