The Nation's Crime Against the Individual

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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, 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 time 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 role of champions of righteousness and civilization. Unhappily, however, they cannot play their roles 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 contribution 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 loyally 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.

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