Wreckage at Sunrise

The vengeance mounting in Europe today is awful to contemplate. What will the wreckage look like in the sunrise of the peace?

by H. M. TOMLINSON

1

THE prospect from London Bridge is not what it was. The appearance of great antiquity can be disturbing. In a cold light one sees in a glance that for war the guidance for a good life must be reversed. Generosity in war might set your town alight; and havoc no sane man would think of, especially in a morning light, takes its infernal place as a benediction in death’s new way to success. The worst becomes the best. For our gift of reason, which places us above the beasts, can justify, according to circumstance, every variation in all conceivable desires, as though devilry could juggle unseen with our soundest argument. What tiger would sink into prolonged and careful study, and then give himself to rigorous training, that he might enter another den with the least risk to kill his neighbor’s cubs? Tigers are not known to do this. Simple ferocity is deficient in intellectual planning.

Despite the assurances of the Church and the academies, we should not accept too confidently the story of our superiority to the beasts. That unique ability to think things out is dubious. We are beginning to see that the best of intentions followed in flawless logic may take us anywhere but to the desired haven. So odd an outcome of man’s special privilege, that the conclusion to an argument for prosperity can be in hell, appears to carry a further warning. It would be prudent to assume, apparently, as the saints have told us, that man’s supreme gift is not from blind chance and for no purpose whatever. But suppose he did get it that way? No, we will not. We dare not. As some security for the continuance of hearth and home, let us firmly believe that in such an idea hope dies for want of air. That supposition is nihilism and old night. There is a wide choice for the use of the mind, but let one purpose remain above all others, the ageless search for truth amid the mystery of existence, and from this search it is better to exclude self as much as we can. Self, we have sad cause to know, is unsympathetic in this greatest of adventures.

The mystery is excessively darkened at this moment, as a consequence of man’s efforts to improve his place in the universe. Let us look at our wreckage in a morning light. To put things right again, we are called upon to destroy instead of create, and obey without misgiving. There is no misgiving because our way of life and our cherished institutions, without which we feel existence could have no meaning, have been marked for burial, and the last rite has come so near that we have had to stare Death in the eye, waiting for his stroke, for a period which felt like a century. It is not enjoyable. But in the meantime, we cannot help noting, the moral order we defend has become as reproachful as a policeman’s helmet in the gutter the morning after a riot. The symbol of law and order is soddened and battered. This unsought trifle of observation, while we still actively dodge explosions, while trying to save the altar, is startling in its mild reminder of sanity in neglect.

It is as if we were warned that sanity, which we had almost forgotten, is still somewhere in the background of our affairs, waiting for the passing of the gun wheels. Just for an instant we surmise that those wheels cannot be endlessly turning; a calm morning will come, with no ships blowing up, and no houses on fire. Only the silent ruins will be there, waiting for a recreative word. And then?

Well, one begins to wonder already, and in fear, whether the primitive surge of passion necessary for the defeat of an enemy who would abolish us may be no simple force. It may carry us beyond our aim, and we not know it. It may have unsuspected attributes. Its logic may take us far astray, and lose us. There was a book, written soon after the end of the other war, by a brave soldier and thinker, and its author, C. E. Montague, called it Disenchantment. What disenchanted my friend Montague was the continuing hateful look of the world when he had put up his sword, his enemy being down and out. Do you remember, too, the valorous warrior in the old fairy tale? He was a good man, but his aim became impure in his pursuit of a monster, and thus it happened that when at last his cunning shaft transfixed the brute, and he was victorious, he saw that he had also struck his love in the heart, and his world in victory turned all desolate.

How much more confident we should feel in battle if we knew that, in the welcome dayspring of peace, we did not in victory look round on desolation, with beauty dead in it! Even now, while we watch the enemy for the first signs of his downfall, a doubt takes us of our liability in victory. The gravity of the matter begins to be felt when we know that the English-speaking peoples are chiefly responsible for the future welfare of mankind. That is our fate. If we refuse it, our fate will be no better. Though whether we have the good-will for the task, and sufficient knowledge for it — Have we so much as the knowledge? You have but to listen to the clamoring voices around to guess that Peace and her dove, when they arrive, if welcomed by common passions, might show’ only a few scattered feathers by next morning. It will be far easier to win the war, though that has looked impossible on some days, than to save the peace.

