What Is Worth Fighting For?

“Civilization is not saved by the mere purging of one’s heart, but by the work of one’s hands. The forces of destruction must be met, each according to its kind, by the forces of deliverance.”


Not long ago a newspaper dispatch from Leicester, England, described the untimely fate of a traveling band of pacifist preachers who styled themselves ‘The Fellowship of Reconciliation.’ It appears that the good patriots of Leicester beat them soundly, burned their camp and equipment, and concluded the matter by singing ‘Tipperary’ and ‘God Save the King’ over the ashes.

The incident epitomizes the absurd but deeply tragic plight of man. His bravest and most exalted purposes, those of nationality and humanity, are driving him to self-destruction. There is more of tragedy in this than a present loss of life and material goods; there is a dreadful suggestion of doom, as when one first detects symptoms of an incurable disease. There is a seeming fatality in life by which right motives impel man to work evil. Intelligence, self-sacrifice, devotion to a cause, those qualities of mind and will on which we have been taught to pride ourselves, seem only to make men more terrible, or more weak, according as they turn to deeds or to meditation. To take up arms and destroy, or to sit passively by while destruction rages unrebuked—there is apparently neither virtue nor happiness in either course. If such be the predicament of man, it is not surprising that many are praying that the curtain be rung down and an end made of the whole sorry business.

In what I have to say I address those who are still determined to think the matter through, notwithstanding the fact that, as Mr. Tulliver says, ‘thinking is mighty puzzling work.’ Despair we may reserve as a course of last resort. Likewise the death-bed consolations of religion by which human weal and woe are left to the inscrutable wisdom of Almighty God. When the present scene becomes too painful we may shut our eyes, or turn to some celestial vision. But I for one cannot yet absolve myself from responsibility. There is a task of civilization and social progress to which man has so solemnly pledged himself that he cannot abandon it with honor. And in this hour of trial that pledge requires us to form a plan of action which shall be neither an act of blind faith nor a confession of failure. We must endeavor both to see our way to make our way.

How shall the constructive work of civilization be saved and promoted? It would be a much simpler matter if it were only one’s ‘inward peace’ that was at stake. Mr. Bertrand Russell tells us that ‘the greatest good that can be achieved in this life is to have will and desire directed to universal ends, purged of the self-assertion which belongs to instinctive will.’ But there is one greater good, and that is the accomplishment of these universal ends. This is a much more baffling and hazardous undertaking. It requires a man not only to make up his mind, but to bring things to pass. It becomes necessary to use the harsh and dangerous instruments by which things are done in this world. Civilization is not saved by the mere purging of one’s heart, but by the work of one’s hands. The forces of destruction must be met, each according to its kind, by the forces of deliverance. The belief that, when a man has struck an attitude, and has braved it out in the midst of a rough and vulgar world, he has solved the problem somehow and done his duty, underlies much of the pacific sentiment that is now abroad. It is a dangerous error, because it makes the difficulties of life seem so much simpler than they really are; and may teach a man to be perfectly satisfied with himself when he has really only evaded the issue.

For what does this philosophy of inward rectitude really mean and imply? In the first place, it is self-centred and individualistic. Life becomes an affair between each man and his own soul, a sort of spiritual toilet before the mirror of self-consciousness. Social relations only furnish occasions for the perfecting of self, trials by which one may test the firmness of one’s own mind. The state, economic life, and other forms of coöperative association, lose their intrinsic importance, and tend to be replaced by a fraternity of kindred spirits, in which each is confirmed in his aloofness from the vain hopes and petty fears of the world of action.

