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John Galsworthy: Grandiloquent phrases are the very munitions of war

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

John Galsworthy: Selections on war

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John Galsworthy
From The Burning Spear (1919)

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Though habitually abstemious, Mr. Lavender was so very hungry that evening when he sat down to supper that he was unable to leave the lobster which Mrs. Petty had provided until it was reduced to mere integument. Since his principles prevented his lightening it with anything but ginger-beer he went to bed in some discomfort, and, tired out with the emotions of the day, soon fell into a heavy slumber, which at dawn became troubled by a dream of an extremely vivid character. He fancied himself, indeed, dressed in khaki, with a breastplate composed of newspapers containing reports of speeches which he had been charged to deliver to soldiers at the front. He was passing in a winged tank along those scenes of desolation of which he had so often read in his daily papers, and which his swollen fancy now coloured even more vividly than had those striking phrases of the past, when presently the tank turned a somersault, and shot him out into a morass lighted up by countless star-shells whizzing round and above. In this morass were hundreds and thousands of figures sunk like himself up to the waist, and waving their arms above their heads. “These,” thought Mr. Lavender, “must be the soldiers I have come to speak to,” and he tore a sheet off his breastplate; but before he could speak from its columns it became thin air in his hand; and he went on tearing off sheet after sheet, hoping to find a speech which would stay solid long enough for him to deliver it. At last a little corner stayed substantial in his hand, and he called out in a loud voice: “Heroes!”

But at the word the figures vanished with a wail, sinking into the mud, which was left covered with bubbles iridescent in the light of the star-shells. At this moment one of these, bursting over his head, turned into a large bright moon; and Mr. Lavender saw to his amazement that the bubbles were really butterflies, perched on the liquid moonlit mud, fluttering their crimson wings, and peering up at him with tiny human faces. “Who are you?” he cried; “oh! who are you?” The butterflies closed their wings; and on each of their little faces came a look so sad and questioning that Mr. Lavender’s tears rolled down into his breastplate of speeches. A whisper rose from them. “We are the dead.” And they flew up suddenly in swarms, and beat his face with their wings.

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“You are a great believer in heroics, Don Pickwixote,” said the young lady.

“What would life be without them?” returned Mr. Lavender. “The war could not go on for a minute.”

“You’re right there,” said the young lady bitterly.

“You surely,” said Mr. Lavender, aghast, “cannot wish it to stop until we have destroyed our common enemies?”

“Well,” said the young lady, “I’m not a Pacifist; but when you see as many people without arms and legs as I do, heroics get a bit off, don’t you know.” And she increased her pace until Mr. Lavender, who was not within four inches of her stature, was almost compelled to trot. “If I were a Tommy,” she added, “I should want to shoot every man who uttered a phrase. Really, at this time of day, they are the limit.”

“Aurora,” said Mr. Lavender, “if you will permit me, who am old enough – alas! – to be your father, to call you that, you must surely be aware that phrases are the very munitions of war, and certainly not less important than mere material explosives. Take the word ‘Liberty,’ for instance; would you deprive us of it?”

The young lady fixed on him those large grey eyes which had in them the roll of genius. “Dear Don Pickwixote,” she said, “I would merely take it from the mouths of those who don’t know what it means; and how much do you think would be left? Not enough to butter the parsnips of a Borough Council, or fill one leader in a month of Sundays. Have you not discovered, Don Pickwixote, that Liberty means the special form of tyranny which one happens to serve under; and that our form of tyranny is GAS.

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