The Nation's Crime Against The Individual
By Reinhold Niebuhr
[The Atlantic Monthly Magazine, November 1916]
The incurable optimists who feel called upon to find a saving virtue in every evil and in every loss a compensation have been comforting the world since the outbreak of the great war with the assurance that the nations of Europe would arise purified and ennobled from the ashes of the war's destruction. It is not difficult to share this hope, but it gives us little comfort if we have any sense of proportion and are able to see what the individual is paying for a possible ultimate gain to the nations. We cannot help but think of the thousands of graves on the countrysides of Europe that are mute testimonies to the tragedy of individual life as revealed in this war, when we are asked to accept these optimistic assurances. The heroes and victims will not arise from their graves, though Europe may rise from its destruction.
This war presents a tragic climax to a pathetic history of individual life in its relation to the nation. The history is a pathetic one because the individual has held a pitiful place in society from the very beginning. The race has never had an adequate appreciation of his unique worth, and has always been too ready to claim his loyalty for petty ends. In primitive society the individual owned no property that the tribe could not claim, and he dared no action that its customs did not sanction. His life was valuable only in so far as it could be used to realize tribal and national ambitions. Since primitive society lacked the direction of public opinion, these ambitions were dictated by the caprice of the rulers. Whether the ruler was a tribal chieftain, racial king, builder of empires, or feudal lord, he sacrificed the individual's life in any venture or adventure to which he was prompted by his jealousy or avarice, his pride or passion. No cause was too petty to be advanced by blood; no price in human values too high to be paid for its advancement. History is not lacking in national ventures that can be morally justified, but on the whole it presents a dismal succession of petty jealousies, often more personal than national, of cheap ambition and unrighteous pride, all of which claimed the individual as a victim.
To this history of individual life this war is a tragic climax, because it convinces us that the forces of history have not favored individual life as much as we thought. Before the war there was a general tendency to regard the moral weaknesses and injustices of nationalism as relics of primitive days which the forces of modern civilization were gradually overcoming and eliminating. But the war has taught us that the nationalism of to-day is distinctly modern in some of its aspects, in its faults as well as in its virtues.
To begin with, the nation has never been so powerful as it is now. Two forces have contributed to its power. One is the rise of racial self-consciousness which began with the fall of the Roman Empire, or, to be more exact, with the disintegration of the Empire of Charlemagne. The development of nations upon the basis of racial unity proceeded slowly during the Middle Ages, hampered as it was by the power of feudal lords and by the custom of dividing a kingdom among all the heirs of the king. Nevertheless, racial solidarity gradually became the basis of political power. Among the nations of to-day Germany is perhaps the best example of national power based on racial solidarity. It is not an empire of peoples, and, popular opinion notwithstanding, it seems not to cherish the imperial ideal; it feels that its power is derived from the intense self-consciousness of a single race. That is more or less true of all modern nations, although most of them control several minor races without absorbing them.
The other, and even more potent, cause of modern nationalism is the advance of democracy. There is a peculiar irony in this fact. Democracy, we rejoiced to believe, favored the individual. It is indeed based upon a greater appreciation of personal and individual values, and has resulted in their development. But, although it may have espoused the cause of the individual, it has strengthened the power of the race with even greater success. The democratic tendencies of modem history have done more to free the race from the tyranny and caprice of its rulers than to free the individual from exploitation by the race. They have taken the supreme power of history out of the hands of the few and lodged it with the many, but they have done less to secure the liberty of the one against the power of the many. Democracy has trodden in the paths of constitutionalism and constitutionalism gives stability to the state. A government established upon law and deriving its power from the people is naturally more stable than were the governments that lived by the power and fell with the weakness of individual rulers. Its power to exploit the individual is correspondingly enhanced.
