War as a Moral Medicine
A RECENT number of the North American Review contained an article by that most popular of religious writers, Dean Farrar, extolling war, not only as the means, unavoidable in certain cases, of self-defense and of maintaining international police, but as a moral tonic necessary to the health of nations. The appearance of the article at the time was the more remarkable because the war fever was already at its height, so that the preacher, in extolling war, was not dealing with the special need of the day, but propounding a broad theory of moral hygienics.
There seems to be prevailing at present a sort of satiety of civilization, which is leading in all the departments of life to a temporary reversal of the softening of manners made during the century. The revived love of war is not an isolated phenomenon. Half a century ago, prize fighting was under the ban of decent society. In England, at least, no gentleman would have owned that he had been present at a prize fight. Only by one or two newspapers were prize fights reported ; and these, at Eton, where there was no dislike of sport, but the great object was to train gentlemen, it was strictly forbidden to take. Now columns of respectable journals here are filled with reports of prize fights in all their savage details, and women have begun to attend them. The tendency shows itself also in the popularity of so violent a game as football, which formerly was played in England by adults only among the roughs, mostly in the north country. The present ideal is the “ strenuous life; ” that is, the life of combativeness and aggression. That life which has produced, for example, the United States, with all their industry, their commerce, their wealth, their science, their invention, their literature, their laws, their social and political order, being pacific, is not strenuous, and falls short of the ideal.
The spread of Jingoism, to use the now familiar name, is connected with the general change in the cast of thought; with the loosening, by criticism and science, of the hold of Christianity, the religion of mild and philanthropic virtue ; with the prevalence of the physical over the moral view of man ; with the theory of the survival of the fittest, which is embraced perhaps without fully considering wherein, when the case is that of a rational and moral being, not of brutes, fitness to survive consists. A German philosopher died, the other day, who frankly preached the gospel of force, and held that the chief obstacle to progress was morality. Something like the germ of that theory in its historical form may be traced to Mommsen.
That war has been found necessary to restore the moral tone of nations, and that it has had that effect, are historical propositions capable of historical proof or refutation, and of which we should be glad to see the proof. Nobody denies that common effort and self-sacrifice in a righteous cause invigorate and exalt a nation. Nobody denies that the Greek character was elevated and strengthened by the heroic defense of Greece against the Persian, or that the character of the Dutch was elevated and strengthened by the heroic defense of the Netherlands against the armies of Philip II. But the question is whether war is a moral restorative, necessary and desirable in itself, which is what Dean Farrar and other imperialists explicitly or implicitly maintain.
An Englishman past middle age has seen three wars, — the Afghan, the Crimean, and that with China called the “ Lorcha ” war. He would be puzzled, I fancy, to point out any moral or social improvement which had resulted from any one of the three. The Crimean war was hailed by Tennyson, in the wellknown lines in Maud, with all his moral fervor and splendor of language, as a relief from the vice and meanness of a commercial civilization. There was to be a truce to the reign of dishonesty and lies. The land was to wake to higher aims, casting off her lust for gold; there was to be a respite from the wrongs and shames of peace ; noble thought was to be set free. The war spirit was at its height, and all opposition was hooted down ; so that the experiment was fairly tried. What was the result ? Can any Englishman point to an improvement in the national character which dates from the time of that war ? Were politics exalted or purified? Was there, at the time or afterwards, less of selfish ambition or cabal amongst our public men ? Did the greed of gain depart, or show any sign of departing ? Did commercial fraud, or fraud of any kind, visibly abate ? Was not rather a stimulus given to it by the war contracts ? Was there an increase of nobleness in any department of life ? Whether there was an increase of sweetness it would be satirical to inquire. We speak, of course, of general effects on national character, not of individual heroism or devotion, striking instances of which might readily be produced in the case of war as they might in the case of plague, fire, or shipwreck.
The same question might be asked in regard to the Afghan and Chinese wars. The Afghan war was the work of Palmerston, who was in his own person the model and cynosure of Jingoism, and would have shown, if anybody could, the ennobling effect of that training. It was made by him to defeat the machinations of Russia, the object of his fanatical hatred, with whom he had taken it into his head that Dost Mahomed, the Afghan ruler, was intriguing. A British army perished, and with it Sir Alexander Burnes, the envoy whose dispatches, when explanation was demanded in Parliament, Palmerston produced as his warrant for the war. They seemed to countenance the hypothesis on which the warhad been made. Years afterward an authentic copy of these dispatches came: to light. It was then found that the copy produced by Palmerston to Parliament had been infamously mutilated, and that the envoy’s real report, instead of countenancing, had discountenanced the war.
