Civilization at the Breaking Point

By H. G. Wells

[The New York Times, May 27, 1915]

The submarine and aircraft have put a new proposition before the world. It is a proposition that will be stated here as plainly and simply as possible. These two inventions present mankind with a choice of two alternatives, or, to vary the phrase, they mark quite definitely that we are at the parting of two ways; either mankind must succeed within quite a brief period of years now in establishing a world State, a world Government of some sort able to prevent war, or civilization as we know it must break up into a system of warring communities, perpetually on the warpath, perpetually insecure and engaged in undying national vendettas. These consequences have been latent in all the development of scientific warfare that has been going on during the last century; they are inherent in the characteristics of the aircraft and of the submarine for any one to see.

They are so manifestly inherent that even before this war speculative minds had pointed out the direction to which these inventions pointed, but now, after more than three-quarters of a year of war, it is possible to approach this question, no longer as something as yet fantastically outside the experience of mankind, but as something supported by countless witnesses, something which the dullest, least imaginative minds can receive and ponder.

What the submarine and aircraft make manifest and convincing is this point, which argument alone has never been able to hammer into the mass of inattentive minds, that if the human intelligence is applied continuously to the mechanism of war it will steadily develop destructive powers, but that it will fail to develop any corresponding power of decision and settlement, because the development of the former is easy and obvious in comparison with the development of the latter; it will therefore progressively make war more catastrophic and less definitive. It will not make war impossible in the ordinary meaning of the word, the bigger the gun and the viler the lethal implement the more possible does war become, but it will make war "impossible" in the slang use of five or six years ago, in the sense, that is, of its being utterly useless and mischievous, the sense in which Norman Angell employed it and so brought upon himself an avalanche of quite unfair derision. No nation ever embarked upon so fair a prospect of conquest and dominion as the victorious Germans when, after 1871, they decided to continue to give themselves to the development of overwhelming military power. And after exertions unparalleled in the whole history of mankind their net conquests are nothing; they have destroyed enormously and achieved no other single thing, and today they repeat on a colossal scale the adventures of Fort Chabrol and Sidney Street, and are no better than a nation of murderous outcasts besieged by an outraged world.

Now, among many delusions that this war has usefully dispelled is the delusion that there can be a sort of legality about war, that you can make war a little, but not make war altogether, that the civilized world can look forward to a sort of tame war in the future, a war crossed with peace, a lap-dog war that will bark but not bite. War is war; it is the cessation of law and argument, it is outrage, and Germany has demonstrated on the large scale what our British suffragettes learned on a small one, that with every failure to accomplish your end by violent means you are forced to further outrages. Violence has no reserves but further violence. Each failure of the violent is met by the desperate cry, the heroical scream: "We will not be beaten. If you will not give in to us for this much, then see! We will go further." Wars always do go further. Wars always end more savagely than they begin. Even our war in South Africa, certainly the most decently conducted war in all history, got to farm burning and concentration camps. A side that hopes for victory fights with conciliation in its mind. Victory and conciliation recede together. When the German who is really, one must remember, a human being like the rest of us, at the worst just merely a little worse in his upbringing when he finds he cannot march gloriously into Paris or Warsaw, then, and only then, does he begin to try to damage Paris and Warsaw with bombs, when he finds he cannot beat the French Army and the British fleet, then, and not till then, does he attack and murder the slumbering civilians of Scarborough and Dunkirk, and lies in wait for and sinks the Lusitania. If war by the rules will not bring success, then harsher measures must be taken; let us suddenly torture and murder our hated enemies with poison gas, let us poison the South African wells, let us ill-treat prisoners and assassinate civilians. Let us abolish the noncombatant and the neutral. These are no peculiar German inequities, though the Germans have brought them to an unparalleled perfection; they are the natural psychological consequences of aggressive war heroically conceived and bitterly thwarted; they are "fierceness;" they are the logical necessary outcome of going to war and being disappointed and getting hit hard and repeatedly. Any military nation in a corner will play the savage, the wildcat at bay, in this fashion, rather than confess itself done. And since the prophetic Bloch has been justified and the long inconclusiveness of modern war, with its entrenchments and entanglements, has been more than completely demonstrated, this is the way that every war in the future is likely to go. Fair and open conquest becoming more and more out of the question, each side will seek to cow, dismay, and subjugate the spirit of the other, and particularly the spirit of the noncombatant masses, by more and more horrible proceedings. "What do you think of that?" said the German officer, with a grin, as he was led prisoner past one of our soldiers, dying in agonies of asphyxiation. To that point war brings men. Probably at the beginning of the war he was quite a decent man. But once he was committed to war the fatal logic of our new resources in science laid hold of him. And war is war.

