War As an Institution

By Bertrand Russell

[The Atlantic Monthly Magazine, May 1916]

In spite of the fact that most nations, at most times, are at peace, war is one of the permanent institutions of most free communities, just as Parliament is one of our permanent institutions in spite of the fact that it is not always sitting. It is war as a permanent institution that I wish to consider: why men tolerate it, what hope there is of their coming not to tolerate it, and how they could abolish it if they wished to do so.

War is a conflict between two groups of men, each of which attempts to kill and maim as many as possible of the other group, in order to achieve some object which it desires. The object is generally either power or wealth. It is a pleasure to exercise authority over other men, and it is a pleasure to live on the produce of other men's labor. The victor in war can enjoy more of these pleasures than the vanquished. But war, like all other natural activities, is not so much prompted by the end which it has in view as by an impulse to the activity itself. Very often men desire an end, not on its own account, but because their nature demands the actions which will lead to the end. And so it is in this case: the ends to be achieved by war appear, in prospect, far more important than they will appear when they are realized, because war itself is a fulfillment of one side of our nature. If men's actions sprang from desires for what would in fact bring happiness, the purely rational arguments against war would have long ago put an end to it. What makes war difficult to suppress is that it springs from an impulse rather than from a calculation of the advantages to be derived from war.

War differs from the employment of force by the police through the fact that the actions of the police are ordered by a neutral authority, whereas in war it is the parties to the dispute themselves who set force in motion. This distinction is not absolute, since the state is not always wholly neutral in internal disturbances. When strikers are shot down, the state is taking the side of the rich. When opinions adverse to the existing state are punished, the state is obviously one of the parties to the dispute. And from the suppression of individual opinion up to civil war, all gradations are possible. But, broadly speaking, force employed according to laws previously laid down by the community as a whole may be distinguished from force employed by one community against another on occasions of which the one community is the sole judge.

I have dwelt upon this difference, because I do not think that the use offered by the police can be wholly eliminated, and I think that a similar use of force in international affairs offers the best hope of permanent peace. At present, international affairs are regulated by the principle that a nation must not intervene unless its interests are involved: diplomatic usage forbids intervention for the mere maintenance of international law. America may protest when American citizens are drowned by German submarines, but must not protest when no American citizens are involved. The case would be analogous in internal affairs if the police would only interfere with murder when it happened that a policeman had been killed. So long as this principle prevails in the relations of states, the power of neutrals cannot be effectively employed to prevent war.

In every civilized country two forces cooperate to produce war. Only educated men are likely to be warlike at ordinary times, since they alone are vividly aware of other countries or of the part which their own nation might play in the affairs of the world. But it is only their knowledge, not their nature, that distinguishes them from their more ignorant compatriots. To take the most obvious example, German policy, in recent years before the war, was not averse from war, and not friendly to England. It is worth while to try to understand the state of mind from which this policy sprang.

The men who direct German policy are, to begin with, patriotic to an extent which is almost unknown in more civilized countries, such as France and England. The interests of Germany appear to them unquestionably the only interests they need consider. What injury may, in pursuing those interests, be done to other nations, what destruction may be brought upon populations and cities, what irreparable damage may be done to civilization, it is not for them to consider. If they can confer what they consider benefits upon Germany, everything else is of no account.

The second noteworthy point about German policy is, that its conception of national welfare is purely competitive. It is not the intrinsic wealth of Germany, whether materially or mentally, that the rulers of Germany consider important: it is the comparative wealth, in the competition with other civilized countries. For this reason, the destruction of good things abroad appears to them exactly as desirable as the creation of good things in Germany. In most parts of the world, the French are regarded as the most civilized of nations: their art and their literature and their way of life have an attraction for foreigners which those of Germany do not have. The English have developed political liberty, and the art of maintaining an empire with a minimum of coercion, in ways for which Germany, hitherto, has shown no aptitude. These are grounds for envy, and envy wishes to destroy what is good in other countries. The Germans, quite rightly, judged that what was best in France and England would probably be destroyed by a great war, even if France and England were not in the end defeated in the actual fighting. I have seen a list of young French writers killed on the battlefield; probably the German authorities have also seen it, and have reflected with joy that another year of such losses will destroy French literature for a generation—perhaps, through loss of tradition, forever. Every outburst against liberty in our more bellicose newspapers, every incitement to persecution of defenseless Germans, every mark of growing ferocity in our attitude, must be read with delight by German patriots, as proving their success in robbing us of our best, and forcing us to imitate whatever is worst in Prussia.

