Consequences of War.

From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia


  To expatiate upon the miseries which war brings upon mankind appears a trite and a needless employment. We all know that its evils are great and dreadful. Yet the very circumstance that the knowledge is familiar may make it unoperative upon our sentiments and our conduct. It is not the intensity of misery, it is not the extent of evil alone, which is necessary to animate us to that exertion which evil and misery should excite: if it were, surely we should be much more averse than we now are to contribute, in word or in action, to the promotion of war.

  But there are mischiefs attendant upon the system which are not to every man thus familiar, and on which, for that reason, it is expedient to remark. In referring especially to some of those moral consequences of war which commonly obtain little of our attention, it may be observed, that social and political considerations are necessarily involved in the moral tendency: for the happiness of society is always diminished by the diminution of morality; and enlightened policy knows that the greatest support of a state is the virtue of the people.

  And yet the reader should bear in mind—what nothing but the frequency of the calamity can make him forget—the intense sufferings and irreparable deprivations which one battle inevitably entails upon private life. These are calamities of which the world thinks little, and which, if it thought of them, it could not remove. A father or a husband can seldom be replaced: a void is created in the domestic felicity which there is little hope that the future will fill. By the slaughter of a war, there are thousands who weep in unpitied and unnoticed secrecy, whom the world does not see; and thousands who retire, in silence, to hopeless poverty, for whom it does not care. To these the conquest of a kingdom is of little importance. The loss of a protector or a friend is ill repaid by empty glory. An addition of territory may add titles to a king, but the brilliancy of a crown throws little light upon domestic gloom. It is not my intention to insist upon these calamities, intense, and irreparable, and unnumbered as they are; but those who begin a war without taking them into their estimates of its consequences must be regarded as, at most, half—seeing politicians. The legitimate object of political measures is the good of the people; and a great sum of good a war must produce, if it outbalances even this portion of its mischiefs.

  Nor should we be forgetful of that dreadful part of all warfare, the destruction of mankind. The frequency with which this destruction is represented to our minds has almost extinguished our perception of i1a awfulness and horror. Between the years 1141 and 1815, an internal of six hundred and seventy years, our country has been at war with France alone two hundred and sixty-six years. If to this we add our wars with other countries, probably we shall find that one-half of the last six or seven centuries has been spent by this country in war! A dreadful picture of human violence! How many of our fellow-men, of our fellow-Christians, have these centuries of slaughter cut off! What is the sum total of the misery of their deaths!”1

  When political writers expatiate upon the extent and the evils of taxation, they do not sufficiently bear in mind the reflection that almost all our taxation is the effect of war. A man declaims upon national debts. He ought to declaim upon the parent of those debts. Do we reflect that if heavy taxation entails evils and misery upon the community, that misery and those evils are inflicted upon us by war! The amount of supplies in Queen Anne’s reign was about seventy millions;2 and of this about sixty-six millions3 was expended in war. Where is our equivalent good?

  Such considerations ought, undoubtedly, to influence the conduct of public men in their disagreements with other states, even if higher considerations do not influence it. They ought to form part of the calculations of the evil of hostility. I believe that a greater mass of human suffering and loss of human enjoyment are occasioned by the pecuniary distresses of a war, than any ordinary advantages of a war compensate. But this consideration seems too remote to obtain our notice. Anger at offence or hope of triumph overpowers the sober calculations of reason, and outbalances the weight of after and long-continued calamities. The only question appears to be, whether taxes enough for a war can be raised, and whether a people will be willing to pay them. But the great question ought to be (setting questions of Christianity aside), whether the nation will gain as much by the war as they will lose by taxation and its other calamities.

  If the happiness of the people were, what it ought to be, the primary and .the ultimate object of national measures, I think that the policy which pursued this object would often find that even the pecuniary disuesse1 resulting from a war make a greater deduction from the quantum of felicity than those evils which the war may have been designed to avoid.

  But war does more harm to the morals of men than even to their property and persons.”4 If, indeed, it depraves our morals more than it injures our persons and deducts from our property, how enormous must its mischiefs be?

  I do not know whether the greater sum of moral evil resulting from war is suffered by those who are immediately engaged in it, or by the public. The mischief is most extensive upon the community, but upon the profession it is most intense.

Rara fides pietasque viris qui castra sequuntur.—LUCAN.

  No one pretends to applaud the morals of an army,—and for its religion, few think of it at all. The fact is too notorious to be insisted upon, that thousands who had filled their stations in life with propriety, and been virtuous from principle, have lost, by a military life, both the practice and the regard of morality; and when they have become habituated to the vices of war, have laughed at their honest and plodding brethren who are still spiritless enough for virtue or stupid enough for piety.

  Does any man ask, What occasions depravity in military life? I answer in the words of Robert Hall,5 “War reverses, with respect to its objects, all the rules of morality. It is nothing less than a temporary repeal of all the principles of virtue. It is a system out of which almost all the virtues are excluded, and in which nearly all the vices are incorporated.”—And it requires no sagacity to discover, that those who are: engaged in a practice which reverses all the rules of morality,—which repeals all the principles of virtue, and in which nearly all the vices are incorporated, cannot, without the intervention of a miracle, retain their minds and morals undepraved.

  Look for illustration to the familiarity with the plunder of property and the slaughter of mankind which war induces. He who plunders the citizen of another nation without remorse or reflection, and bears away the spoil with triumph, will inevitably lose something of his principles of probity. He who is familiar with slaughter, who has himself often perpetrated it, and who exults in the perpetration, will not retain undepraved the principles of virtue. His moral feelings are blunted; his moral vision is obscured; his principles are shaken; an inroad is made upon their integrity, and it is an inroad that makes after-inroads the more easy. Mankind do not generally resist the influence of habit. If we rob and shoot those who are “enemies” to-day, we are in some degree prepared to shoot and rob those who are not enemies to-morrow. Law may indeed still restrain us from violence; but the power and efficiency of principle is diminished: and this alienation of the mind from the practice, the love, and the perception of Christian purity, therefore, of necessity extends its influence to the other circumstances of life. The whole evil is imputable to war; and we say that this evil forms a powerful evidence against it, whether we direct that evidence to the abstract question of its lawfulness, or to the practical question of its expediency. That can scarcely be lawful which necessarily occasions such widespread immorality. That can scarcely be expedient which is so pernicious to virtue, and therefore to the state.

  The economy of war requires of every soldier an implicit submission to his superior; and this submission is required of every gradation of rank to that above it. “I swear to obey the orders of the officers who are set over me; so help me God.” This system may be necessary to hostile operations, but I think it is unquestionably adverse to intellectual and moral excellence.

  The very nature of unconditional obedience implies the relinquishment of the use of the reasoning powers. Little more is required of the soldier than that he be obedient and brave. His obedience is that of an animal, which is moved by a goad or a bit, without judgment of his own; and his bravery is that of a mastiff that fights whatever mastiff others put before him.7 It is obvious that in such agency the intellect and the understanding have little part. Now I think that this is important. He who, with whatever motive, resigns the direction of his conduct implicitly to another, surely cannot retain that erectness and independence of mind, that manly consciousness of mental freedom, which is one of the highest privileges of our nature. A British captain declares that “the tendency of strict discipline, such as prevails on board ships of war, where almost every act of a man’s life is regulated by the orders of his superiors, is to weaken the faculty of independent thought.”8 Thus the rational being becomes reduced in the intellectual scale: an encroachment is made upon the integrity of its independence. God has given us, individually, capacities for the regulation of our individual conduct. To resign its direction, therefore, to the absolute disposal of another, appears to be an unmanly and unjustifiable relinquishment of the privileges which he has granted to us. And the effect is obviously bad; for although no character will apply universally to any large class of men, and although the intellectual character of the military profession does not result only from this unhappy subjection, yet it will not be disputed, that the honourable exercise of intellect among that profession is not relatively great. It is not from them that we expect, because it is not from them that we generally find, those vigorous exertions of intellect which dignify our nature, and which extend the boundaries of human knowledge.

  But the intellectual effects of military subjection form but a small portion of its evils. The great mischief is, that it requires the relinquishment of our moral agency; that it requires us to do what is opposed to our consciences, and what we know to be wrong. A soldier must obey, how criminal soever the command, and how criminal soever he knows it to be. It is certain, that of those who compose armies, many commit actions which they believe to be wicked, and which they would not commit but for the obligations of a military life. Although a soldier determinately believes that the war is unjust, although he is convinced that his particular part of the service 1s atrociously criminal, still he must proceed,—he must prosecute the purposes of injustice or robbery, he must participate in the guilt, and be himself a robber.

  To what a situation is a rational and responsible being reduced, who commits actions, good or bad, at the word of another? I can conceive no greater degradation. It is the lowest, the final abjectness of the moral nature. It is this if we abate the glitter of war, and if we add this glitter it is nothing more.

  Such a resignation of our moral agency is not contended for or tolerated in any one other circumstance of human life. War stand, upon this pinnacle of depravity alone. She, only, in the supremacy of crime, has told us that she has abolished even the obligation to be virtuous.

  Some writers who have perceived the monstrousness of this system have told us that a soldier should assure himself, before he engages in a war, that it is a lawful and just one; and they acknowledge that if he does not feel this assurance, he is a “murderer.” But how is he to know that the war is just? It is frequently difficult for the people distinctly to discover what the objects of a war are. And if the soldier knew that it was just in its commencement, how is he to know that it will continue just in its prosecution? Every war is, in some parts of its course, wicked and unjust; and who can tell what that course will be? You say,—When he discovers any injustice or wickedness, let him withdraw: we answer, He cannot: and the truth is, that there is no way of avoiding the evil, but by avoiding the army.

  It is an inquiry of much interest, under what circumstances of responsibility a man supposes himself to be placed, who thus abandons and violates his own sense of rectitude and of his duties. Either he is responsible for his actions, or he is not; and the question is a serious one to determine.9 Christianity has certainly never stated any cues is which personal responsibility ceases. If she admits such cases, she has at least not told us so; but she has told us, explicitly and repeatedly, that she does require individual obedience, and impose individual responsibility. She has made no exceptions to the imperativeness of her obligations, whether we are required by others to neglect them or not; and I can discover in her sanctions no reason to suppose, that in her final adjudications she admits the plea, that another required us to do that which she required us to forbear. But it may be feared, it may be believed, that how little soever religion will abate of the responsibility of those who obey, she will impose not a little upon those who command. They, at least, are answerable for the enormities of war: unless, indeed, any one shall tell me that responsibility attaches nowhere; that that which would be wickedness in another man is innocence in a soldier; and that Heaven has granted to the directors of war a privileged immunity, by virtue of which crime incurs no guilt, and receives no punishment.

  And here it is fitting to observe, that the obedience to arbitrary power which war exacts possesses more of the character of servility, and even of slavery, than we are accustomed to suppose. I will acknowledge &hat when I see a company of men in a stated dress, and of a stated colour, ranged, rank and file, in the attitude of obedience, turning or walking at the word of another, now changing the position of a limb, and now altering the angle of a foot, I feel that there is something in the system that is wrong,—something incongruous with the proper dignity, with the intellectual station of man. I do not know whether I shall be charged with indulging in idle sentiment or idler affectation. If I hold unusual language upon the subject, let it be remembered that the subject is itself unusual. I will retract my affectation and sentiment, if the reader will show me any case in life parallel— to that to which I have applied it.

  No one questions whether military power be arbitrary. And what are the customary feelings of mankind with respect to a subjection to arbitrary power? How do we feel and think, when we hear of a person who is obliged to do whatever other men command, and who, the moment he refuses, is punished for attempting to be free? If a man orders his servant to do a given action, he is at liberty, if he think the action improper, or if, from any other cause, he choose not to do it, to refuse his obedience, Far other is the nature of military subjection. The soldier is compelled to obey, whatever be his inclination or his will. It matters not whether he have entered the service voluntarily or involuntarily. Being in it, he has but one alternative,—submission to arbitrary power, or punishment—the punishment of death perhaps—for refusing to submit. Let the reader imagine to himself any other cause or purpose for which freemen shall be subjected to such a condition, and he will then see that condition in its proper light. The influence of habit and the gloss of public opinion make situations that would otherwise be loathsome and revolting, not only tolerable but pleasurable. Take away this influence and this gloss from the situation of a soldier, and what should we call it? We should call it a state of degradation and of bondage. But habit and public opinion, although they may influence notions cannot alter things. It is a state, intellectually, morally, and politically, of bondage and degradation.

  But the reader will say that this submission to arbitrary power is necessary to the prosecution of war. I know it; and that is the very point for observation. It is because it is necessary to war that it is noticed here: for a brief but clear argument results:—That custom to which such a state of mankind is necessary must inevitably be bad: it must inevitably be adverse to rectitude and to Christianity. So deplorable is the bondage which war produces, that we often hear, during a war, of subsidies from one nation to another, for the loan, or rather for the purchase, of an army.—To borrow ten thousand men, who know nothing of our quarrel and care nothing for it, to help us to slaughter their fellows! To pay for their help in guineas to their sovereign! Well has it been exclaimed,

War is a game that, were their subjects wise,
Kings would not play at.

  A prince sells his subjects as a farmer sells his cattle; and sends them to destroy a people, whom, if they had been higher bidders, he would perhaps have sent them to defend. The historian has to record such miserable facts, as that a potentate’s troops were, during one war, “hired to the King of Great Britain and his enemies alternately, as the scale of convenience happened to preponderate!”10 That a large number of persons, with the feelings and reason of men, should coolly listen to the bargain of their sale, should compute the guineas that will pay for their blood, and should then quietly be led to a place where they are to kill people towards whom they have no animosity, is simply wonderful! To what has inveteracy of habit reconciled mankind? I have no capacity of supposing a case of slavery, if slavery be denied in this. Men have been sold in another continent, and philanthropy has been shocked and aroused to interference; yet these men were sold, not to be slaughtered but to work: but of the purchases and sales of the world’s political slave-dealers, what does philanthropy think or care? There is no reason to doubt that upon other subjects of horror, similar familiarity of habit would produce similar effects: or that he who heedlessly contemplates the purchase of an army wants nothing but this familiarity to make him heedlessly look on at the commission of parricide.

  Yet I do not know whether, in its effects on the military character, the greatest moral evil of war is to be sought. Upon the community its effects are indeed less apparent, because they who are the secondary subjects of the immoral influence are less intensely affected by it than the immediate agents of its diffusion. But whatever is deficient in the degree of evil is probably more than compensated by its extent. The influence is like that of a continual and noxious vapour: we neither regard nor perceive it, but it secretly undermines the moral health.

  Every one knows that vice is contagious. The depravity of one man has always a tendency to deprave his neighbours; and it therefore requires no unusual acuteness to discover that the prodigious mass of immorality and crime which are accumulated by a war must have a powerful effect in “demoralizing” the public. But there is one circumstance connected with the injurious influence of war which makes it peculiarly operative and malignant. It is, that we do not hate or fear the influence, and do not fortify ourselves against it. Other vicious influences insinuate themselves into our minds by stealth; but this we receive with open embrace. Glory, and patriotism, and bravery, and conquest are bright and glittering things. Who, when he is looking delighted upon these things, is armed against the mischiefs which they veil?

  The evil is in its own nature of almost universal operation. During a war, a whole people become familiarized with the utmost excesses of enormity,—with the utmost intensity of human wickedness,—and they rejoice and exult in them; so that there is probably not an individual in a hundred who does not lose something of his Christian principles by a ten years’ war.

  “It is in my mind,” said Fox, “no small misfortune to live at a period when scenes of horror and blood are frequent.”—“One of the most evil consequences of war is, that it tends to render the hearts of mankind callous to the feelings and sentiments of humanity.”11

  Those who know what the moral law of God is, and who feel an interest in the virtue and the happiness of the world, will not regard the animosity of party and the restlessness of resentment which are produced by a war, as trifling evils. If any thing be opposite to Christianity, it is retaliation and revenge. In the obligation to restrain these dispositions, much of the characteristic placability of Christianity consists. The very essence and spirit of our religion are abhorrent from resentment. The very essence and spirit of war are promotive of resentment; and what then must be their mutual adverseness? That war excites these passions needs not to be proved. When a war is in contemplation, or when it has been begun, what are the endeavours of its promoters? They animate us by every artifice of excitement to hatred and animosity. Pamphlets, placards, newspapers, caricatures,—every agent is in requisition to irritate us into malignity. Nay, dreadful as it is, the pulpit resounds with declamations to stimulate our too sluggish resentment, and to invite us to slaughter.—And thus the most unchristian-like of all our passions, the passion which it is most the object of our religion to repress, is excited and fostered. Christianity cannot be flourishing under circumstances like these. The more effectually we are animated to war, the more nearly we extinguish the dispositions of our religion. War and Christianity are like the opposite ends of a balance, of which one is depressed by the elevation of the other.

  These are the consequences which make war dreadful to a state. Slaughter and devastation are sufficiently terrible, but their collateral evils are their greatest. It is that immoral feeling that war diffuses,—it is the depravation of principle, which forms the mass of its mischief.

  To attempt to pursue the consequences of war through all their ramifications of evil were, however, both endless and vain. It is a moral gangrene which diffuses its humours through the whole political and social system. To expose its mischief is to exhibit all evil; for there is no evil which it does not occasion, and it has much that is peculiar to itself.

  That together with its multiplied evils, war produces some good, I have no wish to deny. I know that it sometimes elicits valuable qualities which had otherwise been concealed, and that it often produces collateral and adventitious, and sometimes immediate advantages. If all this could be denied, it would be needless to deny it, for it is of no consequence to the question whether it be proved. That any wide-extended system should not produce some benefits can never happen. In such a system it were an unheard-of purity of evil which was evil without any mixture of good.—But, to compare the ascertained advantages of war with ill ascertained mischiefs, and to maintain a question as to the preponderance of the balance, implies, not ignorance, but disingenuousness, not incapacity to decide but a voluntary concealment of truth.

  And why do we insist upon these consequence, of war?—Because the review prepares the reader for a more accurate judgment respecting its lawfulness. Because it reminds him what war is, and because, knowing and remembering what it is, he will be the better able to compare it with the standard of rectitude.

1 “Since the peace of Amiens more than four millions of human beings have been sacrificed to the personal ambition of Napoleon Bonaparte ‘“—Quarterly Review, 25 Art. I, 1825.
2 The sum was 69,815,457l.
3 The sum was 65,853,7991. “The nine years’ war of 1739 cost this nation upwards of 64 millions, without gaining any object.”—Chalmer’s Estimate of the Strength of Great Britain.
4 Erasmus.
5 Sermon, 1822.
6 See Smollett’s England, vol. iv. p. 376. “This terrible truth, which I cannot help repeating, must be acknowledged:—indifference and selfishness are the predominant feelings in an army,”—Miot’s Mémoires de l’ Expédition en Egypte, &c. Men. in the MS.
7 By one article of the Constitutional Code even of republican France, “the army were expressly prohibited from deliberating on any subject whatever.”
8 Captain Basil Hall: Voyage to Loo Choo, c. 2. We make no distinction between the military and naval professions, and employ one word to indicate both.
9 Vattel indeed tells us that soldiers ought to “submit their judgment.” “What,” says he, “would be the consequence, if at every step of the sovereign the subjects were at liberty to weigh the justice of his reasons, and refuse to march to a war which to them might appear unjust?”—Law of Nat. b. 3, c. 11. sec. 187. Gisborne holds very different language. “It is,” he says, “at all times the duty of an Englishman steadfastly to decline obeying any orders of his superiors which his conscience should tell him were in any degree impious or unjust.”—Duties of Men.
10 Smollett’s England: v. iv. p. 330.
11 Fell’s Life of C. J. Fox.

All Sub-Works of Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).:
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.