Now there does not appear the slightest hope of any invention that will make war more conclusive or less destructive; there are, however, the clearest prospects in many directions that it may be more destructive and less conclusive. It will be dreadfuller and bitterer; its horrors will be less and less forgivable; it will leave vast sundering floods of hate. The submarine and the aircraft are quite typical of the new order of things. You can sweep a visible fleet off the seas, you can drive an invading army into its own country, but while your enemy has a score of miles of coast line or a thousand square miles of territory left him, you cannot, it seems, keep his aircraft out of your borders, and still less can you keep his submarines out of the sea. You can, of course, make reprisals, but you can not hold him powerless as it was once possible to do. He can work his bloody mischief on your civil life to the very end of the war, and you must set your teeth and stick to your main attack. To that pitch this war has come, and to that pitch every subsequent war will come. The civil life will be treated as a hostage, and as it becomes more and more accessible, as it will do, to the antagonist it will be more and more destroyed. The sinking of the Lusitania is just a sign and a sample of what war now becomes, its rich and ever richer opportunities of unforgettable exasperation. Germany is resolved to hurt and destroy to the utmost, every exasperated militarism will come naturally to such resolves, and only by pain and destruction, by hurting, shaming and damaging Germany to the point of breaking the German spirit can this inflamed and war-mad people be made to relinquish their gigantic aggression upon the world. Germany, that great camp of warriors, must be broken as the Red Indians and the Zulus were broken, if civilization is to have another chance, and its breaking cannot be done without unparalleled resentments. War is war, and it is not the Allies who have forced its logic to this bitter end.

Unless this war does help to bring about a lasting peace in the world, it is idle to pretend that it will have been anything else but a monstrous experience of evil. If at the end of it we cannot bring about some worldwide political synthesis, unanimous enough and powerful enough to prohibit further wars by a stupendous array of moral and material force, then all this terrible year of stress and suffering has been no more than a waste of life, and our sons and brothers and friends and allies have died in vain. If we cannot summon enough good-will and wisdom in the world to establish a world alliance and a world congress to control the clash of "legitimate national aspirations" and "conflicting interests" and to abolish all the forensic trickeries of diplomacy, then this will be neither the last war, nor will it be the worst, and men must prepare themselves to face a harsh and terrible future, to harden their spirits against continuing and increasing adversity, and to steel their children to cruelty and danger. Revenge will become the burden of history. That is the price men will pay for clinging to their little separatist cults and monarchies and complete independencies, now. The traffic and wealth of our great and liberal age will diminish, the arts will dwindle and learning fade, science will cease to advance, and the rude and hard will inherit the earth. The Warpath or the World State; that is the choice for mankind.

This lesson of the submarine which destroys much and achieves nothing has ample support in history. There never was so blind a superstition as the belief that progress is inevitable. The world has seen the great civilization of the Western empire give place to the warring chaos of the baronial castles of the ninth and tenth centuries; it has seen the Eastern empire for 500 years decay and retrogress under the militarism of the Turk; it has watched the Red Indians, with rifles in their hands, grimly engage in mutual extermination. Is it still a blind world, doomed to blunder down again from such light and order and hope as we were born to, toward such another millennium of barbaric hates and aimless wars? That is no mere possibility; it is the present probability unless men exert themselves to make it impossible. It is quite conceivable that ours is the last generation for many generations that will go freely about the world, that will have abundance of leisure, and science and free speech and abundant art and much beauty and many varied occupations. We stand about in our old haunts and try to keep on with our old ways of living and speculate when the war will be "over," and when we shall be able to go back to everything just as it was before the war. This war and its consequences will never be "over," and we have not even begun to realize what it has cost us.

The course of human history is downward and very dark, indeed, unless our race can give mind and will now unreservedly in unprecedented abundance to the stern necessities that follow logically from the aircraft bomb and the poison gas and that silent, invisible, unattainable murderer, the submarine.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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