But what the rulers of Germany have envied Great Britain most was power and wealth—the power derived from command of the seas and the straits, the wealth derived from a century of industrial supremacy. In both these respects, they feel that their deserts are higher than ours. They have devoted far more thought and skill to military and industrial organization. Their average of intelligence and knowledge is far superior to ours. Their capacity for pursuing an attainable end, unitedly and with forethought, is infinitely greater than ours. Yet we, merely (as they think) because we had a start in the race, have achieved a vastly larger empire than they have, and an enormously greater control of capital. All this is unbearable; and nothing but a great war can alter it.

Besides all these feelings, there is in many Germans, especially in those who know us best, a hot hatred on account of our pride. Farinata degli Uberti surveyed Hell 'come avesse lo inferno in gran dispitto.' Just so, by German accounts, English officer prisoners look round them among their captors—holding aloof, as though the enemy were noxious unclean creatures, toads or slugs or centipedes, which a man does not touch willingly, and shakes off with loathing if he is forced to touch them for a moment. It is easy to imagine how the devils hated Farinata, and inflicted greater pains upon him than upon his neighbors, hoping to win recognition by some slight wincing on his part, driven to frenzy by his continuing to behave as if they did not exist. In just the same way the Germans are maddened by our spiritual immobility. At bottom, we have regarded the Germans as one regards flies on a hot day—they are a nuisance, one has to brush them off, but it would not occur to one to be turned aside by them. Now that the initial certainty of victory has faded, we begin to be affected inwardly by the Germans. In time, if we continue to fail in our military enterprises, we shall realize that they are human beings, not just a tiresome circumstance. Then perhaps we shall hate them with a hatred which they will have no reason to resent. And from such a hatred it will be only a short journey to a genuine rapprochement.

The problem which must be solved, if the future of the world is to be less terrible than its present, is the problem of preventing nations from getting into the moods of England and Germany at the outbreak of the war. These two nations, as they were at that moment, might be taken as almost mythical representatives of pride and envy—of cold pride and hot envy. Germany declaimed passionately, 'You, England, swollen and decrepit, overshadow my whole growth—your rotting branches keep the sun from shining upon me and the rain from nourishing me. Your spreading foliage must be lopped, your symmetrical beauty must be destroyed, that I too may have freedom to grow, that my young vigor may no longer be impeded by your decaying mass.' England, bored and aloof, unconscious of the claims of outside forces, attempted absent-mindedly to sweep away the upstart disturber of meditation; but the upstart was not swept away, and remains so far with every prospect of making good his claim. The claim and the resistance to it are alike folly. Germany had no good ground for envy; we had no good ground for resisting whatever in Germany's demands was compatible with our continued existence. Is there any method of averting such reciprocal folly in the future?


I think that if either the English or the Germans were capable of thinking in terms of individual welfare rather than national pride, they would have seen that, at every moment during the war, the wisest course would have been to conclude peace at once, on the best terms that could have been obtained. This course, I am convinced, would have been the wisest for each separate nation as well as for civilization in general. The utmost evil that the enemy could inflict through an unfavorable peace would be a trifle compared to the evil which all the nations inflict upon themselves by continuing to fight. What prevents the acknowledgment of this obvious fact is pride, the pride which cannot bear to admit defeat.