The accumulation of national debts is a striking example of this development. Primitive states would not have dared to make unborn generations responsible for stupendous national debts in the making of which they had no part. They refrained from this policy of modern states, not because they had more conscience but because they possessed less power. They lacked the credit to amass large debts. When constitutions did not fix the order and mode of succession, kings could not guarantee the payment of debts by their successors and therefore quit fighting when their exchequer was empty. The enormous national debts of to-day are obviously by-products of constitutionalism. The stability of modern governments is making the nation more powerful than it has ever been in history. There was a time when other communities disputed the nation's claim to the loyalty of the individual. In the Middle Ages the church, the empire, and the fief competed with the nation for supremacy; and in more recent times the class tried to establish itself as the ultimate community. But when this war broke out, class consciousness, so carefully nurtured before the war, was impotent before the passion of patriotism and the superior organization of the nation. The ruthless manner in which the belligerent nations have been able to suppress opinions that differed from the national policy, arouses the suspicion that the latter is a more potent factor in modern nationalism than the former.
The possession of power does not necessarily imply its unrighteous or oppressive use, although it generally awakes suspicion. We have no right to assume, therefore, that the nation is oppressing the individual because it is powerful enough to do so. However, if a strong nationalism is not in itself oppressive of individual life, certain conditions of contemporary civilization seem to have conspired to make it so. One of these is the development of individual life and personal values. The individual soul stands for more than it once did, both in its own eyes and in the esteem of its fellows. The German scientist Haeckel contended in a recent article on the war that his nation was bringing greater sacrifices than any other belligerent because the personal life-value of the German soldier was higher than that of the black and yellow fighters in the ranks of the Allies. This claim is based upon a significant truth, though Haeckel's partisan application of it is rather farfetched. Civilization has increased the value of the individual soul. More and more man emerges from the mass and takes a distinctive place among his fellows. Education has given him the independence of his own opinions. His Christian faith has made his happiness the very goal of history and his destiny independent of the future of his race. Science has tamed the hostility of his bitterest enemy, nature. Nature has always favored the race against the individual.
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life.
But the ingenuity of man has bent many of her forces to his own uses. All of these factors have given the single life a higher value and a more unique worth. When a nation demands these lives it is asking for greater sacrifices and is inflicting more acute pains and agonies than did the primitive state when it summoned its men. The artisans and professional men, the business men and thinkers who are manning the trenches of Europe and whose blood is drenching its battlefields, mean more or meant more to their friends, stood for more in their communities, and added more to the sum total of human values than the soldiers of ancient armies who could follow the standards of their leaders and espouse their country's cause without forsaking any particular task or abandoning any distinctive place in their community. Were modern nationalism no stronger than of old, this development of personal values would make its demands upon them more cruel and painful.
The methods of modern warfare serve to aggravate the pain of sacrificing individual values for racial ends. In the face of the development of individual life modern warfare demands an unprecedented suppression of individuality and sacrifice of personal values. Modem armies still need men, more than ever before, but the very qualities that make their lives worth while in civic life and endow their personalities with a unique distinction are least needed in the modern army. Both the ascendancy of the machine, of modern artillery, in warfare, and the machinelike character of the army itself have caused this state of affairs.
So impersonal is the modern machinery of war that not even the individuality of its manipulators stands out distinctly. The greatest war of all history has produced very few heroes and great personalities. Courage is still an asset in the army of to-day, but not that romantic valor, so celebrated in ancient histories, in which the qualities of personal prowess and initiative predominated. The courage that is needed to-day is the submissive courage that executes strategical plans without understanding them and obeys commands without fathoming their purpose. Thus grimness is overshadowing the romance of war, and machine-like precision has become more necessary than spectacular heroism. This is the reason why modern warfare is so fruitful of mental agony as well as of physical pain. The individual, never more eager for a unique distinction among his fellows, has never been more completely lost in the mass than in the modern army.
