The Idea of a League of Nations

"What has happened is essentially this, that the natural limitations upon warfare which have existed hitherto appear to have broken down."
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II.

While all these things, on the one hand, point plainly now to such possibilities of human unification and world unanimity as no one could have dreamed of a hundred years ago, there has been, on the other hand, a change, an intensification, of the destructive processes of war which opens up a black alternative to this pacific settlement of human affairs. The case as it is commonly stated in the propaganda literature for a League of Nations is a choice between, on the one hand, a general agreement on the part of mankind to organize a permanent peace, and on the other, a progressive development of the preparation for war and the means of conducting war which must ultimately eat up human freedom and all human effort, and, as the phrase goes, destroy civilization. We shall find as we proceed that these simple oppositions do not by any means state all the possibilities of the case; but for a moment or so it will be convenient to confine our attention to this enhancement of the cost, burden, and destructiveness of belligerence which scientific and technical progress has made inevitable.

What has happened is essentially this, that the natural limitations upon warfare which have existed hitherto appear to have broken down. Hitherto there has been a certain proportion between the utmost exertion of a nation at war and the rest of its activities. The art and methods of war have had a measurable relation to the resources of the community as a whole, so that it has been possible for nations to be well armed by the standards of the time and yet to remain vigorous and healthy communities, and to wage successful wars without exhaustion.

To take a primitive example, it was possible for the Zulu people, under King Chaka, to carry warfare as it was then understood in South Africa—a business of spearmen fighting on foot—to its utmost perfection, and to remain prosperous and happy themselves, whatever might be the fate they inflicted upon their neighbors. And even the armies of Continental Europe, as they existed before the Great War, were manifestly bearable burdens, because they were borne. But the outbreak of that struggle forced upon the belligerents, in spite of the natural conservatism of all professional soldiers, a rapid and logical utilization of the still largely neglected resources of mechanical and chemical science; they were compelled to take up every device that offered, however costly it might be; they could not resist the drive toward scientific war which they had themselves released. In warfare the law of the utmost immediate exertion rules; the combatant who does not put in all his possible energy is lost. In four brief years, therefore, Europe was compelled to develop a warfare monstrously out of proportion to any conceivable good which the completest victory could possibly achieve for either side.

We may take as a typical instance of this logical and necessary exaggeration which warfare has undergone the case of the 'tank.' The idea of a land ironclad was an old and very obvious one, which had been disliked and resisted by military people for many years. The substantial basis of the European armies of 1914 was still a comparatively inexpensive infantry, assisted by machineguns and field-guns and cavalry. By 1918 the infantry line is sustained by enormous batteries of guns of every calibre, firing away an incredible wealth of ammunition; its structure includes the most complicated system of machine-gun nests and strong posts conceivable, and every important advance is preceded by lines of aeroplanes and sustained by fleets of these new and still developing weapons, the tanks. Every battle sees scores of these latter monsters put out of action. Now, even the primitive tank of 1917 costs, quite apart from the very high running expenses, something between seven and ten thousand pounds. At that stage it was still an expedient on trial and in the rough. But its obvious corollary in movable big-gun forts with ammunition tenders—forts which will probably be made in parts and built up near to the point of use, however costly they may be—is practically dictated if war is to continue. So too is a production of light and swift types of tank that will serve many of the purposes of cavalry.

If war is to continue as a human possibility, this elaboration of the tank in scale and species follows inevitably. A mere peace of the old type is likely to accelerate rather than check this elaboration. Only a peace that will abolish the probability of war from human affairs can release the nations from the manifest necessity of cultivating the tank, multiplying the tank, and maintaining a great manufacture and store of tanks, over and above all the other belligerent plants which they had to keep going before 1914. And these tanks will supersede nothing—unless perhaps, to a certain extent, cavalry. The tank, growing greater and greater and more numerous and various, is manifestly, therefore, one new burden—one of many new burdens—which must rest upon the shoulders of mankind henceforth, until the prospect of war can be shut off from international affairs. It is foolish to ignore these grimly budding possibilities of the tank. There they are, and they cannot be avoided if war is to go on.

But the tank is only one of quite a multitude of developments, which are bound to be followed up if the modern war-process continues. There is no help for it. In every direction there is the same story to be told—if war is still to be contemplated as a possibility—of an unavoidable elaboration of the means of war beyond the scale of any conceivable war end.