The mood in which Germany embarked upon the war was abominable, but it was a mood fostered by the habitual mood of England. If we had realized the futility of empire, if we had shown a willingness to yield colonies to Germany without waiting for the threat of force, we might have been in a position to persuade the Germans that their ambitions were foolish, and that the respect of the world was not to be won on imperialist lines. But by our resistance we showed that we shared their standards. We, being in possession, became enamored of the status quo. The Germans were willing to make war to upset the status quo; we were willing to make war to prevent its being upset in Germany's favor. So convinced were we of the sacredness of the status quo that we never realized how advantageous it was to us, or how, by insisting upon it, we shared the responsibility for the war. In a world where nations grow and decay, where forces change and populations become cramped, it is not possible or desirable to maintain the status quo forever. If peace is to be preserved, nations must learn to accept unfavorable alterations of the map without feeling that they must first be defeated in war, or that in yielding they incur a humiliation.

It is the insistence of legalists and friends of peace upon the maintenance of the status quo that has driven Germany into militarism. Germany had as good a right to an empire as any other great power, but could only acquire an empire through war. Love of peace has been too much associated with a static conception of international relations. In economic disputes, we all know that whatever is vigorous in the wage-earning classes is opposed to 'industrial peace,' because the existing distribution of wealth is felt to be unfair. Those who enjoy a privileged position endeavor to bolster up their claims by appealing to the desire for peace, and decrying those who promote strife between the classes. It never occurs to them that, by opposing changes without considering whether or not they are just, the capitalists share the responsibility for the class-war. And in exactly the same way, England shares the responsibility for Germany's war. If actual war is ever to cease, there will have to be political methods of achieving the results which now can be achieved only by successful fighting, and nations will have to admit voluntarily adverse claims which appear just in the judgment of neutrals.

It is only by some such admission, embodying itself in a parliament of the nations with full power to alter the distribution of territory, that militarism can be permanently overcome. It may be that the present war will bring, in the western nations, a change of mood and outlook sufficient to make such an institution possible. It may be that more wars and more destruction will be necessary before the majority of civilized men rebel against the brutality and futile destruction of modern war. But unless our standards of civilization and our powers of constructive thought are to be permanently lowered, I cannot doubt that, sooner or later, reason will conquer the blind impulses which now lead nations into war. And if a majority of the great powers had a firm determination that peace should be preserved, there would be no difficulty in devising diplomatic machinery for the settlement of disputes, and educational systems which would implant in the minds of the young an invincible and ineradicable horror of the futile slaughter which the defenseless children are now taught to admire.

But besides the conscious and deliberate forces leading to war, there are the inarticulate feelings of common men, which, in most civilized countries, are always ready to burst into war-fever at the bidding of statesmen. If peace is to be secured, the readiness to catch war-fever must be somehow diminished. Whoever wishes to succeed in this must first understand what war-fever is and why it arises.

The men who have an important influence in the world, whether for good or evil, are dominated as a rule by a threefold desire: they desire, first, an activity which calls fully into play the faculties in which they feel that they excel; secondly, the sense of successfully overcoming resistance; thirdly, the respect of others on account of their success. The same desires, usually in a less marked degree, exist in men who have no exceptional talents. But such men cannot achieve anything very difficult by their individual efforts; to them, as units, it is impossible to acquire the sense of greatness or the triumph of strong resistance overcome. Their separate lives are unadventurous and dull. In the morning they go to the office or the plough; in the evening they return, tired and silent, to the sober monotony of wife and children. Believing that security is the supreme good, they have insured against sickness and death, and have found an employment where they have little fear of dismissal and no hope of any great rise. But security, once achieved, brings a nemesis of ennui. Adventure, imagination, risk, also have their claims; but how can these claims be satisfied by the ordinary wage-earner? Even if it were possible to satisfy them, the claims of wife and children have priority and must not be neglected.

To this victim of order and good organization, the realization comes, in some moment of sudden crisis, that he belongs to a nation, that his nation may take risks, may engage in difficult enterprises, enjoy the hot passion of doubtful combat, stimulate adventure and imagination by military expeditions to Mount Sinai and the Garden of Eden. What his nation does, in some sense he does; what his nation suffers, he suffers. The long years of private caution are avenged by a wild plunge into public madness. All the horrid duties of thrift and order and care, which he has learned to fulfill in private, are thought not to apply to public affairs: it is patriotic and noble to be reckless for the nation, though it would be wicked to be reckless for one's self. The old primitive passions, which civilization has denied, surge up, all the stronger for repression. In a moment, imagination and instinct travel back through the centuries, and the wild man of the woods emerges from the mental prison in which he has been confined. This is the deeper part of the psychology of the war-fever.