The Lorcha war against China was opposed at the time by the highest morality of England, and has now probably not a single defender. But the war passion swept the country at the time, and ejected Bright, Cobden, and other opponents from their seats in the House of Commons. The innocent and unresisting city of Canton, with its swarming population, was bombarded for twentyseven hours. Is it possible to point to any moral improvement or reform left behind in the nation which made the war ?
Chatham called himself a lover of honorable war, and is reputed by his war policy to have restored the spirit of his nation when nothing else could restore it. He excited great enthusiasm. But can any one point to a definite improvement, political, social, or moral, which ensued ? In politics there ensued the carnival of corruption under Bute, the North ministry, and the coalition of Fox and North.
On the other hand, can it be shown that peace has led in any country, otherwise healthy and moral, to a loss of national courage or military qualities of any kind ? England before the Crimean war had been long at peace ; yet her soldiers showed no lack of valor or endurance, though there was at first a lack of expertness in military administration. The United States, before the war of secession, had been at peace, with the inconsiderable exception of the Mexican war, for more than forty years. Yet in no war were higher military qualities of every kind displayed.
The moral world surely would be strangely ordered if a nation could be cured of its own vices by making an attack on another nation. Could a man cure himself of his personal or domestic vices by an onslaught on a man in the street ?
It is forgotten that there are two parties to a war, of which one is generally fighting in a bad cause, and one must always be vanquished. The nation which is fighting in a bad cause can hardly be improved in character, nor can the spirit of the vanquished be exalted. The moral effects produced in the vanquished usually are a bitter sense of humiliation and an intense desire of revenge. The attack of Great Britain on the independence of the South African republics had its source partly in the desire of vengeance for Majuba Hill.
For four centuries Turkey was almost incessantly at war. What was the effect on the character of the Turk ?
That the soldier’s calling is lawful, that high qualities are shown by him in war, that many soldiers have been excellent Christians, are facts which hardly needed Dean Farrar’s eloquent illustration. On the other hand, it is vain to deny that when the passions are fired by battle or storm terrible things are often done. It is enough to allude to the night of the storming of Badajos, and to the atrocities committed by Masséna’s army when it was lying before Torres Vedras. Submission to discipline is highly valuable, and the soldier is an example of it with which, perhaps, society could hardly afford to dispense. Yet the notion that there is no discipline, or none worth naming, but that of the barracks or the camp is an error, and a pernicious error, fostered, possibly, as Jingo sentiment generally is, by the writings of Carlyle. There is discipline, there is often very strict and stern discipline, in the organizations of peaceful industry. In the railroad service, for example, there is discipline almost as strict as that of the army, with the advantage of being less mechanical and more intelligent.
There are books of the Old Testament, Dean Farrar says, which ring with the clash of conflict. No doubt there are; and there are passages which ring with the shrieks of Canaanite women and children massacred by a ruthless invader, or of the people of a captured city tortured to death by their Jewish conqueror. But are these passages given to us for our instruction ? If Christ and John the Baptist recognized the soldier’s calling, as they recognized everything else that was established, did they commend the use of war as a moral medicine for the state ? What did Christ say about those who took the sword ? Did he say what the churches, for the most part, are saying now ?
Let the effect of war be ever so good on the soldier who faces the shot, submits to the discipline, endures the hardship ; it does not extend to those who are sitting safe at home, reading in their newspapers the exciting details of carnage, or playing with a puppet made by its distortion and squeaking to represent the agonies of a dying Boer. Sixteen thousand wounded Dervishes lie stretched on the field of battle, with their wounds untended and without water, under a burning sun. It is possible that the hearts of soldiers in the victorious army may be kept sound by the part they played in battle; but what will be the effect on people who gloat over the picture at home P What were the scenes in London on the arrival of the news of victory over the Boers ? Were they manifestations of a national character ennobled by heroic effort, or carnivals of which, if shame could penetrate a music hall, the music halls themselves might have been ashamed ?
Dean Farrar, one cannot help thinking, would touch less lightly on dread of the horrors of war as a motive for avoiding it if he had seen the wreck of a battlefield, the contents of a field hospital after a battle, or even the burning farms of the Transvaal, with the women and children turned adrift, as an eye-witness describes them, and desjuerately trying to rescue something from the ashes of their homes.
“ It [war] is a fraction of that Armageddon struggle described in the Apocalypse, in which the Son of God rides forth at the head of all his saints to subdue the machinations of the Devil and his angels.” When Dean Farrar’s inspiration carries him to this height, I must own he transcends my apprehension. Yet governments supposed to be the quintessence of practical wisdom are really being actuated, or believing themselves to be actuated, by fancies about their “ destiny,” the “ white man’s burden,” and the “ mission ” of the Anglo-Saxon race not less mystical or more nearly allied in their effect on conduct to the sober dictates of righteousness and humanity.