The Bright Side of the War

By John Jay Chapman

[The Atlantic Monthly, January 1918]

The invasion of Belgium gave the world a shock like the slipping of the earth's crust. It was an earthquake which had been silently maturing for centuries; and when it came it shook the globe to the centre. Every one knew, when he felt that oscillation, that the future of humanity was at stake.

The declaration by the Germans that their will was law rang with a note of defiance toward Creation: it was an attack upon every man. Moreover, it was blasphemy. It rent the inner veil in the breast of many a man who knew little of Germany, and little of religion. Not the sage only, but the man in the street, had a vision: a spasm ran through him. He was frightened, to be sure; but he was more awed than terrified, for he felt within himself that the powers of the universe were rising to meet a crisis.

Those powers soon made themselves felt. The great crash of evil was followed by a counter-crash of sanctity and heroism—of faith in every form. The regeneration of the world did not wait for the end of the war, but began at once. France became, within a fortnight, the image of Joan of Arc. Unsuspected heroes and heroines flocked to the scene of conflict from distant lands. The sight of innocent suffering aroused in onlookers a pity which turned in many cases into sublime passion, and which in every case increased the intellect, generosity, courage, and unselfishness of those who felt it.

The world-war began thus suddenly with the satanic announcement that might makes right—as clear a statement of the proposition as ever was made—followed by a spontaneous roar of denial from peoples in whom the instinct of self-preservation rose to meet the challenge. It was the metaphysical element— the claim of the Germans—rather than their brute power, that awakened the antagonism of the world. Man's nature vibrated to its roots against their idea. That idea is Self-Will. The instinctive piety of man abhors it. The mythology of every race condemns it. Self-will is, and has always been, the quintessence of Evil. The struggle between good, and evil, which is generally invisible and can be apprehended only by instinct, has been dramatized by the war, and the whole world has become the stage of a miracle play. Humanity enacts its great allegory. The size and expense of it are appalling, but the substance of it is familiar, and the vividness of it casts into the shade, everything heretofore seen upon the earth.

One after another, nations are being stirred into the drama; and as they go, they pass by natural law into the two camps of good and evil. Nay, the passage is easy; for in every country the two camps exist already. The ignorant, the weak, the timid—all who are already being exploited by some form of autocracy, greed, or ambition—become natural vassals of the larger tyranny. Their leaders take service secretly or openly under the Kaiser's banner, and the subjects are delivered over to their new master without being aware of the transfer. They go by a chemical affinity to the aid of their cause.

But the dissolving process of nature does not stop here. The individuals of every nation are being analyzed, torn asunder, divided by the claims of new allegiances, drawn toward the light, pushed toward evil, purged or damned—and effectively replaced in their relation to the universal problem. If the power of Evil has never been so manifest in the world before as to-day, the power of God has never been so apparent. As for America, she has become a new land. The very first camp at Plattsburg was filled with the flames of religious fervor. It resembled an old-fashioned camp-meeting. But the camp at Plattsburg was merely a spark from the kind of fire that was kindling through the whole nation. Our press, our social intercourse, our letters, our standards of thought, speech, and conduct have been vitalized by the war.

Immediately upon the invasion of Belgium our newspapers showed a clearness and profundity of thought, and an eloquence which can hardly be matched in the history of popular literature. They became beacons to the people. The full publicity which they gave to all the German propaganda, knowing that the German arguments would defeat their own cause, showed an absolute faith in popular education—a faith which was justified. While the response of America seemed slow, it was steady, it was powerful. The leadership of the thoughtful classes was accepted. The solidarity of the country was revealed. Intellect triumphed. I doubt whether history can show any case of the triumph of intellect in a democracy as remarkable as was the acceptance of conscription by the American people when they saw that war was upon them. They reversed one of the most deeply grounded traditions of their race and history, as it were, in a night, because they saw that both justice and common sense required the change.

Since that time every day has shown fresh examples of the intelligence which enables our democracy to improvise whatever shifts the times demand. Experts appear among us who know exactly how many Liberty Bonds each town can absorb on a given date. The work is done by voluntary effort. If the Y.M.C.A. needs thirty-five million dollars, the hundred million Americans are canvassed in a week. Where is the bureau, the system, the red-tape of this gigantic collection? The machinery appears and disappears as required, and by a kind of magic.

These popular 'war drives' have done more toward unifying our people than mere speechmaking could ever have done. Their political value is even greater than their financial value, and they have been conducted with consummate ability by the men who happened to be in control of our industry. These big business men—men whose whole training and purpose had apparently been commercial—have become spiritual leaders, guides who are striving to save the people from their own weaknesses and to wean us from idolatry.

Old truths which had come to be regarded as the vague intimations of religion, or as the dreams of saints, are now received on all hands as common fact. The mystics have always told us that every private act carried its consequence to the life of all men and to the future of humanity. But whoever thought that a man would say to us, 'Drop that piece of white bread which you are raising to your lips! The fate of the world five hundred years hence is at stake'?

It is the great pain which we have passed through, and are still in the midst of, which has opened our eyes and sharpened our ears till we understand many things which were formerly thought to be paradox. Nothing else except pain ever revealed these things to mankind. The world's religious literature has been the fruit and outcome of suffering. Therefore it is that the meaning of psalm, poem, and tragedy blossoms in the breast of persons who are passing through any great anguish. Around such persons dark walls of despair arise and cut off the view of the natural world. And next, these walls themselves become transparent and a new landscape opens—not wholly new either, but freshly seen. Grief is a perspective glass; and any great national peril consolidates men's minds into heroic clairvoyance and makes an epoch of vision.

To-day we are living in a time not merely of national, but of world peril, and the visions of all history are drawn to a single focus. It is an era of prophecy and the prophets, and things are valued in terms of the spirit. Life and death are viewed as parts of a single scheme. The inordinate value set on life during periods of prosperity vanished when the hostilities began. The deepest moral mystery of the world, the mystery of sacrifice, was recognized, understood and acted upon by every one as a matter of course; and a wholesome glow came over humanity in consequence. The average soul was turned right-side-out for the first time in its experience; and all the forms of 'conversion' with which philosophy has wrestled for centuries were found beside the hearth and in the market-place. Indeed the sacred symbols and hieroglyphics of prophetic literature—the treasured wisdom of the past—are no longer cryptic. Their banners hang from every window. There is a rejuvenescence in the streets.

No one can tell how long the war may endure; sometimes it seems as if the struggle might burn on for a generation. Yet we know that the faith it has evoked will outlast it, and will shine in the life of the world forever.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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