The development of military methods that has made this suppression of individuality necessary has proceeded in the face of diametrically opposite tendencies in civil life. There was a time when the trumpets of war were a signal of relief from the benumbing ennui of peace. At that time the pursuits of peace were in the hands of slaves, and it was the business of gentlemen to fight—for war presented these gentlemen with the largest opportunities to distinguish themselves and gain 'immortality.' But since then the hazards and problems that make life interesting and the tasks that make it worth while have multiplied as rapidly in civil life as they have decreased in military pursuits. Thus to-day the nation at war not only fails to satisfy the desire of man for a 'place in the sun,' but actually robs him of the place which he enjoyed in civil life. Modern warfare is cruel, not only because of its extravagant waste of human life, but because of its barbaric indifference to personal values. Not only the Massengrab is symbolical of the tragedy of individual life in war. In one sense the uniform is as truly, though not as vividly, symbolical of that tragedy which consists as much in the suppression of individuality as in the sacrifice of individuals.
But the final indictment of modern nationalism is not that it demands such great sacrifices. If modern warfare did nothing more than demand greater sacrifices and inflict more cruel pain than before, it might be endured. Mankind has not outgrown its capacity for sacrifice or outlived its need of it. This war has taught us that prosperity has not made men as flabby and complacent as we thought it had. We see the individual wronged by the nations, not because they demand so much of him, but because they demand so much to so little purpose. We are grieved, not because democracy has given the nation so much power, but because it has endowed it with too little conscience. Though democracy may have freed us of the capricious adventures of tyrants, it does not seem to have delivered us from the unrighteous pride and avarice of the race. This does not mean that the moral character of the race has not developed as well as that of the individual, but the former does not seem to have held pace with the latter. At any rate, too many of the purposes involved in national ambitions and of the issues involved in national struggles are of a kind that will not and should not appeal to the conscience of the individual, if he is permitted to regard them sanely and is not blinded by the chauvinistic passion that national crises so easily unloose. Man is not unwilling to make sacrifices, but he has never longed more for issues that will hallow his sacrifices and make them worth while.
The nations of to-day are hard pressed to meet this demand. Perhaps this is true, not so much because they lack conscience, but because conditions over which they have no control have robbed their issues of their ultimate character. There was a time when the nation was man's ultimate community and he had no higher obligation than to serve its interests. But he no longer lives in his country alone. He is a citizen of the world. He draws his spiritual sustenance from all the races. Their geniuses instruct him in their wisdom and their moral struggles enrich his spiritual life. All humanity serves the modern man and puts him under obligations by that service. He does violence to his conscience if he presses the interests of his race against the interests of the wider spiritual community in which he lives.
Of course, this larger community is poorly organized and its claims upon man's loyalty are not put with the force with which the nation can put them. Its interests are, moreover, so varying that the individual may never be certain that he is seeking the greatest good of the greatest number. Altruism does not easily lend itself to quantitative tests. But it can be tested qualitatively. The individual may not be able to judge whether the purposes of his nation will ultimately serve humanity, but he can determine with reasonable certitude whether they will serve the ends of justice. Perhaps this is why devotion to moral principles has been a more potent motive of altruism than loyalty to communities. Mediaeval history offers a striking example of this fact. The different communities of the Middle Ages which competed with each other in claiming the loyalty of men were not unsuccessful, and their petty enterprises never failed to enlist supporters; but the altruism and courage manifested in national and feudal struggles was eclipsed by the unmatched moral fervor and romantic altruism of the Crusades, whose supreme motive was not loyalty to a community but devotion to moral and spiritual principles.
