Back to First Things

I

THE sailor was departing. His leave was up. We stood, the two of us, before separating, on a ridge above the Channel, waiting for the sun to show himself. The sky was kindling over France. We had not long to wait, only a few minutes more to be together, so there was nothing to say. Like others before us, the future questionable, I desired a token, some sign or another, anything would do, to tell me how things would be; but nothing showed in the sky but radial colors.

There came day! An arc of fire peered over the sea, and burnished it. Flames caught the clouds, and increased the zones of heaven. Athwart the bright plane of the Channel were arrayed the distinct black models of a convoy of British ships, stretching from a famous headland and out far to westward. ‘Asking for it,’ said the sailor, ‘but not getting it. What a target! We wouldn’t have dared spread out so many in daylight that way this time last year. . . . I suppose we must be getting on. . . . But I wish America would tumble out soon, and pull her weight.’

As to that I could promise nothing, except the certainty that somehow, somewhere, the imponderables of opinion and desire would discharge, and America would be one indignant body in an hour. Then I stood watching his familiar figure while it descended the slope, and prayed, besides the advent of America, for several other things. The two of us were unaware that morning, when the sun greeted us over the sea, that on his way to meet us he had looked down on the affair at Pearl Harbor.

Japan had intended war, and America had not; and once more it had to be sadly admitted that the more confidently a patient man turns his back on plans for his undoing, the greater the chance he will be undone. Then, within a little, we were dumb, caught unprepared when told that the Repulse and Prince of Wales had gone down in the China Sea. Such ships! And outside Singapore! Between Singapore and Pearl Harbor there has always been an unavowed but intimate relationship, should the worst befall. The excellence in the method of Japan’s madness was made clear. What would happen next was easily guessed. Recrimination would be loud enough to be heard across the ocean. A babel of blame would arise, and the greater part of the noise would come from those who have never troubled to think out where the tide of events, from Versailles to Manchuria and on to Poland, would most likely carry the lot of us. Suddenly, therefore, everybody speaking English is discussing the right way to make war.

Let us admit that Authority had blundered. That is not blasphemous. It has been ascertained that governors, generals, and admirals are not well advised in all they do, even when most sure. Still, to be fair, we should also admit that to harmonize in an ocean the courses of the ships of a great fleet so that sufficient power can be at any point, in the right hour, is not a task for every man’s delight. To dispatch armed men by land, sea, and air to meet a foe who has the choice of rendezvous, but has not named it, needs second sight and other uncommon supports to free the act of worry. To order off many choice men and much precious material on the strength of conjecture out of the measurement of facts that are not available, despite the awful consequence of error, is not a responsibility for which most of us would compete. Yet the common reader and the ready writer, in their haste, never doubt that they are sufficient judges.

The other day — it was the day Java fell — I listened while a group of eager and honest elderly folk were explaining it, or explaining it away. It was undecided whether the loss of Java was of first importance or of small importance. In the midst of the talk a spectacled and youthful corporal leaned towards me and murmured, ‘ Our wearisome pedantic art of war, By which we prove retreat may be success, Delay best speed; half loss, at times, whole gain.’ The corporal had been sitting back in self-effacement till that moment. All he had done was to glance at me questioningly, once or twice. As he was so young, I had supposed he felt humble when the experienced and judicious were settling the matter. Then, having quoted Browning to a stranger, he winked, adjusted his glasses, and sank into nonentity.

I feel that but for these sparkles from younger people I should be inclined to wonder whether the fire was going out. But it is there. It is only somewhat smothered by neglect. These men and women are now acting in the field of war, and driving the factories at high speed, but a day must come when their wit will not boggle before the frowns of ancient monuments and gray jurists. That is the hope which keeps some of us going. If it should reach fulfillment, then the loss of Singapore will be only a footnote to history to mark the end of much that was due for oblivion.

At times they startle us with surmises about the probable origins of our difficulties. One thing which interests the younger sort is the supposition that this war could have been stayed where its first shot was fired, in Manchuria. They say that the hesitancy with which we watched Japan’s behavior must have been noted thankfully by Fascists everywhere. It told them that they were at liberty, if low cunning kept a face of shy reasonableness, to permeate everywhere for the eventual undermining and downfall of democracy. The point where universal ruin began can be marked on the map.

Of course, we know Manchuria was only China; but the sequence, from Shanghai down to Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore, and Batavia? Yes, and also from Madrid to Warsaw and Paris. There was a day when juridical noninterventionists — this too is a matter of history — would not allow hospitals of the Spanish Republicans to have cotton wool, though the Fascist powers were sending bombing squadrons. As Mark Twain once pointed out, how deadly is the silent lie! For which of us cried out? We remained apathetic witnesses while Chinese were killed and their goods stolen; and as the wounds were in Spain that had to be dressed with dirty bandages, we felt no hurt. Would it not be good for us to own up — because the future depends on the accuracy of our know ledge and the quality of our conviction. For it is true; if in civic matters the peoples of the democracies had acted with no more than the common sense and humanity they have shown in international affairs, we should now be fighting all the diseases of dirt as well as the present enemies of life and sanity. Let us remember that it is no more immoral for the Japanese to be looting and killing in Java than in Nanking; no more wrong than in San Francisco and Australia. All the peoples of the world are of one body. Prelates as well as poets have full authority for that dogma.

II

It is this inattention and indifference to first things that has brought us to war; and the war is total. Either the way of life we prefer must go, at Harvard as well as Oxford, — no side street of ours anywhere is exempt, — or else our enemies are broken. Between categorical opposites there can be no accommodation; what is day to the other fellow is not only night to us but final eclipse.

It will need an effort, but we might ask ourselves, though still appalled by what happens when nations run amuck, whether we have yet seen the face of one enemy as mischievous as any. If we inquire after this unsuspected foe a probability may appear, which is quite distasteful, and as hard to acknowledge as the aspect of failure always is, when personal. For is it not nonsensical in a democrat to condemn his government when affairs go awry? He is the government; or if nothing like it, that also is his affair. Democracy is the luxury of personal responsibility; and what does personal responsibility amount to if justice, through ignorance and neglect, is indistinguishable from its opposite? It begins to look as if an enemy were in the house. We seem to have been on easy terms with him. Anything to his advantage he claimed, but harm that left him untouched he did not feel. When he heard of distant havoc he was seldom curious enough to experience it in an atlas. What did not reach his own door could be forgotten. Only today does he begin to remember, and fear drives him to accuse something, that he may rid himself of dismay; to blame, let us say, this or that authority in his own country, or preferably in some other country not unfriendly to him; though he is unaware, of course, of its activities. The New Yorker and the Londoner are alike in that; it is human. Fear will make a man suddenly and fiercely political before he is aware of the truth that he was always a social creature. Explosions are lighting up those lands lately of no interest to him, and the blasts shake his kitchen.

Now he knows whether there is relationship between Vladivostok and London, Rangoon and New York. And there it is. It is disclosed, by a rain of fire, that continents are not separate entities, but are parts of the round body of this small and sensitive planet of ours. So an old question acquires severity. Who is my neighbor? I see it is of first importance to me what is thought and done in Tacoma, Chungking, and Delhi. Whatever happens there sends its impulse up the Thames. I learn that the way I regard Moscow means life or bullets to fine fellows I do not know. In the long history of mankind the day is here when we must accept the fellowship, or take the penalty for denial, which is doomsday.

An unofficial Washington commentator remarked recently, ‘The concept of this war is British, and the British, strictly speaking, are not in the war.’ What was at the back of that man’s mind? Maybe it would be better not to inquire. Let us hope it was a thought for the lives of American seamen. Nor will I answer that he ought to have been in London when Hitler had announced an immediate visit, or in my house while I was writing this, when a stricken enemy bomber fell and blew up closely; but I will dare swear that., until the guns went off, he had given small thought to what was likely to happen when war was not pedestrian, but on wings and wheels; that he had never guessed the first explosion would scatter all the sound textbooks into broken words, and leave commanding officers without guidance, looking seven ways for Sunday. Yet that fact could have been found, after a brief search. The British concept of war? Did Dunkirk show it?

We had no concept but to hold on lest we be blown off. I think it would be for the world’s good if Americans and British went to their perilous adventure together having agreed that not anywhere on earth — which brings in Germany and Japan was there an admiral, general, or air marshal who knew what would come of it when the new forces which science had in waiting were released. Germany, at the outset, made a near guess, based chiefly on the moral disintegration of France and hesitancy everywhere else; but the forces, as she understood them, are not at present working quite so well for her. Japan looked on, reading the lessons, and profiting from them in a way we have not; for our attention, with no enjoyment in war, was apt to wander. Yet the lessons were all new to Japan; there are her previous exploits in China to show it. If war is the last instrument applied to politics, then not a politician or warrior seems to have known how the instrument would certainly act, when applied. The French General Staff appears to have been absent in a fabulous garden, listening to the cuckoos, when the bugle sounded. Mussolini did not distinguish between war and opera, Hitler conceived a grand outburst of tanks and airplanes to overcome all at once, and the British had the ancient concept to hold on and hit back when a chance came; and presently Japan, too, will feel the embarrassment of the unexpected. The only statesman who seems to have judged well what might come about, and to have prepared for it, and who had a body of people behind him resolved to act at the call, was Stalin.

We may not enjoy admitting some of these facts, but we shall profit if we confess. To abandon some pride and prejudice will lighten the burden; there will be less on the march to cause suspicion, doubt, and bickering. Let us not waste time beating the air. We need only remember that in all the democracies the usual citizen was intent on benefits within the liberty of his reach, which he wished to extend. When he became grave and important about liberty, that is all he meant. With eyes bent narrowly on his interests, he never saw the sword dangling above his neck, as another interest, and so never paused to wonder on the chance of a squall, and from which quarter, bringing that thing down to destroy him and his liberty.

And of course that man was unaware that each new war confuses the trusted old brigade. It meant nothing to him that after the early months of the last war all the immense armies went to earth, and the generals knew no more what to do next, having no classical centre and flanks to pierce and turn, than a bust of Julius Cæsar. Not that there is ever anything new in war but the weapons, but these may make a plan of campaign, in a week or so, about as applicable as an old newspaper. The machine gun was master last time, sinking men into burrowing animals, till the tank, newly arrived, and four years of weariness, loosened a measure of mobility.

The first apparent lesson of this war moving on wings and wheels is that an army’s centre and flanks may be ignored altogether, and that it is fatal to go underground on the defensive while considering what to do next, since it is possible for the foe to speed forthwith to the seat of your government and occupy it. The enemy arrives not only by road, but by sky and sea. Soldiers who went to this war confident in the lessons of the last grand occasion were soon without flanks, centre, or base. They were surrounded. The mistake they made was in not going back far enough for their lessons, not by a long way; but it is absurd to blame them, because only now do we see that the latest instruments of science have compelled a return to Red Indian strategy and tactics — another of the wonders of science — with all the oceans and continents in which the genius of a Daniel Boone may spring surprises; and nobody had thought of that. General MacArthur and a few others, we may expect, are applying themselves to this planetary guerrilla warfare with zest, for it must be comfortable to a pioneering tradition. Quite the strangest outcome of total conflict with steel foundries, industrial plants, ships, broadcasting stations, the newspaper press, and armies that are winged and wheeled, is that, as in the days of chivalry and the battle-axe, individual wit and initiative has broken out of the academies, and is making light of the gravity of the whole pedantic art of war. The value of the person is restored. In Russia there is not only a front to this war, but a back, extending to the German rear nobody knows how far. Guerrillas rise from the ground as ghostly commandos where, by all the proprieties of battle, the Germans should be in full ownership. Central Europe is haunted. Words are whispered, in the very armament factories of the Nazis, which will one day enlarge and bring prisons down, like the walls of Jericho, with a releasing shout. Critics who are nervous before this prospect, and who suppose they can keep its purport from our thoughts with the publicity devices which hitherto have served, might as well sit on the top of Krakatao when it begins to smoke. It is coming. For it would be expedient not to imagine that Japan will topple only after Tokyo is bombarded. Japan, I fancy, will begin to totter in Poland, as another paradox of this war. Anyhow, the enemy rarely appears where he was expected; and his discomfiture begins at a place from which his eyes were turned, for a reason he had not considered.

III

But then war, though there is never anything new in it but the weapons, is paradoxical itself, and that may explain why it rarely teaches us much. Afterwards we want to disencumber the mind of its litter, except the memory of comradeship. It is even paradoxical that we should recall but good in the hateful. That may explain why we are caught next time, for we have been inattentive, while badly disposed men have been alert to the likelihood of gaining power by the extravagant use of new engines. They saw that the speed of motorized pillboxes and of winged artillery ought to be good for a surprise, especially over the inattentive and reluctant. Yet those panzer divisions, dive bombers, and wheeled columns but recall what happened in Europe long centuries before them, when floods of archers on horseback from the steppes of Asia submerged Russia and reached mid-Europe, for armies of footmen with pikes were helpless. Europe seemed lost then, as now under the swift machines, till dissensions amid success slowed the Mongol impulse, and it failed.