But besides the irrational and instinctive element in the war-fever, there is always also, if only as a liberator of primitive impulse, a certain amount of quasi-rational calculation and what is euphemistically called 'thought.' The war-fever very seldom seizes a nation unless it believes that it will be victorious. Undoubtedly, under the influence of excitement, men overestimate their chances of success; but there is some proportion between what is hoped and what a rational man would expect. Holland, though quite as humane as England, had no impulse to go to war on behalf of Belgium, because the likelihood of disaster was so obviously overwhelming. The London populace, if they had known how the war was going to develop, would not have rejoiced as they did on that August Bank Holiday long ago. A nation which has had a recent experience of war, and has come to know that a war is almost always more painful than it is expected to be at the outset, becomes much less liable to war-fever, until a new generation grows up. The element of rationality in war-fever is recognized by governments and journalists who desire war, as may be seen by their invariably minimizing the perils of a war which they wish to provoke. At the beginning of the South African War, Sir William Butler was dismissed for suggesting (so I understand) that 60,000 men and three months might not suffice to subdue the Boer republics. And when the war proved long and difficult, the nation turned against those who had made it. We may assume, I think, without attributing too great a share to reason in human affairs, that a nation would not suffer from war-fever in a case where every sane man could see that defeat was very probable. The importance of this lies in the fact that it would make aggressive war very unlikely if its chances of success were very small.

The economic and political forces which make for war could be easily curbed, if the will to peace existed strongly in all civilized nations. But so long as the populations are liable to war-fever, all work for peace must be precarious; and if war-fever could not be aroused, political and economic forces would be powerless to produce any long or very destructive war. The fundamental problem for the pacifist is to prevent the impulse toward war which seizes whole communities from time to time. And this can be done only by far-reaching changes in education, in the economic structure of society, and in the moral code by which public opinion controls the lives of men and women.


A great many of the impulses which lead nations to go to war are in themselves essential to any vigorous or progressive life. Without imagination and love of adventure, a society soon becomes stagnant and begins to decay. Conflict, provided it is not destructive and brutal, is necessary in order to stimulate men's activities, and to secure the victory of what is living over what is dead or merely traditional. The wish for the triumph of one's cause, the sense of solidarity with large bodies of men, are not things which a wise man will wish to destroy. It is only the outcome in death and destruction and hatred that is evil. The problem is, to keep these impulses, without making war the outlet for them.

All Utopias that have hitherto been constructed are intolerably dull. Any man with any force in him would rather live in this world, with all its ghastly horrors, than in Plato's Republic or among Swift's Houyhnhnms. The men who make Utopias proceed upon a radically false assumption as to what constitutes a good life. They conceive that it is possible to imagine a certain state of society and a certain way of life which should be once for all recognized as good, and should then continue forever and ever. They do not realize that much the greater part of a man's happiness depends upon activity, and only a very small remnant consists in passive enjoyment. Even the pleasures which do consist in enjoyment are satisfactory, to most men, only when they come in the intervals of activity. Social reformers, like inventors of Utopias, are apt to forget this very obvious fact of human nature.

It would, of course, be easy to produce peace if there were no vigor in the world. Pacifism, if it is to be both victorious and beneficent, must find an outlet, compatible with humane feeling, for the vigor which now leads nations into war and destruction. This problem was considered by William James, in an admirable address on 'The Moral Equivalent of War,' delivered to a congress of pacifists during the Spanish-American War of 1898. His statement of the problem could not be bettered; and, so far as I know, he is the only writer who has faced the problem adequately. But his solution is not adequate; perhaps no adequate solution is possible. The problem, however, is one of degree: every additional peaceful outlet for men's energies diminishes the force which urges nations toward war, and makes war less frequent and less fierce. And as a question of degree, it is capable of more or less partial solutions.

