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Randolph Bourne: Below the Battle

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

Randolph Bourne: Selections on war

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Randolph Bourne
Below the Battle (1917)

Randolph-Bourne

He is one of those young men who, because his parents happened to mate during a certain ten years of the world’s history, has had now to put his name on a wheel of fate, thereby submitting himself to be drawn into a brief sharp course of military training before being shipped across the sea to kill Germans or be killed by them. He does not like this fate that menaces him, and he dislikes it because he seems to find nothing in the programme marked out for him which touches remotely his aspirations, his impulses, or even his desires. My friend is not a happy young man, but even the unsatisfactory life he is living seems supplemented at no single point by the life of the drill-ground or the camp or the stinking trench. He visualizes the obscenity of the battlefield and turns away in nausea. He thinks of the weary regimentation of young men, and is filled with disgust. His mind has turned sour on war and all that it involves. He is poor material for the military proclamation and the drill-sergeant.

I want to understand this friend of mine, for he seems rather typical of a scattered race of young Americans of to-day. He does not fall easily into the categories of patriot and coward which the papers are making popular. He feels neither patriotism nor fear, only an apathy toward the war, faintly warmed into a smouldering resentment at the men who have clamped down the war-pattern upon him and that vague mass of people and ideas and workaday living around him that he thinks of as his country. Now that resentment has knotted itself into a tortured tangle of what he should do, how can he best be true to his creative self? I should say that his apathy cannot be imputed to cowardly ease. My friend earns about fifteen hundred dollars a year as an architect’s assistant, and he lives alone in a little room over a fruitshop. He worked his way through college, and he has never known even a leisurely month. There is nothing Phæacian about his life. It is scarcely to save his skin for riotous living that he is reluctant about war. Since he left college he has been trying to find his world. He is often seriously depressed and irritated with himself for not having hewed out a more glorious career for himself. His work is just interesting enough to save it from drudgery, and yet not nearly independent and exacting enough to give him a confident professional sense. Outside his work, life is deprived and limited rather than luxurious. He is fond of music and goes to cheap concerts. He likes radical meetings, but never could get in touch with the agitators. His friends are seeking souls just like himself. He likes midnight talks in cafés and studios, but he is not especially amenable to drink. His heart of course is hungry and turbid, but his two or three love-affairs have not clarified anything for him. He eats three rather poor restaurant meals a day. When he reads, it is philosophy — Nietzsche, James, Bergson — or the novels about youth — Rolland, Nexö, Cannan, Frenssen, Beresford. He has a rather constant mood of futility, though he is in unimpeachable health. There are moments when life seems quite without sense or purpose. He has enough friends, however, to be not quite lonely, and yet they are so various as to leave him always with an ache for some more cohesive, purposive circle. His contacts with people irritate him without rendering him quite unhopeful. He is always expecting he doesn’t know quite what, and always being frustrated of he doesn’t quite know what would have pleased him. Perhaps he never had a moment of real external or internal ease in his life.

Obviously a creature of low vitality, with neither the broad vision to be stirred by the President’s war message, nor the red blood to itch for the dummy bayonet-charge. Yet somehow he does not seem exactly weak, and there is a consistency about his attitude which intrigues me. Since he left college eight years ago, he has been through most of the intellectual and emotional fads of the day. He has always cursed himself for being so superficial and unrooted, and he has tried to write a little of the thoughts that stirred him. What he got down on paper was, of course, the usual large vague feeling of a new time that all of us feel. With the outbreak of the Great War, most of his socialist and pacifist theories were knocked flat. The world turned out to be an entirely different place from what he had thought it. Progress and uplift seemed to be indefinitely suspended, though it was a long time before he realized how much he had been corroded by the impact of news and the endless discussions he heard. I think he gradually worked himself into a truly neutral indifference. The reputable people and the comfortable classes who were having all the conventional emotions rather disgusted him. The neurotic fury about self-defense seemed to come from types and classes that he instinctively detested. He was not scared, and somehow he could not get enthusiastic about defending himself with “preparedness” unless he were badly scared. Things got worse. All that he valued seemed frozen until the horrible mess came to a close. He had gone to an unusually intelligent American college, and he had gotten a feeling for a humane civilization that had not left him. The war, it is true, bit away piece by piece every ideal that made this feeling seem plausible. Most of the big men — intellectuals — whom he thought he respected had had so much of their idealism hacked away and got their nerves so frayed that they became at last in their panic willing and even eager to adopt the war-technique in aid of their government’s notions of the way to impose democracy on the world.

My poor young friend can best be understood as too naive and too young to effect this metamorphosis. Older men might mix a marvellous intellectual brew of personal anger, fear, a sense of dishonor, fervor for a League of Peace, and set going a machinery that crushed everything intelligent, humane and civilized. My friend was less flexible. War simply did not mix with anything that he had learned to feel was desirable. Something in his mind spewed it out whenever it was suggested as a cure for our grievous American neutrality. As I got all this from our talks, he did not seem weak. He merely had no notion of the patriotism that meant the springing of a nation to arms. He read conscientiously The New Republic’s feast of eloquent idealism, with its appealing harbingers of a cosmically efficacious and well-bred war. He would often say, This is all perfectly convincing; why, then, are we not all convinced? He seemed to understand the argument for American participation. We both stood in awe of the superb intellectual structure that was built up. But my friend is one of those unfortunate youths whose heart has to apprehend as well as his intellect, and it was his heart that inexorably balked. So he was in no mood to feel the worth of American participation, in spite of the infinite tact and Fabian strategy of the Executive and his intellectualist backers. He felt apart from it all. He had not the imagination to see a healed world-order built out of the rotten materials of armaments, diplomacy and “liberal” statesmanship. And he wasn’t affected by the psychic complex of panic, hatred, rage, class-arrogance and patriotic swagger that was creating in newspaper editors and in the jeunesse dorée around the authentic élan for war.

My friend is thus somehow in the nation but not of the nation. The war has as yet got no conceivable clutch on his soul. He knows that theoretically he is united with a hundred million in purpose, sentiment and deed for an idealistic war to defend democracy and civilization against predatory autocracy. Yet somehow, in spite of all the excitement, nobody has as yet been able to make this real to him. He is healthy, intelligent, idealistic. The irony is that the demand which his country now makes on him is one to which not one single cell or nerve of idealism or desire responds. The cheap and silly blare of martial life leaves him cold. The easy inflation of their will-to-power which is coming to so many people from their participation in volunteer or government service, or, better still, from their urging others to farm, enlist, invest, retrench, organize, — none of this allures him. His life is uninteresting and unadventurous, but it is not quite dull enough to make this activity or anything he knows about war seem a release into lustier expression. He has ideals but he cannot see their realization through a desperate struggle to the uttermost. He doubts the saving of an America which can only be achieved through world-suicide. He wants democracy, but he does not want the kind of democracy we will get by this war enough to pay the suicidal cost of getting it in the way we set about it.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, sweet and becoming it is to die for one’s country. My friend was much concerned about registration. He felt coercive forces closing in upon him. He did not want to register for the purposes of being liable to conscription. It would be doing something positive when he felt only apathy. Furthermore, if he was to resist, was it not better to take a stand now than to wait to be drafted? On the other hand, was it not too much of a concession to rebel at formality? He did not really wish to be a martyr. Going to prison for a year for merely refusing to register was rather a grotesque and futile gesture. He did not see himself as a hero, shedding inspiration by his example to his fellows. He did not care what others did. His objection to prison was not so much fear perhaps as contempt for a silly sacrifice. He could not keep up his pose of complete aliency from the war-enterprise, now that registration was upon him. Better submit stoically, he thought, to the physical pressure, mentally reserving his sense of spiritual aliency from the enterprise into which he was being remorselessly moulded. Yet my friend is no arrant prig. He does not pretend to be a world-patriot, or a servant of some higher law than his country’s. Nor does he feel blatantly patriotic. With his groping philosophy of life, patriotism has merely died as a concept of significance for him. It is to him merely the emotion that fills the herd when it imagines itself engaged in massed defense or massed attack. Having no such images, he has no feeling of patriotism. He still feels himself inextricably a part of this blundering, wistful, crass civilization we call America. All he asks is not to be identified with it for warlike ends. He does not feel pro-German. He tells me there is not a drop of any but British blood in his veins. He does not love the Kaiser. He is quite willing to believe that it is the German government and not the German people whom he is asked to fight, although it may be the latter whom he is obliged to kill. But he cannot forget that it is the American government rather than the American people who got up the animus to fight the German government. He does not forget that the American government, having through tragic failure slipped into the war-technique, is now trying to manipulate him into that war-technique. And my friend’s idea of patria does not include the duty of warlike animus, even when the government decides such animus is necessary to carry out its theories of democracy and the future organization of the world. There are ways in which my friend would probably be willing to die for his country. If his death now meant the restoration of those ravaged lands and the bringing back of the dead, that would be a cause to die for. But he knows that dead cannot be brought back or the brotherly currents restored. The work of madness will not be undone. Only a desperate war will be prolonged. Everything seems to him so mad that there is nothing left worth dying for. Pro patria mori, to my friend, means something different from lying gaunt as a conscript on a foreign battlefield, fallen in the last desperate fling of an interminable world-war.

Does this mean that if he is drafted he will refuse to serve? I do not know. It will not be any plea of conscientious objection that keeps him back. That phrase to him has already an archaic flavor which implies a ruling norm, a stiff familiar whom he must obey in the matter. It implies that one would be delighted to work up one’s blood-lust for the business, except that this unaccountable conscience, like a godly grandmother, absolutely forbids. In the case of my friend, it will not be any objective conscience. It will be something that is woven into his whole modern philosophic feel for life. This is what paralyzes him against taking one step toward the war-machine. If he were merely afraid of death, he would seek some alternative service. But he does not. He remains passive and apathetic, waiting for the knife to fall. There is a growing cynicism in him about the brisk and inept bustle of war-organization. His attitude suggests that if he is worked into war-service, he will have to be coerced every step of the way.

Yet he may not even rebel. He may go silently into the ranks in a mood of cold contempt. His horror of useless sacrifice may make even the bludgeoning of himself seem futile. He may go in the mood of so many young men in the other countries, without enthusiasm, without idealism, without hope and without belief, victims of a tragically blind force behind them. No other government, however, has had to face from the very start quite this appalling skepticism of youth. My friend is significant because all the shafts of panic, patriotism and national honor have been discharged at him without avail. All the seductions of liberal idealism leave him cold. He is to be susceptible to nothing but the use of crude, rough, indefeasible violence. Nothing could be more awkward for a democratic president than to be faced with this cold, staring skepticism of youth, in the prosecution of his war. The attitude of my friend suggests that there is a personal and social idealism in America which is out of reach of the most skillful and ardent appeals of the older order, an idealism that cannot be hurt by the taunts of cowardice and slacking or kindled by the slogans of capitalistic democracy. This is the cardinal fact of our war — the non-mobilization of the younger intelligentsia.

What will they do to my friend? If the war goes on they will need him. Pressure will change skepticism into bitterness. That bitterness will well and grow. If the country submissively pours month after month its wealth of life and resources into the work of annihilation, that bitterness will spread out like a stain over the younger American generation. If the enterprise goes on endlessly, the work, so blithely undertaken for the defense of democracy, will have crushed out the only genuinely precious thing in a nation, the hope and ardent idealism of its youth.

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