The modern nations have not been slow to appreciate this desire for principles that transcend man's obligation to the nation, through which he might judge and with which he might justify his loyalty to a limited community. That is why most of them have been trying to play the rôle of champions of righteousness and civilization. Unhappily, however, they cannot play their rôles convincingly except for those who want to be duped to ease their consciences or to save their optimism. Their claims do not breed conviction, not only because in this particular war moral issues were afterthoughts that did not dictate the contending alliances, but also because it is no longer possible for any nation to claim sole championship of any particular cause or principle. The fundamental things of life transcend national limitations and outrun national barriers more easily than ever before. If a nation has contributions to make to civilization it is no longer necessary, if indeed it ever was, that it force them on an unwilling world through the sword or prove their merit by the force of arms. We can go to school with the different nations and appropriate some of their unique achievements without being their political slaves. There was a time when national provincialism did set some limits to the propagation of ideals and principles which a particular nation has conceived, and made it necessary and defensible, to an extent, that it propagate these by extending its dominion. For that reason the Roman legionary could regard himself more truly a champion of civilization than the German soldier; and the citizen of Athens could more justly claim to be the protagonist of democracy than the soldier of England. The internationalizing of most of the higher values of civilization has robbed the nation of the right to dignify its struggles by declaring these to be involved. Thus the modern soldier's hope of finding some universal values and transcendent principles involved in his nation's struggle and hallowing it, is more certain of disappointment than ever before.
It is unnecessary to establish here that the principal cause of modern warfare is commercial rivalry. Economic issues underlie practically all national animosities. Nations have other and worthier ambitions than the one to be prosperous; but only their economic ambitions seem to call for physical combat with their neighbors. The others they can realize in peace. There may be exceptions, but to enumerate them would lead us too far astray. We are speaking generally, and in that sense it is true that commercial supremacy—or, to put it more broadly, prosperity—is the end for which the modern nation demands the sacrifices of its citizens. This, then, is the stuff that modern nationalism is made of, at least in so far as it is manifested in modern warfare. What a pitiful thing it is that the Pomeranian peasant or the miner of Wales is asked to sacrifice his life in a struggle that is to determine whether future generations of Hamburg or Liverpool merchants shall wax rich from overseas commerce and the exploitation of undeveloped countries! That is the tragedy of modern nationalism—it offers the modern man, with all his idealism and sensitive moral instincts, no better cause to hallow his sacrifices than the selfish and material one of securing his nation's prosperity.
It is, by the way, a sad commentary on contemporary civilization that commercial competition is so strongly national. We try to be international in our spiritual interests, and send missionaries to other lands to bestow our spiritual possessions on other nations; but we build tariff walls and develop national commerce at the risk of bloodshed, in order to keep our material possessions strictly for ourselves and if possible develop a prosperity beyond that which other nations enjoy.
If the purposes for which the nation claims the sacrifices of its citizens are not worthy ones, the question arises why these sacrifices are still so successfully demanded and so readily made. One answer is that the nation is still powerful enough to claim, though its purposes are not always great enough to deserve, the individual's sacrifices. Another answer is that the average man is not able to fathom the real motives that underlie national policies and cause national struggles. But the principal reason for the satisfaction which the modern soldier is still able to find in the sacrifices he makes, is that in times of war loyalty and courage are made ultimate virtues for which men are honored without regard to the ends which these virtues may serve. But by peculiar irony, history applies other standards to the actions of men than those of the tribunals of contemporary opinion. It sees many men as fools who were heroes in their own time. For it loyalty is not an end in itself. It looks to the ends that this virtue may serve. That is the reason posterity often honors men for their non-conformity, while contemporary opinion respects them for their conformity; that is why there are as many rebels as patriots on the honor rolls of history. The state owes man issues that will hallow his sacrifices, not only in his own eyes and in those of contemporaries, but in the estimation of history; it owes him issues that have a value for civilization and through which he may perpetuate his life in history.
The individual of to-day feels that the nations are not fulfilling this obligation and that he is being wronged by them. But the cause of the nation is no more righteous if he does not feel this and is duped by pretexts that hide the real issues. The willingness of men to die in struggles that effect no permanent good and leave no contribution to civilization makes the tragedy of individual life all the more pathetic. The crime of the nation against the individual is, not that it demands his sacrifices against his will, but that it claims a life of eternal significance for ends that have no eternal value.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald