Benefits of the War
With All Its Horrors, The Results Of The Great Struggle
May Prove To Be Worth The Cost

By Brander Matthews

[Munsey's Magazine, February 1918]

There is a French proverb which declares that every man has the defects of his qualities and the qualities of his defects. That is to say, if he has a gentle spirit, he is quite possibly of a yielding nature; and if he is reputed to be obstinate, he is not likely to be infirm of purpose.

A similar maxim might have been minted in regard to events. They are rarely either wholly good or wholly evil—or, at least, if they are good, they may have remote and unexpected consequences which are not altogether satisfactory; and if they are evil, they may none the less bring about unforeseen results which ultimately prove to be advantageous.

In the present world war it is difficult for us to discover anything but hideous horrors, rapine and ruin, mutilation, death, and that moral suffering which is even worse than death. Over against all the diabolical misdeeds which have brought about these malignant terrors is the sublime spectacle of human heroism, of duty done nobly and simply, of selfishness conquered, and of self-sacrifice made the law of life. It is an appalling price that humanity has had to pay for this encouraging disclosure of its finer and sterner possibilities; and yet the disclosure itself is beyond price. Perhaps in the future it may prove to be worth all it has cost.

This uncovering of the soul of man in all its elevation and all its power is the first and the most obvious of the beneficent by-products of the world war. It is unquestionably the most important, but it does not stand alone. It is only the first and foremost of a host of things brought to light as direct or indirect consequences of this protracted battle between democratic civilization and autocratic barbarism.

Some of these things are obvious enough; and some may be obscure, needing to be elucidated in detail. Some of them are physical, some are moral, and some are mental. Some of them soar aloft in the world of ideas and of ideals, and some of them linger below on the level of the merely material and economic necessities. And they are so many and so manifold and so diverse that they cannot be catalogued, even if they could all be perceived at the present time.

What it is possible to do now is to single out a few of the beneficent results of this war which have most significance for us here in America, separated by a thousand leagues of water from the devastation and the desolation of the actual battle-field.


First of all, this sudden outbreak of the conflict between the two Kaisers and the self-governing peoples allied against Kaiserism, the continuation of the combat year after year with the resulting adherence of nation after nation to the one side or to the other, until it is now far easier to count the few peoples who insist upon remaining neutral than it is to call the roll of those who have joined themselves together resolved to make an end of the menace of militarism—all this has made plain as never before the extraordinary interdependence of every nation upon almost every other nation.

The races which are in the possession of fertile soil for agriculture need the foreign markets where their corn can be sold. The nations best equipped for manufacturing need peaceful freedom to bring in this corn as food for their toilers. They also need it to import the raw materials without which their factories must stand idle.

Switzerland, for example, is at peace with the whole world, and is resolute to defend its neutrality to the end; but Switzerland is entirely surrounded by nations at war, and therefore the Swiss find it difficult to get the food and the fuel they require, and almost impossible to export the few wares that they are still able to manufacture. Through no fault of its own, Switzerland has been made to suffer almost as severely as if it had been one of the sharers in the fighting.

Germany, until it chose to begin its struggle for supremacy, was glad to supply other nations with potash, which is an essential in modern scientific agriculture. On the other hand, Germany was glad to import the nitrates which are also an essential in modern scientific agriculture, and which were imperatively demanded by her relatively infertile soil. Her defeat may be brought about finally, not by the destruction or surrender of her armies, but by her failure to feed her millions of soldiers because of her inability to get the nitrates without which the intensive culture of her fields is impossible. Because her merchant marine has been swept from the seas, Germany may be deprived, not only of the tea and the coffee her ships used to bring from distant lands, but even of the potatoes she was accustomed to raise abundantly on her own farms.


Long before we entered into the war ourselves, we were made to appreciate how dependent we were upon other nations, in spite of our immensely varied territory, our diversified population, and our inventive ingenuity. We could import nitrates, but we were deprived of potash. We had been wont to vaunt ourselves as a self-sufficing nation, able to produce within our own borders all that we might need; but within a month after the outbreak of hostilities we discovered the disadvantages of having allowed Germany to manufacture many of our chemicals for us—chemicals needed for medicinal purposes, for dyeing, and for the making of explosives. It was well that we should be awakened by this unwelcome disclosure, for it has made us eager to establish industries which will render us as independent of the foreigner as we had fondly believed ourselves to be.

Nor are these the only factories which the war has forced us to erect. We have had to build countless plants for the making of munitions and explosives, small arms and artillery. The European nations with whom we are now in alliance were better prepared for war than we should have been if we had been brought into the conflict at the beginning; but no one had foreseen the decisive importance of an indisputable superiority of shells and shrapnel, bombs and hand-grenades. As the Allies could not manufacture these things for themselves fast enough, they came to us; and the expansion of our munition-making industry was so rapid and so elaborate that when at last the United States did join the forces fighting to make the world safe for democracy, we were in a position to equip our new armies speedily and satisfactorily.

Not only have we now adequate means for preparing ourselves for defense, but we have seen the danger of not having at all times the factories, the machines, and the organizations needed for self-protection. We are not likely hereafter to leave ourselves defenseless against the treacherous attack of an unscrupulous foe.

We must hereafter keep ourselves fit for service, since we now know that we can find no security in the treaties which seemed to protect the peace of the world. If the foe is treacherous and unscrupulous, he will not be restrained by "scraps of paper." He will not be governed by a decent respect for the opinions of mankind. He will break every convention of civilization which may fetter his purpose.

Indeed, the conduct of Prussia has revealed to us that the veneer of civilization is thinner and more brittle than we had believed. We have seen it crack, and we have beheld beneath it the inhuman characteristics which we hoped the centuries had bred out of civilized man—the many long centuries which stretch back to our probably arboreal ancestor, akin to the gorilla in the savagery of his lusts.


It may be only a material benefit that we are now better prepared to defend ourselves than ever before; but it is a moral benefit that we have had our eyes opened to the necessity of self-defense against a nation which boasts of its civilization while it is reverting to practises abhorrent even to barbarians.

It is a moral benefit, also, that we have been compelled to consider anew the future relation of the United States to the rest of the world. Our superb isolation, possible in the past, will be impossible in the future. Our interests are bound up with those of the rest of the world. We cannot hereafter shrink away from the discussion of international questions, or shirk out of the duties imposed on us by our position in the brotherhood of nations.

We may keep out of the entangling alliances that Washington warned us against, but we cannot get out of bearing our share of the burden. We shall be forced to hold fellowship with the other peoples to take part in their deliberations, and to aid in the execution of their and our decisions.

And the war has revealed these other peoples to us in new aspects, compelling us to reconsider our former judgments. What we now believe the Germans to be, and the French, and the British, is not at all what we believed them to be five years ago. The picture of a typical German or Frenchman or Britisher which we had in our mind has been modified in many ways.

The portraits we had then were often hazy in outline, because of our ignorance and our want of interest. The portraits we have now are sharply defined as we have had our attention focused. Our knowledge has been multiplied and corrected as our interest has been quickened.

It is instructive for us to compare our opinion of the Germans as it is now and as it was before they started the war. Most of us held the Germans to be a gentle folk, sentimental, slow-moving, hard-working, beer-drinking, lacking in initiative. We acknowledged willingly their leadership in the musical arts, but we had not had impressed upon us the names of German painters, German sculptors, or German architects. We knew that a few of the more significant discoveries in science were to be credited to them, and also a few, but only a few, of the numberless inventions of the past century. Their contribution to scientific advance seemed to us the result of plodding industry rather than of brilliant inspiration.

We were without intimate acquaintance with later German literature, perhaps because the writers who were popular in Germany between Heine and Hauptmann did not exert the large appeal which would carry their works beyond the borders of their own language. We had not had occasion to familiarize ourselves with the books in which the doctrine of Pan-Germanism was arrogantly proclaimed; and we were far from suspecting that generation after generation the Germans had been taught, in school and in university, to believe that they were a race apart, so superior to all others that it was not only their right but their duty to impose their ideas, their ideals, and their organization upon all other races.

Then suddenly their rulers dropped the mask, and the scales fell from our eyes. The nation which had invited our admiration for its gemütlichkeit instantly aroused our abhorrence for its schrecklichkeit. Its leaders shocked the moral sense of the world both by words and by deeds; and they were innocently surprised that what seemed natural and necessary to them should arouse indignant protest and hostile contempt. Strange is it that a nation with a superabundance of professors of psychology should suffer from a penury of knowledge of human nature! Strange is it, also, that the leaders of this nation are intellectual without being intelligent!


Perhaps we knew a little more about France than about Germany, and yet we were as much in error as regards the one country as the other. We had more translations from the French than from the German; and as most of these were novels of Parisian life, fast and fashionable, we derived from them the false impression that the French were frivolous and immoral. We failed to understand their frankness in regard to their own defects, their detestation of hypocrisy, their more natural simplicity. In our comic papers and in our comic plays a Frenchman was likely to be a figure of fun; and there were not wanting Americans who seemed to suppose that France was inhabited mainly by milliners and by cooks.

Nor did we get any more accurate vision of French character from our newspaper discussion of French politics than from our own reading of French novels. We recalled the Panama swindle, the Dreyfus affair, and the Caillaux scandal; and not a few Americans inclined to the opinion that the virtue had gone out of the French, and that France was steadily deteriorating from lack of courage and of strength.

Then millions of armed invaders swept almost up to the gates of Paris, and the French exhibited at once the courage and the strength we had been ready to deny them. In that hour of imminent peril the immortal soul of France stood naked before the world in all its sublime nobility. Outnumbered and almost overwhelmed, the French displayed their traditional gallantry, and also a serious steadfastness, a grim determination, which enabled them to retreat day after day and yet to be ready to advance at once and to attack with unbroken energy when the order came to face the ether way.

And the temper of the French was as significant as their sturdiness. They did not whine and they did not boast. The braggart was infrequent as the coward. They did not plead for applause, and they asked for no sympathy. They had no time to think of the opinion of other countries; they had to defend their own.

Of course, they were glad to get help when it came. They welcomed the British troops as they have since welcomed the American advance-guard; but in the defense of their own soil they were ready to bear the brunt of the battle, as the fighting about Verdun testified.


The British we ought to have known better than we knew either the Germans or the French, if only because of our possession of the same language and of our inheritance of the same literature. They were our kin across the sea—a little more than kin and often less than kind. They had been our foes in two wars, as every American schoolboy knew; and in the second of these wars they had burned the Capitol at Washington. They had often annoyed us by the exhibition of insular arrogance; and only of late had they shown any desire or any ability to understand us. Our attitude to them was not hostile, of course; it was not even unfriendly; but it could hardly be called friendly.

We could not but mark symptoms of relaxing energy in the British Isles. In almost every department of life we beheld what seemed to be a lazy unwillingness to make the resolute effort required if Great Britain was to keep abreast of the march of events. We wondered if the complacency born of former supremacy in discovery and invention, in manufacture, commerce, and finance, might not be bringing about an enfeebling of the fiber of the British. Instead of girding up their loins and setting their house in order, they were willing to waste their time in the bitter and futile debates of petty partizan politics.

The invasion of Belgium awakened the British from their lethargy; and they made it obvious at once that they were neither weak nor lazy when they had to fight for their lives. At the call of the bugle the national will stiffened, and every one of the doubtful symptoms of indifference and incapacity disappeared. It seemed as if John Bull had sweated off his fat and stood erect, lean and sinewy, as young as if he was his own grandson. The navy was ready; and army after army was made ready. Every activity of the nation was reorganized, speeded up, and coordinated harmoniously. Loan after loan was oversubscribed, and crushing taxation was borne without a murmur.

More significant than any other sign of strength was the fact that Great Britain made no demand upon her colonies—made, indeed, no appeal to them for help in the hour of need. More significant still is the fact that the oversea dominions sprang to arms at once and voluntarily did their utmost to succor and to support the mother country. Everybody knew that the bond which tied these distant dominions to the island kingdom was loose; but nobody knew that it was unbreakable. The British Empire suddenly became a fact and not a figure of speech.

Its ties have now been sealed by blood. It has to-day a unity and a solidarity more cohesive than any had dared to hope. And this is because it is not truly an empire, ruled by an emperor wielding undisputed authority; it is a commonwealth of free and self-governing states, with a central administration which exercises no coercion and seeks no service upon compulsion. It came into being haphazard, as the inevitable result of a series of happy accidents; and in the future it will have a consciousness of itself, due to the proud memory of sacrifices in common.


Perhaps no one of the by-products of the war is more immediately important than the regeneration and reinvigoration of the United Kingdom, and than the unification of the scattered territories which constitute the British commonwealth. Yet it may prove that there is another consequence of our taking up arms to fight in alliance with France and England and Italy which will bulk still more largely in history.

We Americans had the tradition of friendship with the French, but we had a tradition of enmity with the English. The battles of the Revolution and of the War of 1812 occupy much space in our school histories. We remembered only too well the seven years' struggle with the British; but we did not remind ourselves that the King of England we were really fighting was a German who could scarcely speak English, and who was able to hire Hessians from his fellow German rulers. We did not give weight enough to what we knew—that the best men in England were on our side against their German king. We never allowed ourselves to forget that we had had two wars with Great Britain, and that we had been on the brink of a third war more than once in the dark years between Bull Run and Gettysburg.

But this third war had been averted, and we had lived in peace with England for more than a hundred years, with an unguarded frontier of three thousand miles between us and British territory. The English king is not now a German; and the institutions of England have been liberalized decade after decade until now the control of the people over the government in Great Britain is as indisputable as it is in the United States. The inhabitants of the American Union and of the British Empire possess the same language, the same literature, the same law. They are possessed by the same ideals of conduct. They are inspired by the same hopes for the future. As Mr. Balfour said last year in response to an address by the American ambassador at a meeting in London on the Fourth of July:

These hopes and these ideals we have not learned from each other. We have them in common from a common history and from a common ancestry. We have not learned freedom from you nor you from us. We both sprang from the same root, and we both cultivate the same great aims…. Will not our descendants, when they come to look back upon this unique episode in the history of the world, say that among the incalculable circumstances which it produced, the most beneficent and the most permanent is that we are brought together and united for one common purpose in one common understanding—the two great branches of the English-speaking race?