2

The worst thing in the shouting and the confusion is the suggestion, as though we were haunted, of ghostly sounds heard out of that other war; menacing echoes, well remembered, from the dark of the past. Those disenchanting noises grow more familiar and more insistent, as the gunfire and alarms of this war increase. You say it is mere fancy? That all in those years is dead? Yes, it is certain our friends are dead, those gallant hearts who stood to it in the old front line, with only a clear conviction, and no heat, and no hate. The echoes are not of their battle cries, for they never exhausted their souls with hate. But voices from that halfforgotten war we certainly hear; and they are older even than that, and reach us from a past still more remote. They are as old as humanity; as old as cruelty, and as recent as rage this morning over frustration and loss.

The fierce excitement which confuses past and present is becoming the war’s most alarming problem. How if, when we have victory, we have our worst selves to fight? Barbarism not only quickens its own sort, but can make barbarians of us all. The Nazis, desperate through fear, are murdering innocents and old people, thinking to rouse a general terror which will preserve them when they turn their backs. Their loutish ignorance of course is unaware of the power of the army of the dead. Dead men tell no tales? Do they not! What a tale these dead men are telling! The spilled blood of innocents is more terrible than heavy batteries. The memory of the martyred is in the very grass and stones, and follows the retreating feet of executioners.

Some hostages are shot; and free in that place from possible danger, the Nazis march to another village, to do the like. A huddle of unknown men and women lies against a wall, and the quicklime is sent for, to end the matter. But the matter is not ended. Dire phantoms have been called up, which guns cannot manage. Horror, hate, vengeance, fury, the hosts of the pit, take the place of the villagers, and thus it is our lot to fight, not only evildoers, but the malevolence they have released universally from the dark of the mind. How did each of us feel when news came of what happened at Lidice? Yet, with such news, we are expected to be rather better than Cromwell’s Ironsides, who were not surprised and changed by anything; as good at least as George Washington himself, who had occasions to be indignant, but did not lose his head. Those atrocities, in truth, force us to battle with ourselves, and for that secret warfare there is no practical manual, no guidance at all but one’s own candlelight kept by what faith we can muster in the best message, known to us all, ever vouchsafed to wayward man.

The clamor of the multitude is not easily resisted when it comes of revolt against cruelty and a loathing of brutes, for it finds ready response in one’s own heart. It is a generous emotion. But it is only an emotion. Resist it we must, for our purpose in this war is superior to all transient gusts of the feelings. The foundations of an international commonwealth, as free as is possible of the motives which have made Pandemonium the newest and most appropriate name for Earth, would be ruined by stains of hate. Resistance to wrong counsel will come easier when we remember, amid the tumult, that common people everywhere, whatever their color and nation, are friendly to the friendly, prefer good neighbors to bad, and life to death. Our foes are the men who have our fellows in their power. To break the power to control the lives and opinions of our neighbors, whoever has it, is our sole excuse for taking to the gun, though that argument was forced on us.

3

It says something for democracy that its chosen leaders in this revolution are men so superior to their opponents, in most that makes men great, that we are as grateful as though we had been given a sign. Roosevelt, from London to China, for one, is heard because the right word tells as surely as sunlight; his counsel creates a good spirit where the immediate prospect is without hope.

But we should fail, nevertheless, if we depended only on our leaders. Amid the clamoring of the multitude we catch the right accent at times, and know that the nobodies could not have chosen such leaders if unaware of the virtues. But recently I heard an unnamed British airman broadcasting. His aeroplane, he told us, was one of a flight of fighters which chanced on thirteen German air transports over the sea, flying troops to Libya. He related how they shot down eleven of them: “an airman’s dream come true.” Following down a giant plane to the water, to make sure of it, he saw what happened when its company was cast into waves alight with flaming oil. That young man’s voice fell. It was clear he meant to tell us more, but faltered, and said simply, “It wasn’t good to see.” He then went off the air.

And a soldier home on leave — he was through the Battle of London — was with me on the Sunday morning when it was announced that more than a thousand planes had bombed Cologne. He exclaimed in horror, and put his hand on me, as if for support. Later, thinking it over, he recalled the dreadful argument which the Fascists had started, and confessed that it was our hard luck to show them what its conclusion must be. There was no other way. Still, he was affected. Nor did a man or woman in London that I spoke to about Cologne express anything but regret for the cruel logic of it, for they knew what it meant. They themselves had suffered it, in their minds, bodies, and homes.

Amid the uproar, one meets persons speaking as citizens of the world. They express, in what seems to be chaos, their sense of individual responsibility; and certainly without that understanding of civility even a democracy would die. The great city is the city of the best men and women. Its rulers cannot make it great. If the right spirit is not in its tenements, then the city is as dead as Babylon, or deserves to be. And if ever there was a day in the story of humanity when the common man must summon his wit and will to decide which way history shall go, it is now. All depends on him. Unless that fellow chooses to refashion this earth nearer to the heart’s desire, civilization must perish. The danger is, not that he is unworthy and unwilling to choose, but that he has never understood history to be but the story of himself, and from as far back as the day when he shaped flints. History is, in all its lessons, no more than the imperfect reflection of his apprehension of good and evil.

4

“O, Sairey, Sairey,” Mrs. Harris once repined to Mrs. Gamp, “little do we know what lies before us.” But Mrs. Gamp, having no reason at the moment to be cautious, remembered simply that she had had to be a mother more than once, and said to her friend, “Not much, it’s true, but more than you suppose.”

Mrs. Gamp’s speech, as a rule, roved in attractive guile while dodging its subject, but for once, concerning the shape of things to come, she was more honest than nicer people often are when accounting for trouble. She knew what to expect, when aware of a cause for it. No romantic mystery was made of destiny and its inscrutability; no sorrow, as with noble minds, over man as the helpless sport of the gods. She didn’t know much about the future, but she could not pretend to be non-contributory and in complete ignorance of what was in store.

Shall we, too, own up? Because more often than we are willing to admit — there are pride, prejudice, and perhaps investments, to be preserved — what lies before us must be the result of what lies behind us. Even war, like plague, has an ancestry. Even peace, when we see it, will have features resembling whatever is present in our minds this hour. What is it we are thinking? Could not forethought work good into it, as well as the satisfaction of hate, and improved bombers? We have seen how battle tests the virtues in men and their societies, and that lofty bunkum and clever subterfuge have not the survival value of dirt. This suggests it would be better not to pretend that we did not generate folly’s progeny; that their father was Fate. It is clear that man may dispense with the help of Norns and Fates.

I have but to look on ruin in London, remember what has happened to this planet since the use of metals was discovered, and name the successful creature who did it all, to understand that man has nothing to learn from the Furies. If he is a little lower than the angels, he can be, when he tries, the most ferocious and destructive beast that ever lived.

General tribulation does not fall from the blue uninvited. We have known for some time that it is more expedient to examine the drains than to attribute epidemics to witchcraft. Destiny is but the last refuge of fools who could have known better, and acted more decorously, but discovered too late they were woefully out in their reckoning. The common defects in humanity, which are such splendid fun in satire, are enough to account for history’s black chapters and our present desolation. There is no need to add the further hopeless idea of an Immanent Will which does not care what happens to us. Let us, since we are forced, admit the truth of it: as we are, so is our world. How much does that leave Fate to do with the future?

After all, our understanding of the problem of living was slighter than our churches, libraries, laboratories, and universities suggested. Enough knowledge was possessed to have crowned a civilization, but good intent would not appear to have gone far enough to correct perversion by cleverness and greed.

Has there ever been a grave upset in social relations, such as this blasting spectacle we now watch to see whose house will next catch fire, that has not had its origin in plain sight for years, to those with eyes to see? It is already an old tale when the man in the street, casual and unlucky fellow, stares in dismay at the announcing headlines. Too late! He affects the Innocence of a child in a street accident. He is unaware that he has been shamefully inattentive, for he could easily have known that this was on its way to run into him, unless he and his neighbors gave it urgent thought, and balked it. Too late now! There is nothing for it but the recruiting office, or the bankruptcy court, or both; both, usually, being in the same block.

5

It was written of the Treaty of Versailles at the time it was published, “This is a bridge, of tinder over hell.” If you would learn what the rosy confidence of proud man can be when he is most sure of his brains, and at a turning point in history which would have sent archangels hurrying back to the empyrean anxious for further advice, go to the records of what public men in Europe and America were saying and doing for ten years following November 11, 1918. On the other hand, don’t. It might make you ill. But I was a journalist then, and for long after, and was compelled to suffer it.

As to Hitler and a number of others, if we knew the millstones were about their necks, and at this moment they were dropping into the midst of the sea, tonight would be calm and starry. But our greater problems would still be here. Hitler is incidental, not a cause but an issue, like the outcome of neglect when the human swarms are disorderly. We should never have heard of him in a world that had been sanely active. In May, 1919, I was editing the London Nation in H. W. Massingham’s absence. One press day the text of the Peace Treaty came in. The journal was nearly done, but that emergency had to be examined and given first place. Then J. A. Hobson appeared in my room, the most welcome man in England. He was not heard to enter at any time; he had the approach of a wraith. I thrust the document at him gladly, for a first perusal.

It is certain that all serious American students of society and its ways at least have heard of Hobson, and they may care to know that Lenin, to his confessed advantage, had read that Englishman’s works. J. A. Hobson was the most selfless, learned, and wise politician and economist I have known. His tall attenuated figure stood at a reading desk that day for an hour, without a movement, except to turn another page of the document tenderly. He had an air of arrested venerability. He was aged, but would not grow older. His dry and drab exterior would remain unchanged by weather and circumstance, on the point of extinction, but constant. I remember him with care, because, though he has really gone, his quality is with us, and could help. His sparse and grizzled hair and mustache were untidy. He would have been quite neutral but for his eyes, which had a dancing glint. That sign of vigilance was most of the liveliness his body showed, except that, when he was stirred, one eyebrow rose, a warning to the clever ones that they were seen through, if they cared to notice it. One of life’s pleasures has been to watch that eyebrow go up, and an admonitory index finger rise with it, at the end of a loud debate, when Hobson’s sly fun and better knowledge kindly lowered us to ground level. At length he turned from the desk, looked at me over the top of his steel-rimmed spectacles, and used his index finger on the document for punctuation. He said, “This is a political and military document. It means bayonets, not bread. It took four years to win the war. It will take forty to win the peace.”

6

Though more than half that period has gone, we are still hard at it. There can be no single and simple reason for this long unkindness of Fate. It is not in nature that troubles so protracted, involved, and severe should fall on innocents from an ever-vengeful sky, or humanity would have died out before it had reached the ability and leisure to improve the grape and make music. Nor could those frustrations have come from the diabolism of a few evil men, however powerful. There is no easy absolution for us. Our activities must have been wrongly inspired. What intelligent man would care to swear his country’s past is like the virgin cheer of Eden? He remembers there is the evidence of history.

History is not bunk, as a famous and pious industrialist once said it was, perhaps hoping to exorcise some effects he disliked by denying all cause. History, for one thing, and sometimes unluckily, is the potent heritage of old time. Because of law, we look to harvest beyond the sowing; and as to one crop, whatsoever statesmen sow, that we must reap. Every country has its lively variety of politicians, which makes it difficult for one nation to be solely responsible for universal woe. Some countries, usually small, have long outgrown the desire for aggressive war; and some greater nations have become weary of the glory of trumpets and drums. We may fairly say of the American and British peoples that they regard war with horror. But horror of war, however, does not preserve peace.

Let us recall how, during the last war, we became so numbed by years of horrible concussions that when the uproar stopped we were but glad. Our grateful apathy was the opportunity, golden of course, for men of energy and cunning whose interest in personal advantage remained unimpaired and close. The abrupt and welcome end of the war, and the following inconsequence of populations tired in body and will, were the chance for those who represented conventional ideas and aims, out of which the disastrous conflict had arisen, to slip back into the seats of power. This they did, unrecognized for what they represented. And there, in control, they were, during all the years when naked swords were beginning again to peep through the soil. Our chosen leaders ignored the phenomenon. We may only surmise that among the general ideas which govern the policies of industry, commerce, and finance, not a notion was to be found for controlling and extinguishing the glitter of lethal steel, when its sharp points began to spike up once more in the fields of earth, superior to corn.

Not an idea to promote a purpose so good seems to burn brightly with those whose thoughts are fixed on personal advantage. But it is for ideas we are at war, since we have been forced to declare that we would sooner perish than allow all the best that humanity has won to be lost in ultimate night. We will not taunt those politicians and publicists who could not find, in the years behind us, time to attend to ideas, and to discern the difference between black and white, but we may point to the fact that they could have read Hitler’s testament. They should have noticed that such infectious stuff out of fevered ignorance, which could not have gone far in a land where print was free to all and purchase optional, was imposed as holy writ on the folk of a great country; a nation always strangely submissive to harness, curiously willing to obey orders contrary to its own repute for scholarship, thought, and art, to ignore its sentiment for religion, and to march in a tranced state, it never knows where, to it doesn’t know what. The voice of the author of that book held spellbound a multitude with a peculiar aptitude for war. No, it is not easy to forgive our politicals for not knowing, many years ago, what was under their noses.

