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Anatole France: Whether civil or foreign, war is execrable

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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 Opinions of Jerome Coignard (1893)
Translated by Mrs. Wilfred Jackson

Anatole_FranceA

“Monsieur l’Abbe,” I said to my good master, “do you not think that the profession of arms is looked upon as noble because of the danger one runs therein and the courage that it is necessary to display?”

“Truly, my son” answered my good master, “if the state of man is noble in proportion to the danger that he runs I do not fear to state that peasants and labourers are the noblest men in the kingdom for they risk death every day by fatigue or hunger. The perils to which soldiers and commanders expose themselves are less in number and in duration, they last but a few hours in a life-time, and consist in facing cannon-balls and bullets which kill less surely than poverty. Men must needs be light and frivolous, my son, to give more honour to a soldier’s doings than to the work of a labourer and to place the destruction of war at a higher price than the arts of peace.”

“Monsieur 1’Abbe,” I asked again, “do you not consider that soldiers are necessary to the safety of the state and that we should honour them in recognition of their usefulness?”

“It is true, my son, that war is a necessity of human nature and one cannot imagine nations who will not fight, that is to say, who are neither homicides, pillagers, nor incendiaries. Neither can you conceive a prince who is not in some measure a usurper. They would reproach him too much on that score, and they would despise him for it as one who was no lover of glory. For war is necessary to men; and is more natural to them than peace which is but war’s interval. Thus one sees princes hurling their armies on one another on the worst of pretexts, and for the most futile of reasons. They invoke their honour, which is excessively touchy. A mere breath suffices to make a stain on it; which cannot be washed save in the blood of ten, twenty, thirty, or a hundred thousand men, in proportion to the population of the contending principalities. If only one thinks of it, it is inconceivable that the honour of a prince can be cleansed by the blood of these unhappy beings, or rather one realises that it is a mere form of speech, void of meaning; but for words men go willingly to their death. What is yet more wonderful, is that a prince gains much honour from the theft of a province and the outrage that would be punished by death in the case of some daring private individual becomes praiseworthy if it is carried out with the most outrageous cruelty by a sovereign with the help of his hirelings.”

“Monsieur 1’Abbe,” I said, “are there no wars that are just, and fought for a good cause?”

“Tournebroche, my son,” he answered me, “civilized nations have much overstrained the injustice of war and they have rendered it very iniquitous as well as very cruel. The first wars were undertaken for the establishment of tribes on fertile lands. Thus the Israelites conquered the land of Canaan. Hunger forced them to it. The advancement of civilization extended war to the conquest of colonies and foreign markets, as is seen in the example of Spain, Holland, England and France. Lastly, one has seen kings and emperors steal provinces of which they had no need, which they ruined, which they made waste, without profit to themselves and without other advantage than to raise pyramids and triumphal arches. And this abuse of war is the more odious as one must believe that nations are becoming more and more wicked by the advancement of the arts, or rather that war, being a necessity to human nature, is waged for its own sake when there is absolutely no reason for waging it.

“This reflection grieves me deeply, for I am disposed by my condition and inclination to the love of my fellow creatures…”

As much to distract his thoughts from this personal trouble as to instruct myself in his teaching, I asked him if civil war did not seem to him the most detestable kind of war there was?

“It is odious enough,” he replied, “but not so very inept, for members of a state when they come to blows between themselves have more chance of knowing why they fight than in the case where they go to war against a foreign people. Seditious and intestinal quarrels are usually born of the extreme wretchedness of the people. They are the result of despair, and the only issue left to the unhappy beings who may obtain thereby better conditions and sometimes even a hand in the game of ruling. But it is to be remarked, my son, that the more unhappy, and therefore excusable, are the insurgents, the less chance they have of winning the game. Starved and stupefied, armed but with their rage, they are incapable of great plans or of prudent considerations so that they are easily reduced by the prince. He has more difficulty in putting down rebellion among the great, which is to be detested, for it has not the excuse of necessity. In fine, my son, whether civil or foreign, war is execrable, and has a malignity that I detest.”

“I will show you, my son,” said my good master, “in the condition of these poor soldiers who are going to serve their king, both man’s shame and his glory. In fact, war sets us back and drives us to our natural savagery. It is the result of the ferocity that we have in common with the beasts; not only with lions and cocks, who bring a gallant bearing to it, but with little birds, such as jays and tits, whose ways are very quarrelsome, and even with insects, such as wasps and ants, who fight with a bloodthirstiness of the like of which the Romans themselves have left no example. The principal causes of war are the same in man and animal, who struggle with one another to gain or keep their prey, to defend their nest or their lair, or to gain a mate. There is no distinction in all this, and the rape of the Sabines perfectly recalls those duels between stags which make the woods bloody of a night. We have merely succeeded in lending a certain colouring to base and natural motives by the notions of honour with which we cover them, and without great exactitude at that.

“If we believe that we fight for very noble motives in these days, the nobility of them dwells entirely in the vagueness of our sentiments. The less the object of war is simple, clear, and precise, the more war itself is odious and detestable. And if it be true, my son, that we have come to killing one another for honour’s sake, it is beyond all bounds. We have surpassed the cruelty of wild beasts, who do each other no injury without good reason. And it is only right to say that man is wickeder and more unnatural in his wars than are bulls or ants in theirs.” 

“[W]hen two armies are in sight of one another, one of them must be conquered; from which it follows that the other will necessarily be victorious, without its chief in command having all the qualities of a great commander, or without his even having one of them. There are, I take it, clever commanders; there are also lucky ones, whose glory is no less. How, in these astounding collisions, are we to disentangle the effect of art from the result of luck? But you are leading me from my subject, Tournebroche, my son, I want to show you that war is man’s disgrace nowadays…”

“War is, moreover, in our time but an inherited evil, a prurient return to savage life, a criminal puerility. The princes of our day, and especially the late king, will for ever bear the notoriety of having made war the sport and amusement of courts. It saddens me to think that we have not yet seen the end of this preconcerted slaughter.

“As to the future, the unfathomable future, let me, my son, dream of it as more in accord with the spirit of sweetness and equity which dwells in me. The future is a place where there is room for dreams. It is there, as in Utopia, that it pleases the wise men to build. I should like to believe that nations will one day cultivate the virtues in peace. It is in the increasing size of armaments that I flatter myself I see a far-distant presage of universal peace. Armies will augment unceasingly in strength and number. Whole nations will be swallowed up by them. Then the monster will perish from his surfeit. He will burst from too much fatness.”

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