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George Santayana: Such blind battles ought not to be our battles

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

American writers on peace and against war

George Santayana: Selections on war

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George Santayana
From The Last Puritan: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel (1935)

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When a private at first in the ranks, and soon in various more responsible posts, he realised how exactly how war was like football. He remembered all the false reasons which his mother and other high-minded people used to give to justify that game: that it was good for the health, or for young men’s morals, or for testing and strengthening character; whereas he knew by experience that after the playing season every blackguard was as much, or twice as much, a blackguard as before, every sneak a sneak and every rake a rake. So now the same outsiders apologised for this war, saying that poor Serbia had been outraged, or poor Belgium invaded, or the Lusitania sunk; all of which might be grounds for resentment. Yet the soldier feels no resentment – except perhaps against his own officers – and has suffered no wrong. He simply hears the bugle, as it were for the chase; endures discipline, when once he is caught in its mesh, because he can’t help it; and fights keenly on occasion, because war is the greatest excitement, the greatest adventure in human life. Just so, in little, football has been an outlet for instinct, and a mock war. The howling crowds were stirred vicariously by the same craving for rush and rivalry, and were exactly like the public in time of war, cheering each his own side…

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“Old-fashioned: no doubt I am old-fashioned. Weh dir, dass du ein Enkel bist. I was born old. It is a dreadful inheritance, that of mine, that I need to be honest, that I need to be true, that I need to be just. That’s not the fashion of to-day. The world is full of conscript minds, only they are in different armies, and nobody is fighting to be free, but each to make his own conscription universal…My people first went to America as exiles into a stark wilderness to lead a life apart, purer and soberer than the carnival life of Christendom. We were not content to be well-dressed animals, rough or cunning or lustfully prowling and acquisitive, and perhaps inventing a religion to encourage us in our animality. We will not now sacrifice to Baal because we seem to have failed. We will bide our time. We will lie low and dip under, until the flood has passed and wasted itself over our heads…”

“I have submitted to all their conscriptions. I have played all their games. I am playing their horrible game now. I am going to fight the Germans whom I like on the side of the French whom I don’t like. It’s my duty. Yet in my inner man how can I be a conscript; and how can I help denouncing all these impositions and feeling that such duties ought not to be our duties, and such blind battles ought not to be our battles?”

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The multitude of the fallen during those years had made death so familiar, that it was almost without pain, with a sigh of resignation at unforeseen inevitable evils, like bad weather and taxes…And the worst of it is, as Vanny in those days often had occasion to observe, that with the passing act, as for instance with this war, the purpose it might have had, or might be supposed to have had, passes also and becomes irrelevant…

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