There was the smell of it. Nor was that all. Their attention was called to this pervasive warning of disease; yet they pretended to be unaware of anything peculiar. They declared they noticed nothing foul, nothing inimical to life and loveliness. The smell, though bad, they thought was probably a sign of growing strength. It meant a rising of new power, an influx on the wind of generation at work. They sagely rebuked those whose alarms and revulsions broke into the calm which is essential to chancelleries, if great office is to be kept with that dignity which shows its foundation is as the everlasting mercy.

And, after all, who were they that interrupted the ancient tradition of official calm? As a rule, merely artists, scientists, and writers, and other thinkers, most of them young people of generous instincts outside the pale of orthodoxy; and these, if occasionally their reputation was world-wide, instead of being confined to the rules of exclusive clubs, to popular print, and to the needs of party intrigue, only appealed to reason; and as the public of every democracy has been in the habit of looking to its legislature for the best available knowledge and opinions, and never there for reason, but only for reasons, legislators and candidates for a share of power, and publicists who desire as much control as eloquence can win, may always safely ignore the smallish groups which represent thought, because thoughtful men and women are not likely to affect popular franchise.

7

This can only mean that never yet has there appeared on earth a fair democracy; it has not yet been called up. Such a community could appear only at the call of wisdom, which has been named the fear of God; so men till now have not enjoyed its liberty. That liberty can be had but at a price —a price men may be reluctant to pay, I suppose, even for residence within the jurisdiction of Zion. They are slow to give up anything, even the causes of their tribulations, such as the satisfaction of hate. There can be nothing remotely resembling a city ruled in wisdom while citizens are slow to surrender self, and to surrender it for no more, in return, than the privilege of serving. The desire for mastership is difficult to forget, though the majority of those who seek mastery usually find themselves, in the long run, at the end of the bread line, or in a worse place. It is not so easy as it seems, to give our best to society, instead of our worst, for our existence is suffered by our neighbors not on the highest terms, but the lowest. This is obvious even in the arts, and in politics it is notorious.

If clews are to be found for a way through chaos, we should begin somewhere near that admission. Any effort seen anywhere, in one’s own community or outside it, to control the right to serve where there are liberty, equality, and fraternity—values not in the foundations of any city ever built — should be dealt with shortly as the police handle a malefactor breaking the peace. It should be so highly unprofitable to assume a claim to mastership that men would as soon choose to be lepers. But education for that has hardly begun. The schools are not built. No church is here yet. The pioneers are but surveying the wilderness, and the only faint promise is an Atlantic Charter. The capitals of the world have been growths out of surges of blind life lusty for power, and now they are threatened with decay. Material welfare in its finest display depends on the sanctions of multitudinous nobodies, and when those sanctions are withdrawn from the historic prospect of ships, harbors, spires, warehouses, and factories, that show of rich reality proves to have no better roots than the famous hanging gardens of Babylon.

Those gardens have perished. And the magnificent efflorescence of this age of machines, young and freely budding as it is, spreading wild everywhere till of late, may die off; for the winds of heaven blow where they list, and they blow now from a wintry quarter, bad for all human interests subject to rust. The latest work of our hands is not only more delicate, but requires justification from which gardens are exempt. The admired wheels, without they have good reason, may cease to turn. They got their form and use from the motives of this age, the spirit of our time; but that inspiration was always ambiguous, and religion and the arts have been shy of it, on instinct, when not deriding it. To attempt to justify industrial civilization with the plea that it works, while we witness it in dissolution because of its inherent falsities, would be unintelligent. Great cities have the aspect of the wilderness. Our democratic institutions, with no more to keep them going than their old inspiration, will fall, and our forums and schools revert to thistles and chance weeds in emptiness. In Europe already the weeds are in possession of the rubble; we look around and even see the sterility of our former brave notions. Desolation!

What then? As to failure, we may cheerfully own to that, in a morning light, while there is freedom to begin anew. There are other worlds. There have been signs for years that the soul of man was ready for new and greater adventures. The oceans and continents are all explored. Material conquest can go no further, except to the conquest of itself. The breath of life is stirring. Man’s apprehension of circumstance is widening. The possible is enlarged. We have glimpses of space exacting greater faith and courage to explore than were needed for the circumnavigation of the earth. We start from here. It is another day, and we have struck tents, and are on the march. “‘Dear City of Cecrops, ‘ said the poet. But shall we not say of the world, ‘Dear City of God’?”