Every vigorous man needs some kind of contest, some sense of resistance overcome, in order to feel that he is exercising his faculties. Under the influence of economics, a theory has grown up that what men desire is wealth; this theory has tended to verify itself, because people's actions are more often determined by what they think they desire than by what they really desire. For this reason, public opinion has a great influence in directing the activities of vigorous men. In America, a millionaire is more respected than a great artist; this leads men who might have become either the one or the other to choose to become millionaires. In Renaissance Italy, great artists were more respected than millionaires, and the result was the opposite of what it is in America.

Some pacifists and all militarists deprecate social and political conflicts. In this the militarists are in the right, from their point of view; but the pacifists seem to me mistaken. Conflicts of party politics, conflicts between capital and labor, and generally all those conflicts of principle which do not involve war, serve many useful purposes, and do very little harm. They increase men's interest in public affairs, they afford a comparatively innocent outlet for the love of contest, and they help to alter laws and institutions when changing conditions or greater knowledge create the wish for an alteration. Everything that intensifies political life tends to bring a peaceful interest of the same kind as the interest which leads to desire for war. And in a democratic community, political questions give to every voter a sense of initiative and power and responsibility which relieves his life of something of its narrow unadventurousness. The object of the pacifist should be to give men more and more political control over their own lives, and in particular to introduce democracy into the management of industry, as the syndicalists advise.

The problem for the reflective pacifist is twofold: how to keep his own country at peace, and how to preserve the peace of the world. It is impossible that the peace of the world should be preserved while nations are liable to the mood in which Germany entered upon the war—unless, indeed, one nation were so obviously stronger than all others combined as to make war unnecessary for that one and hopeless for all the others. As this war has dragged on its weary length, many people must have asked themselves whether national independence is worth the price that has to be paid for it.

There is a degree of interference with liberty which is fatal to many forms of national life—for example, Italy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was crushed by the supremacy of Spain and Austria. If the Germans were actually to annex French provinces, as they did in 1871, they would probably inflict a serious injury upon those provinces, and make them less fruitful for civilization in general. For such reasons, national liberty is a matter of real importance, and a Europe actually governed by Germany would probably be very dead and unproductive. But if 'hegemony' merely means increased weight in diplomatic questions, more coaling stations and possessions in Africa, more power of securing advantageous commercial treaties, then it can hardly be supposed that it would do any vital damage to other nations; certainly it would not do so much damage as the present war is doing. I cannot doubt that, before the war, a hegemony of this kind would have abundantly satisfied the Germans. But the effect of the war, so far, has been to increase immeasurably all he dangers which it was intended to avert. We have now only the choice between the certain exhaustion of Europe in fighting Germany and possible damage to the national life of France by German tyranny. Stated in terms of civilization and human welfare, not in terms of national prestige, that is now in fact the issue.


Assuming that war is not ended by one state conquering all the others, the only way in which it can be permanently ended is by a world-federation. So long as there are many sovereign states, each with its own army, there can be no security that there will not be war. There will have to be in the world only one army and one navy before there will be any reason to think that wars have ceased. This means that, so far as the military functions of the state are concerned, there will be only one state, which will be world-wide.

The civil functions of the state—legislative, administrative, and judicial—have no very essential connection with the military functions; and there is no reason why both kinds of functions should normally be exercised by the same state. There is, in fact, every reason why the civil state and the military state should be different. The greater modern states are already too large for most civil purposes, but for military purposes they are not large enough, since they are not worldwide. This difference as to the desirable area for the two kinds of state introduces a certain perplexity and hesitation when it is not realized that the two functions have little necessary connection: one set of considerations points toward small states, the other toward continually larger states. Of course, if there were an international army and navy, there would have to be some international authority to set them in motion. But this authority need never concern itself with any of the internal concerns of national states: it need only declare the rules which should regulate their relations, and pronounce judicially when those rules have been so infringed as to call for the intervention of the international force. How easily the limits of the international authority could be fixed, may be seen by many actual examples.

