Home > Uncategorized > Havelock Ellis: War, a relapse from civilisation into barbarism, if not savagery

Havelock Ellis: War, a relapse from civilisation into barbarism, if not savagery

Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Havelock Ellis
From Essays in War-Time (1917)

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Evolution and War

It has sometimes been maintained — never more energetically than to-day, especially among the nations which most eagerly entered the present conflict — that war is a biological necessity. War, we are told, is a manifestation of the “Struggle for Life”; it is the inevitable application to mankind of the Darwinian “law” of natural selection. There are, however, two capital and final objections to this view. On the one hand it is not supported by anything that Darwin himself said, and on the other hand it is denied as a fact by those authorities on natural history who speak with most knowledge. That Darwin regarded war as an insignificant or even non-existent part of natural selection must be clear to all who have read his books.

The case is altered when we turn from savagery to civilisation. The new and more complex social order while, on the one hand, it presents substitutes for war in so far as war is a source of virtues, on the other hand, renders war a much more dangerous performance both to the individual and to the community, becoming indeed, progressively more dangerous to both, until it reaches such a climax of world-wide injury as we witness to-day. The claim made in primitive societies that warfare is necessary to the maintenance of virility and courage, a claim so fully admitted that only the youth furnished with trophies of heads or scalps can hope to become an accepted lover, is out of date in civilisation. For under civilised conditions there are hundreds of avocations which furnish exactly the same conditions as warfare for the cultivation of all the manly virtues of enterprise and courage and endurance, physical or moral. Not only are these new avocations equally potent for the cultivation of virility, but far more useful for the social ends of civilisation. For these ends warfare is altogether less adapted than it is for the social ends of savagery. It is much less congenial to the tastes and aptitudes of the individual, while at the same time it is incomparably more injurious to Society. In savagery little is risked by war, for the precious heirlooms of humanity have not yet been created, and war can destroy nothing which cannot easily be remade by the people who first made it. But civilisation possesses — and in that possession, indeed, civilisation largely consists — the precious traditions of past ages that can never live again, embodied in part in exquisite productions of varied beauty which are a continual joy and inspiration to mankind, and in part in slowly evolved habits and laws of social amenity, and reasonable freedom, and mutual independence, which under civilised conditions war, whether between nations or between classes, tends to destroy, and in so destroying to inflict a permanent loss in the material heirlooms of Mankind and a serious injury to the spiritual traditions of civilisation.

It is possible to go further and to declare that warfare is in contradiction with the whole of the influences which build up and organise civilisation…As soon as civilised society realised that it was necessary to forbid two persons to settle their disputes by individual fighting, or by initiating blood-feuds, or by arming friends and followers, setting up courts of justice for the peaceable settlement of disputes, the death-blow of all war was struck. For all the arguments that proved strong enough to condemn war between two individuals are infinitely stronger to condemn war between the populations of two-thirds of the earth. But, while it was a comparatively easy task for a State to abolish war and impose peace within its own boundaries — and nearly all over Europe the process was begun and for the most part ended centuries ago — it is a vastly more difficult task to abolish war and impose peace between powerful States. Yet at the point at which we stand to-day civilisation can make no further progress until this is done. Solitary thinkers, like the Abbé de Saint-Pierre, and even great practical statesmen like Sully and Penn, have from time to time realised this fact during the past four centuries, and attempted to convert it into actuality. But it cannot be done until the great democracies are won over to a conviction of its inevitable necessity.

War is not a permanent factor of national evolution, but for the most part has no place in Nature at all; it has played a part in the early development of primitive human society, but, as savagery passes into civilisation, its beneficial effects are lost, and, on the highest stages of human progress, mankind once more tends to be enfolded, this time consciously and deliberately, in the general harmony of Nature.

War and Eugenics

“Wars are not paid for in war-time,” said Benjamin Franklin, “the bill comes later.”

It is scarcely necessary to add that all [the] bald estimates of the number of direct victims to war give no clue to the moral and material damage — apart from all question of injury to the race — done by the sudden or slow destruction of so large a proportion of the young manhood of the world, the ever widening circles of anguish and misery and destitution which every fatal bullet imposes on humanity, for it is probable that for every ten million soldiers who fall on the field, fifty million other persons at home are plunged into grief or poverty, or some form of life-diminishing trouble.

This consideration brings us to those “moral equivalents of war” which William James was once concerned over, when he advocated, in place of military conscription, “a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature.” Such a method of formally organising in the cause of civilisation, instead of in the cause of savagery, the old military traditions of hardihood and discipline may well have its value. But the present war has shown us that in no case need we fear that these high qualities will perish in any vitally progressive civilisation. For they are qualities that lie in the heart of humanity itself. They are not created by the drill-sergeant; he merely utilises them for his own, as we may perhaps think, disastrous ends.

Morality in Warfare

There are some idealistic persons who believe that morality and war are incompatible. War is bestial, they hold, war is devilish; in its presence it is absurd, almost farcical, to talk about morality. That would be so if morality meant the code, for ever unattained, of the Sermon on the Mount. But there is not only the morality of Jesus, there is the morality of Mumbo Jumbo. In other words, and limiting ourselves to the narrower range of the civilised world, there is the morality of Machiavelli and Bismarck, and the morality of St. Francis and Tolstoy.

As a matter of fact, this charge of “barbarism” against those methods of warfare which shock our moral sense must not be taken too literally. The methods of real barbarians in war are not especially “barbarous.” They have sometimes committed acts of cruelty which are revolting to us to-day, but for the most part the excesses of barbarous warfare have been looting and burning, together with more or less raping of women, and these excesses have been so frequent within the last century, and still to-day, that they may as well be called “civilised” as “barbarous.”

The fact seems to be that while war is nowadays less chronic than of old, less prolonged, and less easily provoked, it is a serious fallacy to suppose that it is also less barbarous. We imagine that it must be so simply because we believe, on more or less plausible grounds, that our life generally is growing less barbarous and more civilised. But war, by its very nature, always means a relapse from civilisation into barbarism, if not savagery. We may sympathise with the endeavour of the European soldiers of old to civilise warfare, and we may admire the remarkable extent to which they succeeded in doing so. But we cannot help feeling that their romantic and chivalrous notions of warfare were absurdly incongruous.

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  1. CAPTAIN ROBERT FLYNN KAMANSKY
    August 31, 2012 at 2:14 am

    I MUST COMMENT IN REAL TIME TO THIS BRILLIANT ESSAY CIRCA (1917). THE WAR HE TALKS ABOUT IS OBVIOUSLY NOT THE COLD WAR AND THE NUCLEAR AGE. AS YOU ALL KNOW I AM A COLD WAR I VETERAN. WE ALL MUST WATCH THE ACADEMY AWARD WINNING MOVIE ‘ ON THE BEACH’ WITH A CAST OF STARS UNEQUALED TODAY. YES AS THE LAST SCENE SAYS. ‘ BROTHER THERE IS STILL TIME.’ OBVIOUSLY, THERE WAS NOT STILL TIME ON THE BEACH! THE WORLD DESCRIBED IN THIS MOVIE WAS AT THE END TIMES. I FACED THIS END TIME AS A CAPTAIN OF ARMY IN OCTOBER OF 1973 THE YOM KIPPUR WAR AND THE USSR AND SYRIA, THE FIRST ARMORED DIVISION AND WBAMC, FT. BLISS, TEXAS. THIS ESSAY DOES NOT DESCRIBE THE DESTRUCTION OF ALL LIVING THINGS EARTHLY. IN 1917 THE USSR WAS OUR ALLY IN THE WAR TO END ALL WARS. I WISH THIS WERE TRUE TODAY THAT ALL HUMANITY, RUSSIAN, SYRIAN, USA, CHINA, ETC. COULD LIVE IN PEACE . THE COLD WAR I AS WAR DESCRIBED ABOVE HAD A DESTRUCTION FAR BEYOND ITS END GAME IN 1991; AS I KNOW AS A CASUALTY OF THE COLD WAR. AN ‘ON THE BEACH’ TOTAL DESTRUCTION WAS PREVENTED IN 1962 THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS THAT SPAWNED THE MOVIE IN 1963 AND AGAIN IN OCT. 1973. BROTHERS AND SISTERS , ‘THERE IS STILL TIME.’ PRAY HARD AS THIS COLD WAR II IS WORRYING THE CAPTAIN BIG TIME. USA CAPTAIN OF ARMY, DR. KAMANSKY

    • richardrozoff
      August 31, 2012 at 2:46 am

      I’ve wanted to post excerpts from the novel by Australian writer Nevil Shute on which the film is based, but in the increasingly constricted world of modern copyright laws even a work like this, half a century old, may be off limits.
      This is an unprecedented form of censorship that few people are aware exists.
      Works previously in the public domain are re-copyrighted and not a single sentence can be cited except in reviews, which is to say in plugs promoting sales of the book.
      This has become even more alarming in relation to translations, even of books hundreds of years old.
      When a new translation for commercial release appears, online sites like Google Books and Gutenberg coincidentally pull older translations. Hence, none at all are available except through purchase – which edition cannot even be quoted from.
      Jaroslav Hašek’s incomparable The Good Soldier Švejk is a current example.

  2. rosemerry
    August 31, 2012 at 7:05 am

    A wonderful post; comments very interesting too. Another hundred years (nearly) and we are even more savage, and the “modern democracies” are the most likely offenders.

    • richardrozoff
      September 1, 2012 at 2:41 am

      That is just the point the writer was making – as directly as he dared at the time (1917) when to openly oppose the war would have left him open to charges of treason and “sedition” as it did other writers like D.H. Lawrence.

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