When Wars Will Cease.

From: The Creed of Kinship (1935)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Constable & Co Ltd 1935 London


  “Let the poet cease to celebrate men’s achievements in battle, and wars will cease.” (JOAQUIN MILLER.)

  But when will wars cease? And why, the reader may ask, if so many good reasons can be alleged against warfare, do wars still persist? I should say that they persist because, immediately, and in the first place, the militarists like them to do so, and ultimately, because sentimentalists prate about them as if they were beautiful and heroic.

  In saying that the military folk have a real relish for wars, I do not of course mean that, if they had their way, the country would never be free from quarrel, or that when there is a choice between war and peace they do not prefer the peace-if it is to be had on the terms they approve. I mean that, whatever they may say in any given case, they admire warfare, and believe it to be helpful to the nation’s health and hardihood, and at times actually necessary. In other words, the practice of fighting is cherished and maintained by a very powerful section of the community, a class which has reason to regard its own reputation, its own interests, as closely concerned therein. This being so, it is not surprising that such institutions as the Armistice Day service at the Cenotaph, the various absurd parades and inspections, meetings of “Old Contemptibles,” and the like, are so religiously maintained. They serve a very definite purpose, and fully justify the remarks made by a socialist Member of Parliament on a recent occasion.1

  “I am thankful this mockery is over for another year. This service would have been abandoned before but for the gentlemen at the War Office, who realise that their jobs are safe while the crowd at the Cenotaph are hypnotised by the white-robed clergymen.”

  To such a pitch has this glorification of warfare been carried that in some quarters there is an insolent attempt to represent the policy of a simple pacifist body, such as the “No More War” Movement, as “bordering on sedition.” Is it surprising, in these circumstances, that wars do not cease?

  The influence of some powerful newspapers, where questions of militarism are concerned, is wholly bad; others, without openly advocating or eulogising war, indirectly promote it by the prominence they give in their columns to military subjects, as, for instance, by inviting letters which tell anecdotes of the battlefield, and what is more seductive than any other form of invitation, by offering to pay for them.

  Of the same nature is the assurance, frequently given, that the British Navy is one of the chief factors that make for the peace of the world; in which confused statement an armed neutrality between powerful nations is called “peace,” as if it were actually that friendly state to which pacifists aspire! This was seen, for instance, in a “message” sent on Trafalgar Day, 1932, by the president of the Navy League, to the effect that “Nelson, who disliked war as much as any pacifist of the present time, had no doubts that the Empire, as he knew it, rested, under Providence, wholly upon the national strength at sea.” There followed a warning against negligence “lest the spirit of patriotism and self-sacrifice, which our greatest sea-officer bequeathed to us, be undermined by uninformed clamour.”

  Note the mention of Nelson’s dislike of war; the pious allusion to “under Providence”; and the hint at a contrast between the “patriotism” of naval officers and the “uninformed clamour” of certain other persons! It would be comical, if such terrible consequences were not involved. How is a courageous deed performed in “the trenches” more worthy of honour than if it is done elsewhere?

  It is by such indirect advocacy, by the eulogies that are never lacking for military services of any kind, that wars are maintained. It has been pointed out by Joaquin Miller that it is the supposed men of peace who are themselves responsible for the wars they deprecate, the devastation they deplore. Without any sort of ingratitude to those who have fought, and perhaps fallen, for their country, and without any lack of respect for their memory, it is full time that men should make up their minds whether it is war or peace that they desire: it is useless to expend honeyed words on peace, while all the time they are sowing the seeds of war.

  Miller was quite right. It is the “men of peace” who exalt the thing they deplore. The poets in all ages have been great sinners in this respect, and not least, be it noted, those whose song is of a mild and effeminate nature, like Tennyson’s. The conclusion of his poem Maud, in its adoption of the wicked and crazy Crimean war as bringing an end to the personal sorrows of his hero, is truly amazing:

“Yet it lightened my despair,
When I thought that a war would arise in defence of the right.”

  Yet one finds the truth apprehended, here and there, in old writers like Sir Walter Scott, as when he makes one of his characters say (in Woodstock): “An excellent man, and the best of Christians, till there is a clashing of swords, and then he starts up the complete martialist, as deaf to every pacific reasoning as if he were a game-cock.”

