Anatole France: Only two ways out of militarism – war and bankruptcy
From The Wicker-Work Woman (1897)
Translated by M.P. Willcocks
“As for the Romans, they were not essentially a military people, since they made profitable and lasting conquests, in contradistinction to the true military nations, such as the French, for instance, who seize all, but retain nothing.
“It is also to be noted that in Rome, in the time of the kings, aliens were not allowed to serve as soldiers. But in the reign of the good king Servius Tullius the citizens, being by no means anxious to reserve to themselves alone the honour of fatigue and perils, admitted aliens resident in the city to military service. There are such things as heroes, but there are no nations of heroes, nor are there armies of heroes. Soldiers have never marched save under penalty of death. Military service was hateful even to those Latin herdsmen who gained for Rome the sovereignty of the world and the glorious name of goddess among the nations. The wearing of the soldier’s belt was to them such a hardship that the very name of this belt, ærumna, eventually expressed for them the ideas of dejection, weariness of body and mind, wretchedness, misfortune and disaster. When well led they made, not heroes, but good soldiers and good navvies; little by little they conquered the world and covered it with roads and highways. The Romans never sought glory: they had no imagination. They only waged absolutely necessary wars in defence of their own interests. Their triumph was the triumph of patience and good sense.
“The make of a man is shown by his ruling passion. With soldiers, as with all crowds, the ruling passion, the predominant thought, is fear. They go to meet the enemy as the foe from whom the least danger is to be feared. Troops in line are so drawn up on both sides that flight is impossible. In that lies all the art of battle. The armies of the Republic were victorious because the discipline of the olden times was maintained in them with the utmost severity, while it was relaxed in the camp of the Allied Armies. Our generals of the second year after the Revolution were none other than sergeants like that la Ramee who used to have half a dozen conscripts shot every day in order to encourage the others, as Voltaire put it, and to arouse them with the trumpet-note of patriotism.”
“That’s very plausible,” said M. Roux. “But there is another point. There is such a thing as the innate joy of firing a musket-shot. As you know, my dear sir, I am by no means a destructive animal. I have no taste for military life. I have even very advanced humanitarian ideas, and I believe that the brotherhood of the nations will be brought about by the triumph of socialism. In a word, I am filled with the love of humanity. But as soon as they put a musket in my hand I want to fire at everyone. It’s in the blood…”
“I feel that military service and taxation weigh so heavily on the Neapolitans as to make them sometimes regret the happy days of King Bomba and the pleasure of living ingloriously under an easy-going government. Neither tax nor conscription is popular with the Neapolitan. What is wanted is that statesmen should really open their eyes to the necessities of national life. But, as you know, I have always been an opponent of megalomaniac politics and have always deplored those great armaments which hinder all progress in Europe, whether it be intellectual, moral, or material. It is a great, a ruinous folly which can only culminate in farce.”
“I foresee no end to it at all,” replied M. Bergeret. “No one wishes it to end save certain thinkers who have no means of making their ideas known. The rulers of states cannot desire disarmament, for such a movement would render their position difficult and precarious and would take an admirable tool of empire out of their hands. For armed nations meekly submit to government. Military discipline shapes them to obedience, and in a nation so disciplined, neither insurrections, nor riots, nor tumults of any kind need be feared. When military service is obligatory upon all, when all the citizens either are, or have been, soldiers, then all the forces of social life are so calculated as to support power, or even the lack of it. This fact the history of France can prove.”
“Had not Europe,” said he, “been turned into a barrack, we should have seen insurrections bursting out in France, Germany, or Italy, as they did in former times. But nowadays those obscure forces which from time to time uplift the very pavements of our city find regular vent in the fatigue duty of barrack-yards, in the grooming of horses and the sentiment of patriotism.
“The rank of corporal supplies an admirable outlet for the energies of young heroes who, had they been left in freedom, would have been building barricades to keep their arms lissom. I have only this moment been told of the sublime speeches made by a certain Sergeant Lebrec. Were he dressed in the peasant’s blouse this hero would be thirsting for liberty, but clad in a uniform, it is tyranny for which he yearns, and to help in the maintenance of order the thing for which he craves. In armed nations it is easy enough to preserve internal peace, and you will notice that, although in the course of the last twenty-five years, Paris has been a little agitated on one occasion, it was only when the commotion was the work of a War Minister. That is, a general was able to do what a demagogue could not have done. And the moment this general lost his hold on the army, he also lost it on the nation, and his power was gone. Therefore, whether the State be a monarchy, an empire, or a republic, its rulers have an interest in keeping up obligatory military service for all, in order that they may command an army, instead of governing a nation.
“And, while the rulers have no desire for disarmament, the people have lost all wish for it, too. The masses endure military service quite willingly, for, without being exactly pleasurable, it gives an outlet to the rough, crude instincts of the majority and presents itself as the simplest, roughest and strongest expression of their sense of duty. It overawes them by the gorgeous splendour of its outward paraphernalia and by the amount of metal used in it. In short, it exalts them through the only ideals of power, of grandeur and of glory, which they are capable of conceiving. Often they rush into it with a song; if not, they are perforce driven to it. For these reasons I foresee no termination to this honourable calling which is brutalising and impoverishing Europe.”
“There are,” said Captain Aspertini, “two ways out of it: war and bankruptcy.”
“War!” exclaimed M. Bergeret. “It is patent that great armaments only hinder that by aggravating the horrors of it and rendering it of doubtful issue for both combatants. As for bankruptcy, I foretold it the other day to Abbe Lantaigne, the principal of our high seminary, as we sat on a bench on the Mall. But you need not pin your faith on me. You have studied the history of the Lower Empire too deeply, my dear Aspertini, not to be perfectly aware that, in questions of national finance, there are mysterious resources which escape the scrutiny of political economists. A ruined nation may exist for five hundred years on robbery and extortion, and how is one to guess what a great people, out of its poverty, will manage to supply to its defenders in the way of cannon, muskets, bad bread, bad shoes, straw and oats?”