The crucial test of such a principle of life is afforded by the presence of a danger which threatens others, whom one may be pledged to serve, or some larger good extending beyond the limits of one’s personal life. Whether to save one’s own peace of mind at the expense of one’s own life or property is a question which may well be left to the individual to decide for himself. But as so often happens, this relatively simple question is also relatively trivial. Such a choice is rarely if ever presented. Certainly the emergency in which war arises is never one which a sympathetic and imaginative person can meet merely by applying the scale of his own personal preferences. It is not one’s own person that is imperiled. As a matter of fact it requires the most colossal egotism to suppose that the enemy has any interest whatever in one’s own person. It is the collective life, the state, the national tradition and ambition, the chosen and idealized civilization, the general state of happiness and well-being in the community—it is these that are in danger, and it is these that one must weigh against one’s private tranquility of mind. If the matter be viewed in this light, it is a little absurd to step forward and gallantly offer one’s life in exchange for being allowed the privilege of dying innocuously! Such an offer will sound heroic to no one but one’s self, and to one’s self only in so far as one has lost both sympathy and imagination. It is doubtless vexatious that one cannot be allowed to choose for one’s self alone, but such is the hard condition of life. When one chooses to take up arms or to suffer the enemy to triumph, one is disposing, not of one’s self but of all those lives, possessions, and institutions which the enemy threatens and which it lies within one’s power to defend.

But this philosophy of inward rectitude is not merely self-centred, it is also formal and prudish. It is pervaded with a spirit of correct deportment. Its aversion to war is largely due to a feeling that war is banal, and incompatible with the posture of personal dignity. The philosopher’s cloak must be thrown aside if one is to adopt the graceless and immoderate gait of the soldier. War is intolerable, just as running is intolerable to one who has come to enjoy the full measure of self-respect only when he is permitted to move with a slow and rhythmic strut. But this is the antithesis of the spirit of enterprise. Genuine devotion to an end, intently working for it, will render one unconscious of the incidental movements and postures it involves. A formalist would not lie on his back under an automobile because such an attitude would not comport with a preconceived model of himself as an upright, heavenward being of a superior order; whereas a traveler, bent on reaching his destination, would not shrink even from the aboriginal slime, if only he might find a way to go forward. Similarly if it were all a matter of propriety of demeanor, one could refuse the ugliness of war and shut one’s eyes to the sequel. But if one’s heart be set on saving civilization, so laboriously achieved, so fragile and perishable, then one’s personal attitude is contemptibly insignificant. All that really matters is the fidelity with which one has done one’s work and kept one’s trust.

Nor will it suffice to quote Plato, and take comfort in the thought that the ideals are themselves eternal and incorruptible. For that which enemies threaten and champions defend, is not the ideal itself, but some earthly mortal thing which is made in its image. The labor and art of life is not to create justice and happiness in the abstract, but to build just cities and promote happy lives. And these can be burned with fire and slain by the sword. If one is prepared to renounce the existent world and the achievements of history, one may perhaps escape the need of war. But let no man fail to realize that he has then virtually given up the whole achievement of the race, all the fruits of all the painful toil of men, even the spiritual fruits of culture and character. For these spiritual fruits are individual lives which may be utterly destroyed as the work of man’s hands. It is futile to argue that the good life cannot be destroyed by an enemy. It is true that it cannot be corrupted, and made evil. But it may be killed. The good life is more than mere goodness; it is living goodness, embodied in existence and conduct. He who slays a just man or annihilates a free and happy society, undoes the work of moral progress as fatally, nay more fatally, than he who corrupts them with injustice and slavery. Or in the latter case there at least remain the latent capacities by which civilization may be rebuilt. Those who insist on the distinction between might and right and accuse the warrior of practicing might in the name of right, are likely on their part to forget that the work of civilization is to make the right also mighty, so that it may obtain among men and prevail. This end is not to be realized by any philosophy of abstinence and contemplation, but only by a use of the physical forces by which things are brought to exist and by which alone they are made secure against violence and decay.


Having considered the philosophy by which men avoid war, let us now consider another philosophy by which men make war, with an equally easy conscience and an equally untroubled mind. I refer to the philosophy of nationalism: the worship of the individual state as an end in itself, and the justification of conduct solely by the principle of patriotism. Such a creed may be idealized by a belief that the ultimate good lies in the progressive strife of opposing national ideals; a strife which is humanly discordant and tragic, but is rounded into some wort of all-saving harmony in the eternal whole. Practically this makes no difference except to add to the motive of national interest the sense of a heaven-sent mission. The only end by which the individual is required to judge his action is that of the power and glory of his own state. To that is merely added the dogma that national conquest and aggrandizement are good for the world even if the poor world doesn’t know it. By such a dogma a people whose international policy is unscrupulously aggressive may enjoy at the same time an ecstatic conscience and a sense of philosophical enlightenment. Hence this is the most formidable and terrible of all philosophies. Its devastating effects are manifest in the world to-day.

There are two fatal errors in this philosophy. The first is the assumption that the state is something apart from the happiness and well-being of its members. The state, contrived to serve men, becomes instead, through tradition, prestige, and its power to perpetuate its own agencies, an object of idolatrous worship. Under its spell free men forget their rights, wise men their reason, and good men their humanity. The second error is the dogma that the narrow loyalties of nations will best serve the universal good. There is no evidence for this. It is the joint product of national bigotry and of an ethics manufactured by meta-physicians. The experience of the race points unmistakably to the fatally destructive character of narrow loyalties, and teaches the need of applying to national conduct the same standards of moderation, justice, and good will that are already generally applied to the relations of man and man.

There is one further way of evading the real difficulty of our problem, but this can be dismissed with a bare mention. I refer to the flippant and irresponsible skepticism which holds all human purposes to be equally valid because all are equally blind and dogmatic. The skeptic views with mild derision the attempts of man to justify his passions. He holds all nations to be equally at fault, equally self-deceived, and equally pitiful. The folly and discord of life do not surprise him, for he expects nothing better than that man should consume himself. On such a philosophy war and peace are not to be seriously argued, but accepted as fatalities, whose irony affords a refined enjoyment to the emancipated mind.

These, then, are the philosophies of evasion and irresponsibility. Before accepting any of them it behooves one to be clearly conscious of what they imply. It is impossible here to argue these deeper questions through. It must suffice to point out that all of these philosophies are opposed to the beliefs on which modern democratic societies are founded. Unless we are to renounce these beliefs, we must refuse in this grave crisis to listen to any counsel that is not hopeful and constructive, that does not recommend itself to reason, and that does not define a programme of universal human betterment. When such a solution is firmly insisted on, the real difficulties of the problem appear. But though one may well be troubled to find the way, one may at least be saved from the greater evil of self-deception.


There is no fair escape from the tragic paradox that man must destroy in order to save. Never before has this paradox been so vividly realized. Man goes forth with torch and powder to restore the primitive desolation, and to add to the natural evils—from which he has barely escaped—more frightful evils of his own contriving. He does this in the name of home, country, humanity, and God. Furthermore, he finds himself so situated that neither conscience nor reason permits him any other course. His very purpose of beneficence requires him to practice vandalism, cruelty, and homicide upon a vast scale and with a refinement proportional to his knowledge and inventiveness. It may well seem credulous to find in this anything more than a fatal madness by which man is hastened to his doom.

But there is just one angle form which it may be possible to discern some method in this madness. We must learn to regard war, not as an isolated phenomenon, but as merely the most aggravated and the most impressive instance of the universal moral situation. This fundamental predicament of life, which gives rise to all moral perplexities, is the conflict of interests. When war is viewed in this light, we may then see in justifiable war a special application of the most general of all ethical principles, namely, the principle of discipline or provident restraint. Given the natural conflict of interests, this principle defines the only alternative to waste and mutual destruction. It means simply that under actual conditions the greatest abundance of life on the whole is to be secured only by a confining, pruning, or uprooting of those special interests which imperil the stability and harmony of the whole. When such restraint is not self-imposed, it must be imposed externally. The first lessons in restraint are doubtless learned from rivals and enemies who are governed by selfish purposes of their own. But the moral principle proper appears only when restraint is exercised with a provident purpose, that is, for the sake of the greater good that will result; as when a man refrains from excess for the sake of long life, or respects his neighbor’s property for the sake of a general security and prosperity. Similarly a teacher or parent may restrain a willful child, and a ruler a lawless subject, in the interest of all, including the individual so restrained. It is customary to question such motives, but the hypocrite would have no success, nor the cynic any claim to critical penetration, were these motives not so common as to establish the rule. As a matter of fact they are as solidly psychological as any fact regarding human nature.

Restraint, however exercised, is in its first effect negative and destructive. To set limits to an appetite, to bar the way to childish caprice, to forbid an act and call it crime, is in some degree to inflict pain and death, to destroy some living impulse. But it is none the less morally necessary. And it matters not whether the act of restraint be simple and unpremeditated or complex and calculated, involving hosts of men and all the complex mechanism of modern war. It is still possible, on the larger scale as on the smaller, that the act of restraint should be required by a larger purpose which is constructive and humane.

It is sometimes argued that an act of violence or coercion can have such a moral motive only when it is performed by a ‘neutral authority’ who has nothing to gain or lose by the transaction. It is further argued that, since in the case of international disputes no such disinterested party exists, no use of violence or coercion can be justified. Persons who reason in this way must be supposed to believe in the miraculous origin of all kings and policeman. The forcible prevention of robbery must to their mind have become just when and only when there suddenly appeared on the scene a special heaven-sent race of beings wearing blue coats and billies, and have no passions or property of their own. As a matter of fact, however, robbers were first put down by the robbed. Their suppression was justified not because those who suppressed them gaining nothing by it (for they certainly did gain), but because that suppression was enacted in behalf of a general community good in which the interests of the robber and his kind were also counted. And whatever be the historical genesis of the state, whether paternity or plunder, this much is certain: that the functions of the state were at first, and have been in a measure ever since, exercised by men who have derived personal profit therefrom. The function of the state, its purpose of collective order, power, and welfare, came into existence long ages before constitutions and charters of liberty made public office a public trust. Before men could learn to be governed well, they had to learn their first lessons of social restraint from whatever rude authorities were at hand.

Whence, then, are we to expect those international police to whom alone is to be intrusted the function of restraining predatory nations, and races filled with the lust of conquest? Are they to descend from above, clothed in uniform and wearing the badge of their office? It takes little historical sense to realize that we must first live through an age in which the principle of international restraint slowly gains acceptance, and is exercised by those nations who, primarily moved by an imminent danger to themselves, act also consciously and expressly in behalf of the larger good of mankind.

Let not any man say that the nation which feels itself to be actuated by such a double motive is insincere and hypocritical. This charge, if pressed home, would discredit all moral purpose whatsoever. Not only is it humanly possible that England, while saving herself, should at the same time wage war in behalf of the larger principles of freedom and international law; but all hope of a new order of things lies in the existence of just such a resolve so to protect and promote one’s own interest as at the same time to conduce to a like safety and well-being in others.

We have thus, I believe, reached an understanding of the general principle by which war is justified. The righteous war is that waged in behalf of a higher order in which both the warring parties and others of their rank may live together in peace. If one man restrains another he must ask no more for himself than he concedes to his enemy. This modicum which is consistent with a like privilege in others he calls his right, and the law eventually defines it and invents special agents for its protection. A righteous civil war will be that one in which a faction is restrained in behalf of a national good which is conceived to include both factions. Whether correct or mistaken in their judgment, such a purpose undoubtedly actuated the nobler spirits of both North and South in the American Civil War. To the South it was a war for independence, and to the North a war for the Union. That is to say, the moral motive in each consisted of a conscious provision for the equal good of the other. Each, while most immediately moved by its special interest, believed that interest to agree with the best interest of the other. Each had its plan for both, the South aiming at a relation of friendship between two autonomous neighbors, the North aiming at the common advantages of national coherence. Forces of destruction and ungovernable passions were let loose, and the most dreadful of tragedies was enacted. But the fact remains that such higher purposes did exist, and gave to the struggle its quality of idealism. Most living Americans, even those descended from the men of the South, now believe that the North was right in the sense of being guided by a sounder judgment. That so furious a conflict should have divided men of equally high purpose, that even yet doubts should exist as to the merits of the dispute, is profoundly deplorable—deplorable in the sense that all human blindness and frailty is deplorable. But it was not to be avoided by either skepticism or inaction. It was then, as always, a question of controlling events according to one’s lights, or being controlled by them. There is no guaranty against the possibility of error, and in judgments regarding political policy the margin of error is large. Even if such a guaranty were theoretically possible, events would not wait for one to find it. A man must act when emergencies arise and circumstances permit. The likelihood of error does not absolve him from the duty of making up his mind and acting accordingly. To be honestly mistaken is at least better than to be impotently noncommittal. For an honest mistake is at least an experiment in policy and a lesson learned.

The forcible restraint of one individual by another, or of one faction by another, may thus be said to be justified when it is necessary to the establishment of a relationship which is tolerable to both. In an established civil order this relationship is enforced by agencies especially provided for the purpose. These agencies, with the sentiment which enlivens them, and the custom and opinion which confirm them, signify good of a higher order than that of any individual or special interest; not because they are different in quality, but because they include all individual and special goods and make provision for them. In the state we all live and are strong, and if it fall,

O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!
Then I, and you, and all of us fell down.


Now let us suppose nation to be arrayed against nation. The use of force will be justified so far as it is necessary to establish a relation between nations that shall at least provide for their security. A nation which defends itself against aggression is both saving itself and also contending for the principle of nationality. It asks no more for itself than it concedes to its opponent—the privilege, namely, of existing and of administering its own internal affairs. Such a defensive war has then a double motive, the narrower motive of national security and the higher motive of general international security.

Even the narrower of these motives is a moral motive for the individual. The state is for most men the highest good which comes at all within the range of their experience. It is incomparably superior to the good with which in the daily round of work and play they are mainly preoccupied. It is often shifted or ignored, even by those persons of unselfish purpose who oppose war because it threatens to interrupt the work of social betterment. Thus Mr. Philip Snowden exhorts us eloquently to ‘realize that a beautiful school is a grander sight than a battleship—a contented and prosperous peasantry than great battalions.’ Nobody in his sober senses would deny it. But let Mr. Snowden and his friends on their part realize that his beautiful school and his prosperous peasantry exist by the grace of a state which owes its origin and its security to the vigilance and energy of men who understood its real importance.

The security of the state means the security of all the good things that exist within the state. We in America are fond of being let alone. The thought of war annoys us because life is so full of good things that we hate to be interrupted. But liberty and opportunity are the fruits of our national existence, and if we love them we would do well to cherish that national existence in which they are rooted. Fighting men as a rule understand this better than peace-makers. The individual understands it better on the field of battle than he does in the place where he earns his living or in the place where he goes when he is tired. It has become the custom to emphasize man’s savagery, and belittle or suspect his sentiments. We need to be reminded that the average soldier is thinking and feeling more generously than the average civilian. We have come to speak of patriotism as though it meant mere self-assertion; and have forgotten that patriots are individuals who, while collectively they may be asserting themselves against the enemy, are individually denying themselves for their country. And it is of this self-denying loyalty that they are most keenly conscious. ‘The peace advocates,’ wrote Mr. Godkin in the days of Gravelotte and Orléans, ‘are constantly talking of the guilt of killing, while the combatants only thing, and will only think, of the nobleness of dying.’

It is only in national emergencies that the great majority of men realize that they enjoy the benefits of national existence. Then only is it realized that civic life is the fundamental condition of individual life is the fundamental condition of individual life, and that all forms of economic and cultural activity are vitally dependent on it The generation that has been born in this country since the Civil War has never had to make sacrifices for the state, and has never been brought to such a realization. We have taken too much for granted. Like spoiled children we have assumed that the staple good of national security was provided by the bounty of nature, and have irritably clamored for the sweet-meats of wealth and higher education. I do not mean to suggest that any people should be satisfied with the minimum, but that we should clearly understand that human goods must follow in a certain order, and that the super-structure rests upon the foundation.

But while the good of the state is greater than that of any individual or special interest, because it contains all of these and nourishes them, how shall it be measured against the good of that other state against which it is arrayed in war? How is it possible to justify patriotism when it makes war on patriotism? Is the state worth fighting for, when it means that there is another state which one is fighting against? Again we must apply our principle, that force is justifiable only when used in the interest of both parties, or in behalf of some higher form of association that is inclusive of both. A just defensive war must therefore be actuated by a higher principle even than of the patriotism. While it is waged primarily on behalf of the great common good of national existence, there must be at the same time a due acknowledgment of the enemy’s equal right. The enemy on his part is deserving of forcible restraint only in so far as through his arrogance he prevents or threatens a relationship in which there is room for him as well. War upon such an enemy, like all righteous war, is war upon lawlessness. Although its first effect is destructive, it is provident and constructive in its ulterior effect.