As a second instance, let us take the growth in size, range, and destructiveness of the air war. Few people realize fully what a vast thing the air-service has become. A big aeroplane of the raider type may cost anything up to twenty thousand pounds; the smallest costs not much less than a thousand. The pilot and the observer are of the very flower of the youth of the country; they have probably cost society many thousands of pounds' worth of upbringing and education, and they have made little or no productive contribution to human resources. And these costs units have been multiplied enormously. From a poor hundred or so of aerial planes at the outset of the war, Great Britain alone has expanded her air forces until she has an output of thousands of new machines a month, aerodromes abound throughout the country, and there is scarcely a corner of England where the hum of the passing aeroplane is not to be heard. Now all this vast plant of aeroplane factories and instruction aerodromes must be kept up, once it has been started, war or no war, until war is practically impossible. It may be argued, perhaps, that during a peace-spell some portion of this material may be applied to civil air-transport; but the manufacturers have made it abundantly clear that this project does not strike them as reasonable or desirable; their industry has been created as an armament industry and an armament industry they wish it to remain. And besides this opposition of the interested profiteer, we have to remember that the aeroplane has imported into warfare possibilities of surprise hitherto undreamed of. So long as a sudden declaration of war, or an attack preceding a declaration of war, is possible, it is imperative now, not only that the air force of a country should be kept always in striking condition, but that the whole vast organization of coastal and frontier anti-aircraft defenses should be equally ready. Tens of thousands of men, most of them economically very valuable, must keep watch day and night, prepared at any moment to flash into warfare again.

The same story of a tremendous permanent expansion of war-equipment could be repeated in a score of parallel instances drawn from the land war and sea war. Enormous new organizations of anti-submarine flotillas, of minefield material and its production, of poison-gas manufacture and the like, have been called into existence, and must now remain as going concerns so long as war is likely to be renewed.

But enough examples have been cited here to establish the reality of this present unrestricted, illimitable, disproportionate growth of the war-process in comparison with all other human processes. Mars has become the young cuckoo in the nest of human possibilities, and it is—to state the extreme alternatives—a choice before mankind, whether we will drift on toward a catastrophe due to that overgrowth, or so organize the world as effectually to restrain and reduce warfare.

It is not impossible to adumbrate the general nature of the catastrophe which threatens mankind if war-making goes on. Modern warfare is not congenial to the working masses anywhere. No doubt the primitive form of warfare, a murderous bickering with adjacent tribes, is natural enough to uneducated men; but modern warfare, and still more the preparation for it, involves distresses, strains, and a continuity of base and narrow purpose quite beyond the patience and interest of the millions of ordinary men who find no other profit in it but suffering. The natural man is more apt for chaotic local fighting than for large-scale systematic fighting. Hatred campaigns and a sustained propaganda are needed to keep up the combatant spirit in a large modern state, even during actual hostilities; and in the case of Russia we have a striking example of the distaste a whole population may develop for the war-strain, even during the war and with the enemy at its gates.

What is likely to happen, then, when the working masses of Central and Western Europe, being no longer sustained by the immediate excitement of actual war, find themselves still obliged to go on, year after year, producing vast masses of war-material, pledged to carry a heavy burden of war loan rentiers on their backs, and subjected to an exacerbated conscription? Possibly, so far as the rentier burden on the worker goes, a great rise in prices and wages will relieve the worker to some extent, but only at the cost of acute disappointment and distress at another social level. There is a dangerously narrowing limit now to the confidence of the common man in the intelligence and good faith of those who direct his affairs; and the probability of a cruel confused class-war throughout Europe, roughly parallel in its methods to the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, and released by a similar loss of faith in leaders and government, appears at the end of the vista of waste of directive energy and natural resources, completing that waste of energy and resources into which the belligerent systems of Europe, the German Empire being the chief and foremost, have led mankind. Systematic force, overstrained and exhausted, will then give place to chaotic force, and general disorganization will ensue. Thereafter the world may welter in confusion for many generations, through such ruinous and impoverished centuries as close the Roman imperial story, before it develops the vitality for an effective reorganization.

Such, roughly, is the idea of the phrase 'downfall of civilization' as used in discussions like these. It is a vision of the world as a social system collapsing chaotically, not under the assault of outer barbarians, but beneath the pressure of this inevitable hypertrophy of war.

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