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."
IV.

But at this point it is advisable to take up and dispose of a group of suggestions which contradict our fundamental thesis, which is, that war is by its nature illimitable. War is, we hold here, a cessation of law, and in war therefore, it is impossible to prevent permanently the use of every possible device for injury, killing, and compulsion which human ingenuity can devise or science produce. Our main argument for a League of Nations rests on that. But there are people who do not accept as a fact the illimitable nature of war. They fall back upon the theory that the horrors of the Great War are due to a sort of accidental relapse into savagery on the part of the German people, and that future wars can and will be conducted under restrictions imposed by humanity and chivalry. They believe that war can become a conventional Ordeal by Battle, in which the nations shall deliberately refrain from putting forth their full strength, and shall agree to abide by the decision of a struggle between limited armies, operating, like the champions in a tournament or a prize-fight, under an accepted code of rules.

This is, we hold, a delusion. Our case is that the nations can agree far more easily to abolish war than to restrict war.

It is true that in the Great War Germany has carried her theories of ruthlessness to self-defeating extremes. She has done many deeds which recoiled upon herself—deeds inspired by a sort of ferocious pedantry which inflicted very small material damage upon the Allies, but hardened their resolution and brought thousands, nay, millions of recruits to their ranks. None the less must we face the fact that, individual stupidities apart, the German theory of war is the only logical one.

If it be said that, in past times, nations fought with comparatively small armies, and often accepted defeat without having thrown anything like their full strength into the struggle—the objection is met by a twofold answer. Firstly, the logic of war, the law—as we have termed it elsewhere—of the utmost effort, had not yet been thoroughly thought out. Primitive peoples in general—and the same applies to all but the most civilized and sophisticated of modern states—are guided in matters of war and peace more by their emotions than by their reason. They are lazy, as peoples, and muddle-headed. They fight because they are angry; they stop because they are tired; they cease pursuing the enemy because they want to attend to the harvest. It is the mark of a highly organized and intellectualized government to subordinate national emotions to the remorseless logic of the case. And the logic of war was reserved for Napoleon to express in practice and Clausewitz to formulate in theory.

But the second answer goes more to the root of the matter: namely, that the strength which a nation can put into the field is limited by many conditions both material and psychological, and that, if we examine into these conditions, we shall often find that what may seem to us, on the face of it, an insignificant effort, was in very truth the greatest of which, at the given moment, the nation was capable. It is a quite new social fact, a creation of the last fifty years, to have a central government supplied with exact information about all its resources in men, money, and material, and with means of organization and control which enable it, at the cost of some delay and friction, to exploit those resources to the last inch. When Babylon was captured by the Medes, we are told, there were parts of the city itself which were unaware of the fact for several days; and there must have been vast islands of population in the country which, so far as their personal experience went, never knew. But that sort of thing has passed.

If we look into the history of warfare, we find that it has completed a cycle and is now returning to its starting-point. A nomadic horde of the barbarous ages was 'a nation in arms' in the full sense of the word. Having no fixed place of abode, it had no civil—as distinct from military—population. The whole people—old men, women, and children included—took part in the toils and perils of war. There were no places of security in which the weak and the defenseless could take refuge. Everyone's life was forfeit in case of disaster; therefore everyone took part in the common defense. Modern warfare, with its air fleets, its submarines, and its 'big Berthas,' is more and more restricting the area of immunity from military peril and reverting to these primitive conditions.

Agricultural life and city settlements brought with them the distinction between combatants and non-combatants; but still, in the normal state, every able-bodied citizen was a soldier. The citizen took his place as a matter of course in the militia of his country, leaving to old men and women, or to slaves and captives, the guardianship of field and vineyard, flock and herd. Only when wealth and luxury had reached a certain pitch did the habit of employing denationalized mercenaries creep in. Then came the time when the mercenaries encountered nomadic or thoroughly mobilized 'nations in arms,' and civilization went to the wall.

In the Middle Ages, the feudal chief, the dominant, soldierly, often predatory personality, gathered his vassals around him for purposes of offense and defense, while the cultivation of the soil devolved on the villains or serfs. Thus war became the special function of a military caste, and, as in the Wars of the Roses, campaigns were often carried on with comparatively little disturbance to the normal life of the country. When the royal power crushed or absorbed that of the barons, the centralized monarchy everywhere recruited a standing army, often consisting largely of foreign mercenaries, as the bulwark of its security and the instrument of its will. It was quite natural that dynastic wars, and wars in which the common people of the contending nations had little or no interest, should be fought out on a restricted scale by these specialized military machines. Frederick the Great employed a mercenary army as the nucleus for a national militia; and so lately as the beginning of the last century, this system was celebrated as ideal by the noted military authority who was the immediate predecessor of Clausewitz.

With Napoleon came the Nation in Arms; and the military history of the intervening years has consisted of the ever completer concentration upon warlike purposes of the whole powers and resources of the great European peoples.

If it be asked why this logical evolution of the idea of war has taken so many centuries to work itself out, the main reason—among many others—may be stated in two words: munitions and transport. Before the age of machines, it was impossible to arm and clothe immense multitudes of men; before the days of McAdam and Stephenson, it was impossible to move such multitudes and, still more, to keep them supplied with food and munitions. Again we find ourselves insisting upon the vital importance of transit methods in this, as in nearly all questions of human interaction. The size of armies has steadily grown with the growth of means of communication. The German wars of 1863-70 were the first in which railways played any considerable part, and the scale of operations in 1870-71 was quite unprecedented.

What is the chief new factor since the days of St. Privat and Sedan? The aeroplane, most people would reply; possibly it may become so, but thus far a less picturesque invention has been of even greater influence—the motor-lorry. No one can go anywhere near the Western Front without realizing that the gigantic scale of this struggle is almost wholly dependent upon motor-traction. Had not the internal-combustion engine been invented, the war would probably have been over long ago; and at all events millions of men would still be alive and well who now lie dead or crawl mutilated over the face of the earth.

Seen in this light, the invention of the motor may appear to have been due to a special interference of Satan in human affairs. But that is an unphilosophical view to take. Our race must perfect its power over matter before it can wisely select the ends to which it will apply that power. The idea of war had to work itself out to the full and demonstrate its own immpossibility, before man could find the insight and the energy to put it behind him and have done with it. Thanks to Prussian ambition and Prussian philosophy, the demonstration has now been completed. The idea of war has revealed itself in its full hideousness. All the world has come to look upon it as a sort of mythological monster which, if left to itself, will periodically reemerge from hell, to devour the whole youth and the whole wealth of civilized mankind. It is useless to dream of clipping the wings or paring the claws of the dragon. It must be slain outright if it is not to plan unthinkable havoc with civilization; and to that end the intelligence and the moral enthusiasm of the world are now, as we see, addressing themselves.

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