With this principle in mind we may now take a further step and justify offensive war, when undertaken in the interest of an international system or league of humanity. For a century or more this greater cause has stirred the imaginations of men, and it has gradually been adopted as a norm for the criticism of international policy. There is now no serious doubt in liberal and earnest minds of the superiority of this cause to the narrower claims of nationality. How shall nations be so adjusted as to help and not hurt one another? How shall commerce and cultural intercourse be promoted, and dangerous friction and rivalry be removed? How shall the threat of war be so far reduced that nations can direct their energies and resources internally to the improvement of the lot of the unprivileged and disqualified majority? In theory the answer is as obvious as it is trite: by establishing among nations some greater unit of civic life, some system of international law and equity, with agencies for its application and enforcement. But how shall we go forward to this end? Not by abandoning what has already been achieved, the integrity of the nation. For what we seek is something greater than nationality, not something less. Not by sitting idly by and allowing events to roll over us. Not by awaiting the sudden appearance on earth of some heaven-sent umpire who shall box our ears and set us about our business. This much seems clear: that this end, if it is to be achieved at all, must be achieved by the greatest forces that man has now at his disposal. Nations and leagues of nations must assume the functions of international control. Their very strength, so terrible in destruction, must be directed to the larger end of construction. Just as the order-loving individual had first to enact the law for himself and in his own behalf, so the more enlightened and more liberal nations must take upon themselves the functions of international justice. One such nation, or an alliance of such nations, will be its first rude organ. Such an organ will necessarily be governed in part by the nearer motive of party interest, cut this need not prevent the genuine existence of the higher motive as well. And just as the evolution of democracy means the gradual purification of the governmental motive, the purging of it from admixture with personal, dynastic, and class interests, so we may expect to witness on the larger scale the gradual evolution of some similarly disinterested agency that shall represent the good of all mankind.

It is commonly and truly said that the present war is the most terrible in history. We have, I believe, been too quick to see in this a reason for despair. Wars become terrible in proportion to the strength of the warring parties, in numbers, organization, and science. But what of this strength? Shall we count it no achievement? A war between Italy and Austria is more terrible than a war between Venice and Genoa, but only because Venice and Genoa have learned to live in peace and have achieved the strength of union and coöperation. We are witnessing to-day, not a mere war between nations, but the more awful collision between alliances of nations. The horror of the catastrophe should not blind us to the fact that France and England, for example, have learned that each has more to gain from the other’s prosperity than from its decay, and that their differences are negligible when compared with their common interests. Together they possess strength of a higher order, terrible in war, but proportionally beneficent in peace. The evolution of human solidarity and organization has brought us to the stage of great international alliances.

It is thus in keeping with the record of human progress that the last war should be the worst, — and the worst the last. For the only human force more terrible than a league of some nations in the league of all nations, the league of man. The same motive that has led to the one will lead to the other—the desire, namely, to avoid the loss and weakness of conflict, and to attain the incomparable advantages of coöperative life; this last alliance will then have no human adversary left, but may devote its supreme power to perfecting the lot of the individual, and scotching the devil of reaction.

The goods that are worth fighting for are first of all existent goods, embodied in the life of man. Such goods are created by physical forces, may be destroyed by physical forces, and may require to be defended by physical forces. They are worth fighting for when they are greater goods than those which have to be fought against. Civil law is worth fighting for, against the lawless individual. National integrity is worth fighting for, against disruptive factions or unscrupulous rivals. The general good of mankind is worth fighting for, against the narrower purpose of national aggrandizement. These greater goods are worth fighting for; nothing is really worth fighting against. It therefore behooves every high-spirited individual or nation to be both strong and purposeful. Strength without high purpose is soulless and brutal; purpose without strength is unreal and impotent.

We in America cannot, it is true, afford to build armies and navies from sheer bravado. Our strength must be consecrated to the best that the most enlightened reason and the most sensitive conscience can discern. But, on the other hand, we cannot afford to cherish any ideal whatsoever unless at the same time we are willing to put forth the effort that is commensurate with its realization. The corrective of militarism is not complacency and neglect, but humane purpose; and the corrective of pacifism is not a lapse into barbarism, but the acquiring of sufficient might and resolution to do the work which that purpose requires.