Nothing is new in it, except the novel application of those expedients as old as flint weapons, surprise and speed. We are again hearing of commandos. We heard of them first at the beginning of this century, when British generals in South Africa were hurt and indignant when groups of Boers appeared able to materialize out of the nothing. The Boers conjured themselves up when least welcome. A commando blew in where all seemed well, and when it was chased it had gone. Transport was ruined, havoc made of sound plans; and there was not a guess at where it would happen next, as happen it would. It was very improper, and nowhere provided for in the manuals, but it happened, and was successful.

America is wondering, I suppose, what the British Army is doing. As an old war correspondent I can say this. Far the greater part of our army in France last time was raised in the British Isles, but outsiders never knew it. We never told them. There were numberless battalions of our county regiments, taking most of the casualties, yet they were rarely named by us. The censorship was shy over those common names. The British themselves — oddly, if you like — were informed chiefly of the doings and valor of the troops from overseas, and of a few favored home regiments. We have nobody to blame but ourselves this time when other people wonder what our men are doing, since we prefer to trumpet praise of troops from the Dominions and India; and they have earned it, as the conquest of Northeast Africa shows. Still, our own men, too, were there. Bear in mind that the British would hail American prowess with gusto, but would be shaky and indecisive with the trumpet on their own account. My people have a nervous habit of understatement. Fearful of rant, they become immoderate in moderation. When the bomber crew alighted, after a raid over Kiel, with their machine in tatters, and you wondered how the wreckage had remained aloft, and on fire, one youngster remarked that he rather thought they were having a touch of luck. You can never get those fellows to talk. Ironic and allusive, all that happened was some luck, if they survive.

We learn with surprise, in a laconic message, of another outbreak by one of our commandos — of ships, airplanes, paratroops, and infantry becoming one force in an adventure. Now, we rarely see one of those men. Where they are hidden and trained nobody seems to know; they are as circumspect with us as they are with the enemy. There is but silence till all is done, and as to how they did it no robust tale is given out. But we do know their training would break the heart, if weakness were there, of a hardened explorer, for stories of that come through; and exploration without regard to peril in unknown territory where they are not wanted is their vocation. We are back in this war to first things. The heart and intelligence of the common man, and a Spartan hardihood, though nearly all the news we get is of the impersonal nature of total war, take on a significance that transcends the power of the machines; the man himself is again of first importance, as in the beginning. And nobody had thought of that, as another outcome of war waged by engines.

So strange a consequence is auspicious. We had forgotten, even in the democracies, that the person is above the state, and that its august machinery, without his approval and drive, is with the discarded iron. His word sanctions the state and gives it purpose. That original fact has been obscured by the noise and dust of factions contending, while the illusion of peace allowed it, for the security of privileges; but now, when the foundations of society are threatened by anarchy, the common man is quicker than the jurists to sense the peril, for his only precedents are the freedom of his mind and the necessity of his hearth. Out of imminent disaster comes the beginning of understanding. If his household gods go, then the Commonwealth loses its meaning. What the Commonwealth means is life, and the abundance of life’s undertakings for good. All must go, unless he give his full value to save the rights of his neighbors. Do you know of what more he could do?

We return to first things. It has been remarked — only by a poet, I know, and not by a prudent measurer — that in the familiar Hebrew description of the way Creation went the first prescription for chaos was Light. It is usual to assume that this bright revealing of the task of shaping things out of darkness and confusion was by the heavenly lamps we know. Not so, says the poet. Light came first. In the only way a poet would understand creative effort, the sun would have to be imaged before it could be made. There must be vision, or a thing that is to be cannot be walled to arise. Light was, before heaven was above, or earth beneath; before the sun rose, and moon and stars. Mind came, to prevail over confusion in the universal dark. In the beginning was the word for order and comeliness. But darkness was not destroyed. There it still is; and the original creative word loses power when it is forgotten. Order and comeliness, though settled under the firmament, and seen to be good, have to be kept, or disorder and darkness flood in to founder the gains. Creation never ends.