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Anatole France: The ethics of war

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

Anatole France: Selections on war

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Anatole France
From The Bloom of Life (1922)
Translated by J. Lewis May

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The Ethics of War

“In the days of my youth, one man alone, Napoleon, decided the question of peace and war. Unhappily for Europe he chose war in preference to civil administration, for which, nevertheless, he displayed great aptitude. But war gave him glory. Before him, and in all ages, war has been beloved of kings, and, like them, the men of the Revolution gave themselves up to it with furious passion. I am much afraid lest the financiers and the great manufacturers, who are gradually becoming the masters of Europe, may exhibit just as belligerent a spirit as did the kings and Napoleon. It is in their interests to provoke war, not merely because of the profit they derive from furnishing supplies, but from the increased business that victory would bring them. And people always believe that they are going to win. It would be a crime against patriotism to entertain a doubt of it. The issue of peace or war is generally decided by a very small number of men. It is surprising how easily they drag the masses along with them. The time-honoured tactics which they employ are always successful. In the forefront they put the outrages inflicted on the country by the foreigner, outrages that can only be washed out with blood; whereas, considered in the light of true morality, the cruelties and deceptions inseparable from war, far from doing honour to the people who commit them, cover them with undying infamy. They urge that it is in the nation’s interest to take up arms, whereas the country as a whole always emerges bankrupt from war. War only brings wealth to a handful of individuals. But there is no need for the war-mongers to do any speechifying at all: one only needs to beat a drum and wave a flag, and the masses will fly with enthusiasm to slaughter and death. The truth is that in every country the great mass of the people make war willingly, nay eagerly, because it relieves them from the horrible monotony of domestic life, assures them unstinted liquor and plenty of adventures. To get his pay, to see the world and to cover himself with glory, these are the things that make a man put his life in peril. Nay, the real truth of the matter is that mankind adores war. It procures them the greatest satisfaction they are able to find in this world, the satisfaction of killing. Doubtless they run the risk of being killed themselves, but men seldom think about dying when they are young, and the intoxication of murder makes them forget the risk. I have been to the wars, and you may believe me when I tell you that to strike an enemy and lay him low is, for nine men out of ten, an ecstasy of the senses compared with which the tenderest of lovers’ embraces seem pale and insipid. The tasks of peace are long, monotonous, often irksome and unfraught with glory for the majority of those who fulfill them. But the deeds one is called on to perform in war are short and sharp, and to be grasped by the dullest intelligence. Even in the leaders no great qualities of intellect are called for; in the case of the common soldier, none at all. Everybody and anybody can fight; it is the innate attribute of man.”

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