Just as the war forced us in America to revise our opinions of the British, the French, and the Germans, so our own entry into it revealed us to ourselves. It proved that we had not degenerated since 1776 and 1861. It showed that the stock was as sturdy as ever, not lacking "iron in the blood to edge resolve with." It was at once made manifest that superabundant prosperity and long-protracted peace had not combined to breed sloth and corruption.

Maeterlinck had expressed a belief, not uncommon before this conflict began, that "courage, moral and physical endurance, if not forgetfulness of self, renunciation of all comfort, the faculty of sacrifice, the power to face death, belong exclusively to the most primitive, the least happy, the least intelligent of peoples, those who are least capable of reasoning, of taking danger into account." On the very first day of the war his fellow Belgians proved the falsity of Maeterlinck's opinion; and it was promptly contradicted by the conduct of the French and of the British.

The men capable of reasoning and of taking danger into account were found to have a higher courage than that which we find in the most primitive and the least intelligent of peoples. They have physical courage stiffened by moral courage. Their imagination may give them a keener sense of the perils which lie before them, but it does not inhibit them from fronting these perils at the call of duty. War does not create the manly and martial virtues; it merely reveals them and affords immediate occasion for their exercise.

We are naturally inclined to credit the men of 1776 and the men of 1861 with triumphant heroism, but they were not all of heroic temper. The Revolution was won by the Continentals; and on more than one occasion the militia behaved as badly as they did in the War of 1812. In the Civil War, too, there were thousands of coffee-coolers and bounty-jumpers.

The spirit of the American people is at least as good to-day as it was in those distant yesterdays; and in one respect it seems to be better—it is less emotional and more sternly moral. Our men are not volunteering with hurrahing hysteria. They have no glamour of glory, no deceptive vision of themselves on horseback waving swords and leading headlong charges. After three years of war it is stripped and bare of all its romantic allurements. It is recognized to be what the British soldier called it—"damn dull, damn dirty, and damn dangerous." Even the hot and adventurous ardor of youth cannot blind men to its perils.

It is with eyes open to what is before them that more than a million men have entered our military services since the United States broke with Germany. Most of them were moved not by the zest of adventure, not by the ardor of youth, not by the stimulus of enthusiasm, but by a resolute sense of duty. They knew that a hard job had to be done, and they felt that it was up to them to see it through. There was no sudden heat in their action, but rather a cold determination, characteristic of men capable of reasoning and of taking danger into account. And perhaps in this respect the temper of the men of 1917 is even finer than the spirit of the men of 1861, who could not know so well what was before them.


Even if this may seem a little fanciful, there is no doubt as to the superiority of 1917 over 1861 in another field—in the making of the whole nation ready for war, in the conserving of its supplies, in the utilization of its energies, and in the coordination of its endeavors.

Never before in the history of the United States has there been a volunteering of the captains of industry, of the men who make things and who do things, of "big business" on the one side and of the labor-unions on the other. Never before have the inventors been mobilized, as they have been in the Naval Consulting Board, on which they serve without pay and meet all their own expenses. Never before has there ever come into existence a Council of National Defense, made up of men of the highest repute, ready to abandon their own private tasks to work for the public good, giving the nation the benefit of their skill, their experience, and their resourcefulness, without thought of any other reward than their satisfaction in their ability to be of use in the hour of need.

The Council of National Defense and its many subsidiaries, the Committee on Transportation—which has unified all the railroads—the Aircraft Production Board, the General Munitions Board, the General Medical Board, and the Commercial Economy Board, have repeatedly called for the aid of busy men; and these men have instantly abandoned their own business to give their whole time to the service of the nation. Competitors have been willing to cooperate for the public good.

No doubt there have been exceptions to this patriotic proffering of personal service; there have been not a few selfish and greedy profiteers; but when at last the war is at an end, and when the time comes for its myriad activities to be seen in perspective, its historians will need to devote an ample share of their records to the setting forth of the deeds of men who did not fight, but who made it possible for the exported army to do the fighting, and who organized the civilian population to avoid waste, to undergo discipline, and to bear its share of the burden. And it is one of the undeniable benefits of the war that we have had disclosed to us the presence in the body politic of citizens of this high type. We might well have hoped that such men existed, even if they were only a few; and now we know that they exist and that they are many.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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