The civil and the military state are often different, in practice, for many purposes. The states of America are sovereign except in certain respects, but they do not have separate armies and navies. The South American republics are sovereign for all purposes except their relations with Europe, in regard to which they are subject to the United States: in dealings with Europe, the army and navy of the United States are their army and navy. The self-governing dominions of Great Britain depend for their defense, not upon their own forces, but upon our navy. Most governments, nowadays, do not aim at formal annexation of a country which they wish to incorporate, but only at a protectorate; that is, civil autonomy subject to military control. Such autonomy is, of course, in practice incomplete, because it does not enable the 'protected' country to adopt measures which are vetoed by the power in military control. But it may be very nearly complete, as in the case of our self-governing dominions. At the other extreme, it may become a mere farce, as in Egypt. In the case of an alliance, there is complete autonomy of the separate allied countries, together with what is practically a combination of their military forces into one single force.

The great advantage of a large military state is that it increases the area over which internal war is not possible except by revolution. If England and Canada have a disagreement, it is taken as a matter of course that a settlement will be arrived at by discussion, not by force. Still more is this the case if Manchester and Liverpool have a quarrel, in spite of the fact that each is autonomous for many local purposes. No one would have thought it reasonable that Liverpool should go to war to prevent the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal, although almost any two great powers would have gone to war over an issue of the same relative importance. England and Russia would probably have gone to war over Persia if they had not been allies; as it is, they arrived by diplomacy at much the same iniquitous result as they would otherwise have reached by fighting. Australia and Japan would probably fight if they were both completely independent; but both depend for their liberties upon the British navy, and therefore they have to adjust their differences peaceably.

The chief disadvantage of a large military state is that, when external war occurs, the area affected is greater. The Quadruple Entente forms, for the present, one military state; the result is that, because of a dispute between Austria and Serbia, Belgium is devastated and Australians are killed in the Dardanelles. Another disadvantage is that it facilitates oppression. A large military state is practically omnipotent against a small state, and can impose its will, as England and Russia did in Persia. It is impossible to make sure of avoiding oppression by any purely mechanical guarantees; only a liberal and humane spirit can afford a real protection. It has been perfectly possible for England to oppress Ireland in the past, in spite of democracy and the presence of Irish members at Westminster. Nor has the presence of Poles in the Reichstag prevented the oppression of Prussian Poland. But democracy and representative government undoubtedly make oppression less probable: they afford a means by which those who might be oppressed can make their wishes and grievances publicly known; they make it certain that only a minority can be oppressed, and then only if the majority are nearly unanimous in wishing to oppress them. Also the practice of oppression affords much more pleasure to the governing classes, who actually carry it out, than to the mass of the population. For this reason, the mass of the population, where it has power, is likely to be less tyrannical than an oligarchy or a bureaucracy.

In order to prevent war and at the same time to preserve liberty, it is necessary that there should be only one military state in the world, but that it should act, in different countries, according to the wishes of the civil government of those countries, except when disputes between different countries are involved, which should be decided by some central authority. This is what would naturally result from a federation of the world, if such a thing ever came about. But the prospect is remote, and it is worth while to consider why it is so remote.

The unity of a nation is produced by similar habits, instinctive liking, a common history, and a common pride. The unity of a nation is partly due to intrinsic affinities between its citizens, but partly also to the pressure and contrast of the outside world: if a nation were isolated, it would not have the same cohesion or the same fervor of patriotism. When we come to alliances of nations, it is seldom anything except outside pressure that produces solidarity. England and America, to some extent, are drawn together by the same causes which often make national unity: a (more or less) common language, similar political institutions, similar aims in international politics. But England, France, and Russia were drawn together solely by fear of Germany: if Germany had been annihilated by a natural cataclysm, they would at once have begun to hate one another, as they did before Germany was strong. For this reason, the possibility of cooperation in the present alliance against Germany affords no ground whatever for hoping that all the nations of the world might cooperate permanently in a peaceful alliance. The present motive for cohesion, namely, a common fear, would be gone, and could not be replaced by any other motive unless men's thoughts and purposes were very different from what they are now.

