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G.K. Chesterton: In modern war defeat is complete defeat


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

British writers on peace and war

G. K. Chesterton: War’s regressive tendency


G.K. Chesterton
From The Ball and the Cross (1906)


“I have brought you here,” he answered, “to take part in the last war of the world!”

“The last war!” repeated Turnbull, even in his dazed state a little touchy about such a dogma; “How do you know it will be the last?”

The man laid himself back in his reposeful attitude, and said:

“It is the last war, because if it does not cure the world forever, it will destroy it.”


It is a characteristic of all things now called “efficient,” which means mechanical and calculated, that if they go wrong at all they go entirely wrong. There is no power of retrieving a defeat, as in simpler and more living organisms. A strong gun can conquer a strong elephant, but a wounded elephant can easily conquer a broken gun. Thus the Prussian monarchy in the eighteenth century, or now, can make a strong army merely by making the men afraid. But it does it with the permanent possibility that the men may some day be more afraid of their enemies than of their officers…


Then he remembered the Beauchamp Tower, and tried to write his blazing scepticism on the wall, and discovered that it was all shiny tiles on which could be either drawn or carved. Then for an instance there hung and broke above him like a high wave the whole horror of scientific imprisonment, which manages to deny a man not only liberty, but every accidental comfort of bondage. In the old filthy dungeons men could carve their prayers or protests in the rock. Here the white and slippery walls escaped even from bearing witness. The old prisoners could make a pet of a mouse or a beetle strayed out of a hole. Here the unpierceable walls were washed every morning by an automatic sluice. There was no natural corruption and no merciful decay by which a living thing could enter in…


As they advanced toward the asylum they looked up at its rows on rows of windows, and understood the Master’s material threat. By means of that complex but concealed machinery which ran like a network of nerves over the whole fabric, there had been shot out from every window-ledge rows and rows of polished-steel cylinders, the cold miracles of modern gunnery. They commanded the whole garden and the whole country side, and could have blown to pieces an army corps.

The silent declaration of war had evidently had its complete effect…

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