  Religion, when fighting was in prospect, has never been able to resist the strenuous weight of savagery, but in every land has shaped and adapted itself to the force of national prejudice, and has quite shamelessly blessed the banners of its countrymen under the plea of patriotism. This was seen in many cases in the South African war, when there was a frenzy of soldier-worship, and a bishop assured his flock that the clergy ought to consider what priests a nation should have, which was showing so splendid a character. The same sort of nonsense was often talked during the long European struggle; indeed, among the various religious sects the Friends alone have consistently reprobated this alliance of cross with sword.

  The sum of the whole matter, frankly stated, is this—that a war which is indirectly but deliberately cultivated will come. It is useless to talk of peace, and to pray for it as we do, so long as all the sentiment that men can muster is expended on war, or on ceremonies relating to war-burials in the Abbey, sermons about patriotism, and love of king and country, royal inspection of Guards of Honour, and the like. All such fooleries can be stopped, and must be stopped, if we are serious in desiring peace; for wars will never end as long as we picture them as heroic.

  A recent correspondence in a daily paper has shown that while there were some combatants in the Great War who intensely hated it, there were others to whom it was little worse than a pastime. In the words of one, “Tunneller”: “The consensus of opinion was that they never hated the war; and that though there were often unpleasantly sticky times, for the most part life in the war had been fairly enjoyable, and had great advantages over the type of existence many have had to endure in these weak piping times of peace.”2

  Surely, then, of all blessings which mankind has power to achieve, Peace is the most ill-used – praised in the abstract by sermonisers and romanticists, but maligned and depreciated when a choice has to be made between arbitration and war. Even its advocates too often plead its cause in a humble and apologetic tone, instead of insisting, as they ought, that it is war, not peace, that should be the subject of reprobation, ridicule, and disdain.3

  “But,” it is said, “this war is justifiable.” In every nation the naive conviction prevails that though war in the abstract is to be deprecated, and though certain previous wars may possibly have lacked sufficient excuse, the particular conflict in which they are engaged is righteous, inevitable, one of pure defence—in their own words, “forced on us.” Every people says and believes this faithfully, pathetically; yet even if we admit its truth in any rare instance, a modern war is none the less an offence against humanity. In bygone times when life was more savage, and international relations far less complex, war was perhaps not so criminal as it is now; for it was then possible for two or more countries to quarrel and “fight it out,” like schoolboys, without inflicting any widespread or lasting injury. But now, so vast is the calamity of a war that to the world at large it hardly matters who, in childish phrase, “began it.” It takes more than one to make a quarrel, and the two or more are jointly responsible for the results of their quarrel; a responsibility which becomes the heavier as the opportunities for arbitration increase.

  And even if there still were cases in which a particular war was a necessity, that sheer necessity would be its one and only justification. All the other excuses, palliatives, and decorative embellishments of war in general are nonsense and nothing else. Take, for example, the not uncommon belief that war is a great natural “upheaval,” with something mysterious in its origin, and beyond human control. There—is nothing in the least mysterious or cataclysmic in the outbreak of modern wars. Antipathies and rivalries of nations there are, as of individuals, and if these are fostered and encouraged (as they certainly are) they will eventually burst into flame; but it is equally true that if they were wisely discountenanced they would at length subside. We do not excuse an individual who pleads his jealousy or thirst for revenge as a reason for violence, though personal passion is just as much an “upheaval” as national hatred. Where a feud is nursed, a war will follow; but the feud does not justify the war. Then there is that widespread idea, common among so-called religious persons (though it might well be called blasphemous), that wars are “sent” to rouse mankind from a selfish torpor. The effect of a war is precisely the opposite of this; for fighting concentrates men’s thoughts on the attainment of a particular end, with complete disregard for those moralities which in peace cannot, at the worst, be denied some measure of consideration. What must be the result, when, in a considerable area of the world, many of the moral restrictions which have gradually been imposed on the primitive instincts of the race are suddenly withdrawn, and hosts of men are forced to take a deep draught of aboriginal savagery? It is not too much to say that if wars are “sent,” it must be a very malignant power that sends them.

  Wars will cease only when two conditions have been fulfilled—the first, that men shall have a genuine desire for peace; the second, that their feelings shall have been humanised in regard not to fighting only, but to the other conditions of life.

1 Dr. Alfred Salter, as reported, November 14th, 1932.
2 Morning Post, October 26th, 1932.
3 As in that excellent book, Captain Jinks, Hero, by Ernest Crosby.

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