The ultimate fact from which war results is not economic or political, and does not rest upon any mechanical difficulty of inventing means for the peaceful settlement of international disputes. The ultimate fact from which war results is the fact that a large proportion of mankind have an impulse to conflict rather than harmony, and can be brought to cooperate with others only in resisting or attacking a common enemy. This is the case in private life as well as in the relations of states. Most men, when they feel themselves sufficiently strong, set to work to make themselves feared rather than loved: the wish to obtain the good opinion of others is confined, as a rule, to those who have not yet acquired secure power. The impulse to quarreling and self-assertion, the pleasure of getting one's own way in spite of opposition, is native to most men. It is this impulse, rather than any motive of calculated self-interest, which produces war, and makes the difficulty of bringing about a world-state. And this impulse is not confined to one nation: it exists, in varying degrees, in all the vigorous nations of the world.

But although this impulse is strong, there is no reason why it should be allowed to lead to war. It was exactly the same impulse which led to dueling; yet now civilized men conduct their private quarrels without bloodshed. If political contest within a world-state were substituted for war, men's imaginations would soon accustom themselves to the new situation, as they have accustomed themselves to absence of dueling. Through the influence of institutions and habits, without any fundamental change in human nature, men would learn to look back upon war as we look upon the burning of heretics or upon human sacrifice to heathen deities. If I were to buy a revolver costing several pounds, in order to shoot my friend with a view to stealing sixpence out of his pocket, I should be thought neither very wise nor very virtuous. But if I can get sixty-five million accomplices to join me in this criminal absurdity, I become one of a great and glorious nation, nobly sacrificing the cost of my revolver, perhaps even my life, in order to secure the sixpence for the honor of my country. Historians, who are almost invariably sycophants, will praise me and my accomplices if we are successful, and say that we are worthy successors of the heroes who overthrew the might of Rome. But if my opponents are victorious, if their sixpences are defended at the cost of many pounds each and the lives of a large proportion of the population, then historians will call me a brigand (as I am), and praise the spirit and self-sacrifice of those who have resisted me.

War is surrounded with glamour by tradition, by Homer and the Old Testament, by early education, by elaborate myths as to the importance of the issues involved, by the heroism and self-sacrifice which these myths call out. Jephthah sacrificing his daughter is a heroic figure, but he would have let her live if he had not been deceived by a myth. Mothers sending their sons to the battlefield are heroic, but they are as much deceived as Jephthah. And, in both cases alike, the heroism which issues in cruelty would be dispelled if there were not some strain of barbarism in the imaginative outlook from which myths spring. A God who can be pleased by the sacrifice of an innocent girl could be worshiped only by men to whom the thought of receiving such a sacrifice is not wholly abhorrent. A nation whose welfare can be secured only by suffering and inflicting hundreds of thousands of equally horrible sacrifices is a nation which has no very spiritual conception of its own welfare. It would be better a hundredfold to forego material comfort, power, pomp, and outward glory, than to kill and be killed, to hate and be hated, to throw away in a mad moment of fury the bright heritage of the ages.

Men have learned gradually to free their God from the savagery with which the primitive Israelites endowed him: few now believe that it is his pleasure to torture most of the human race in an eternity of hell-fire. But they have not yet learned to free their national ideals from the ancient taint. Devotion to the nation is perhaps the deepest and most widespread religion of the present age. Like the ancient religions, it demands its persecutions, its holocausts, its lurid, heroic cruelties; like them, it is noble, primitive, brutal, and mad. Now, as in the past, religion, lagging behind private consciences through the weight of tradition, steels the hearts of men against mercy and their minds against truth. If the world is to be saved, men must learn to be noble without being cruel, to be filled with faith and yet open to truth, to be inspired by great purposes without hating those who try to thwart them. But before this can happen, men must first face the terrible realization that the gods before whom they have bowed down were false gods, and the sacrifices they have made were vain.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury