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[Quotes on War]

"On War."

Does war come about as a "criminal blunder" made by inferior people who, by luck, found themselves in positions of power? Or, are wars brought about as an exercise of reason; the one side defending against the delivery of calculated threats to be carried through by the other in order to maintain, consolidate, or gain additional power; both at home and abroad. At home, as the ruling élite, often beholden to one man, go about securing their position by putting the nation on a war footing: abroad, so as to strengthen the country's international bargaining position, vis-à-vis, their frightened neighbours of the future.

"War," as Thucydides wrote, "Is a violent schoolmaster: it robs men of their day-to-day margin of sufficiency and debases the character of most to the level of circumstances ..." War is the "son of hell, ... the artificial plague of man, a time when the vials of the Apocalypse are poured forth and shaken over countries ... a time of slaughter, famine, beggary, infamy, slavery, despair."1 Once through it, man, like a drunk in the morning vows: never more. Then, in time, the status quo is established and the same old reasons, the same old conditions that brought on war before will bring it on again, it's just a matter of how much time is needed to build up new strengths and to erode old memories. Men then go to killing one another, yet again, until one side or the other can stand it no more and sues for peace on the best terms it can manage. And, the cycle starts anew: history is full of it: history is built on it.

One wonders if war is a necessary ingredient to the advancement of man. It's as if a setback of a determined measure times one is needed in order to go forward by two. Emerson thought that a periodic war was, so to speak, a necessary stirring of the pot. "It breaks up the Chinese stagnation of society, and demonstrates the personal merits of all men." No doubt, war does draw a nation together and forces a people to turn to fundamental definitions. Again, Emerson: "The cost of life, the dreary havoc of comfort and time, are overpaid by the vistas it opens of eternal life, eternal law, reconstructing and uplifting society, -- breaks up the old horizon, and we see through the rifts a wider vista."2 War, especially in prehistoric times, had the effect of spreading human genes and human ideas.

We can but speculate -- however, given the events since the dawn of history, it seems clear that prehistoric man went to war with prehistoric man. The tribe in the next valley were to be cowed; besides, to the victor goes the spoils.3 Attack the other side in strength at their weak points, both in defences and at times, and soon the battle is over and the aggressor is thus strengthened. It is how Alexander determined the greatness of Greece; it is through such operations with its legions that Rome came to be what it was and to thus sustain itself until outdone by the Barbarian hoards.

With the fall of the feudal system the day of the strong central leader arrived, and there arose throughout the European world new national states4: led by England (Edward IV and Henry VII), France (Louis XI), and Spain (Ferdinand and Isabella). With these leaders came more war, but, in comparison with the old, these new wars were more decisive and certainly shorter. But the reasons for the commencement of a war is, yet, and, I suppose, always to be the same: the powerful seek to consolidate, concentrate, and extend their power: it is a drug that ruins not only the user but the used.

"The great question which, in all ages, has disturbed mankind, and brought on them the greatest part of those mischiefs which have ruined cities, depopulated countries, and disordered the peace of the world, has been, not whether there be power in the world, nor whence it came, but who should have it."5
So it is, we may never be able to get rid of war any more then we will ever be able to get rid of men who seek power. The best that man, maybe, might expect is to take sufficient control of events so as to limit the number and extent of wars. Which, of course, means, to limit the number of positions in our governmental set ups, to limit the power granted; and to have an electorial system in place which periodically and automatically takes power away from those who possess it; and put them and all comers to the electoral test, as deficient a test as it is.6

We see it in history, and, we see it yet today, if what a leader wishes to keep or increase, is, power; then the sure way is to put his nation on a war footing. A person who aspires to absolute power must first but just get a toehold on power; then, especially where democracy is not entrenched, that person will proceed to seduce7 the people into giving him absolute power, often, by creating an emergency abroad or at home. A dictator will turn the whole of the country, if allowed, into a huge military camp. This is best accomplished by declaring war on one of the country's neighbours. "This form of co-operation, still exemplified in an army, has in days gone by been the form of co-operation throughout the civil population. Everywhere, and at all times, chronic war generates a militant type of structure, not in the body of soldiers only but throughout the community at large."8

I quote Sir James Fitzjames Stephen:

"The main fact to bear in mind is that there are and there must be struggles between creeds and political systems, just as there are struggles between different nations and classes if and so far as their interests do not coincide. If Roman and Christian, Trinitarian and Arian, Catholic and Protestant, Church and State, both want the allegiance of mankind, they must fight for it. No peace is possible for men except upon one of two conditions. You may purchase absolute freedom by the destruction of all power, or you may measure the relative powers of the opposing forces by which men act and are acted upon, and conduct yourself accordingly. The first of these courses is death. The second is harmonious and well-regulated life; but the essence of life is force, the exertion of force implies a conflict of forces, and the conflict of forces is the negation of liberty in so far as either force restrains the other."9
I ventured to say that it is the power hungry leader who brings on war; but, indirectly, war is brought on by the people who make up the nation. For it is the people who give support to the demagogue who but proffer dreams in exchange for political support. I quote from a piece written by George Santayana in 1922, in which he predicted WW II:
"This war [WW I] has given you [the 'liberal' idealists of the day] your first glimpse of the ancient, fundamental, normal state of the world, your first taste of reality. It should teach you to dismiss all your philosophies of progress [Marx] or of a governing reason as the babble of dreamers [Idealist School] who walk through one world mentally beholding another. ... It is easy to behave very much like other people and yet be possessed inwardly by a narcotic dream. ... [Santayana then proceeds to compare 'liberal' idealists to flowers that speculate and construct idealisms] Their thoughts [the thoughts of flowers], like yours, are all positings and deductions and asseverations of which ought to be, whilst the calm truth is marching unheeded outside. ... But if you are ever driven again into the open, if the course of events should be so rapid, that you could catch the drift of it in your short life (since you despise tradition) then you must prepare for a ruder shock. There is eternal war in nature, a war in which every cause is ultimately lost and every nation destroyed. War is but resisted change; and change must needs be resisted so long as the organism it would destroy retains any vitality. Peace itself means discipline at home and invulnerability abroad - two forms of permanent virtual war; peace requires so vigorous an internal regiment that every germ of dissolution or infection shall be repelled before it reaches the public soul."
What brought the feudal system down were the changes in the art of war -- in a word, gunpowder. With the further perfection of the art of war as we have seen in the last half of the 20th century, with the creation and evolvement of instruments of mass destruction, paradoxically, wars, or at least major world wars may have been brought to an end. When competing countries possess the power to knock out whole cities and kill millions with the push of a button; when each are assured of mutual destruction: then, of course, there is a great incentive to work things out, or to simply let the competing country go its own way. John Keegan makes the point: "... a moving meditation on the growing brutality of modern warfare." In one of Keegan's conclusions, he, maybe wishfully, thinks that it is this brutality -- which he so brilliantly outlines in his books -- that might well bring a permanent end to war. We need, however, to keep the images and horrors of war before us to remind us that while these images come from far away places they may visit us, possibly, only as a blinding and world ending flash. We need more than silent prayers. We need, daily, to remind and support our political leaders at home of the necessity to get involved abroad; to crush dictators and promote democracy.


The Honourable Image of War:

  • "One to destroy is murder by the law,
    And gibbets keep the lifted hand in awe
    To murder thousands takes a specious name,
    War's glorious art, and gives immortal fame."

  • "Cannon to the right of them,
    Cannon to the left of them,
    Cannon in front of them, ...
    Theirs not to make reply,
    Theirs not to reason why,
    Theirs but to do and to die."
    - "Charge of the Light Brigade."

  • "War's a game, which, were their subjects wise,
    Kings would not play at."

  • "War, he sung, is toil and trouble;
    Honor, but an empty bubble;
    Never ending, still beginning,
    Fighting still, and still destroying."
    Alexander's Feast, 1697.

    The Empowering Effect of War:

  • "War is not the most favorable moment for divesting the monarchy of power. On the contrary, it is the moment when the energy of a single hand shows itself in the most seducing form."
    (Thomas Jefferson: which Mencken attributes to a letter written in 1788.)

  • The motto which the Prussian leader, Frederick the Great (1712-86) had inscribed around the mouths of his cannons was the Ultimo ratio. The full motto is ultimo ratio regum -- the last recourse of kings.

    Gentlemanly Conduct:

  • "The fortunes of war flow this way and that, and no prudent fighter holds his enemy in contempt."
    J.W. Goethe: Iphigenie auf Tauris, V, 1787.

  • "A state shall not, during war, admit of hostilities of a nature that would render reciprocal confidence in a succeeding peace impossible; such as employing assassins ... violation of capitulations, secret instigation to rebellion, etc."
    Immanuel Kant: Perpetual Peace, I, 1795.

  • "The law of war does not allow proclaiming either an individual belonging to the hostile army, or a citizen, or a subject of the hostile government, an outlaw, who may be slain without trial by any captor, any more than the modern law of peace allows such intentional outlawry; on the contrary, it abhors such outrage. The sternest retaliation should follow the murder committed in consequence of such proclamation, made by whatever authority. Civilized nations look with horror upon offers of rewards for the assassination of enemies as relapses into barbarism." (Art. 148 of the Laws of War.)10

    The Ruinous Effect of War:

  • "Cry 'Havock,' and let slip the dogs of war."
    - Shakespeare: Julius Cæsar.

  • "Leave untended the herd,
    The flock without the shelter;
    Leave the corpse uninterred,
    The bride at the altar;
    Leave the deer, leave the steer;
    Leave nets and barges:
    Come with your fighting gear,
    Broadswords and targes."
    Walter Scott: Pibroch of Donald Dhus, 1816.

  • "I detest war, It spoils armies." Grand Duke Constantine of Russia, c. 1820.

    War, All Out War:

  • "To carry the spirit of peace into war is a weak and cruel policy. When an extreme case calls for that remedy which is in its own nature most violent, and which, in such cases, is a remedy only because it is violent, it is idle to think of mitigating and diluting. Languid war can do nothing which negotiation or submission will do better: and to act on any other principle is, not to save blood and money, but to squander them."
    Macaulay: "Hallam," 1828.

    The Postwar Period:

  • "War makes the victor stupid and the vanquished vengeful."
    Nietzsche: Human All Too Human, I, 1878

    War, The Killer of Truth:

  • "The appalling thing about war is that it kills all love of truth."
    (George Brandes: In a letter to Clemenceau, 1915.)
  • _______________________________

    1 Macaulay.

    2 In a letter to Carlyle, September, 26, 1864]

    3 A rather outdated expression, "to the victor goes the spoils," for, as Burke observed: "A further objection to force is, that you impair the object by your very endeavors to preserve it. The thing you fought for is not the thing which you recover, but depreciated, sunk, wasted, and consumed in the contest." ("On Conciliation with the American Colonies.")

    4 It is more than just a coincidence that the same generation that saw the disappearance of the feudal system also saw the beginnings of the discovery of the new world. For the reason, why a great monarch would provision and launch of a discovery party, was to sustain and protect the wealth of the national state, a national state driven by the prospect of new wealth and territory. I suppose it might be said, therefore, that the reasons that drive men to war and the reasons that drive men to discover new regions; are, the same.

    5 John Locke, Treaties on Government, No.1.

    6 Often there is only one way to get rid of a power hungry leader. Power, it is said, feeds on its spoils. A person will rarely give up power on a voluntary basis; persuasion will not work; and where bullets or votes will not work -- then the only answer is to starve him of that which he craves. The riddance of a power hungry leader or leaders, will often only come about when the people absolutely refuse to be despoiled any further: power can be starved to death.
    As for the voting process, as has been established in the western democracies, let me quote Walter Bagehot: "Each man is to have one twelve-millionth share in electing a Parliament; the rich and the wise are not to have, by explicit law, more votes than the poor and stupid; nor are any latent contrivances to give them an influence equivalent to more votes." [The English Constitution (Oxford University Press, 1928) at p. 130.] And, I need not add, I suppose, those who determine or manipulate the constituency of public opinion are those who win elections and take political power into their hands. "We flatter ourselves by claiming to be rational and intellectual beings, but it would be a great mistake to suppose that men are always guided by reason. We are strange inconsistent creatures, and we act quite as often, perhaps oftener, from prejudice or passion. The result is that you are more likely to carry men with you by enlisting their feelings, than by convincing their reason. This applies, moreover, to companies of men even more than to individuals." (See Lubbock's essay, "Tact.")

    7 A declaration of war is often the best seduction there might be: war is a solemn engagement and the first priority of the war leader is to stir up their subjects against the enemy. The war leader will undoubtedly tell the people that they are on the side of right. However, the tragedy of war is not brought on by the conflict between right and wrong; it is invariably a conflict between right and right.

    8 Spencer, see A Plea for Liberty, p. 8.

    9 Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873); (University of Chicago Press, 1991) at p. 70.

    10 Art. 148 of the Laws of War: General Orders No. 100; or, "Instructions For The Government Of Armies Of The United States In The Field" as originally were passed in the times of Abraham Lincoln, 1863.


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