Richard Aldington: The criminal cant and rant of war
From Death of a Hero (1929)
All this time the war was drawing steadily nearer. Probably it had become certain since 1911, though most people were taken unawares. Why did it happen? Who was responsible? Questions which have been interminably debated already and will furnish exultant historians with controversial material for generations to come. Already one foresees the creation of Chairs in the History of the First World War, to be set up in whatever civilised countries remain in existence after the next one. But for us the debate is vain, as vain as the pathetic and reiterated enquiry, “Where did I catch this horrible cold?” If any body or bodies engineered this catastrophe they must have been gratified by its shattering success. Few lives indeed in the belligerent countries remained unaffected by it, and in most cases the effect was unpleasant. Adult lives were cut sharply into three sections – pre-war, war, and post-war. It is curious – perhaps not so curious – how many people will tell you that whole areas of their pre-war lives have become obliterated from their memories. Pre-war seems like pre-history…
Talleyrand used to say that those who had not known Europe before 1789 had never known the real pleasure of living. No one would dare to substitute 1914 for 1789 in that sentence. But such a wholesale shattering of values had certainly not occurred since 1789. God knows how many governments and rulers crashed down in the earthquake, and those which remain are agitatedly trying to preserve their existence by the time-honoured method of repression and persecution. And yet 1914 was greeted as a great release, a purgation from the vices supposed to be engendered by peace! My God! Three days of glory engender more vices and misery than all the alleged corruptors of humanity could achieve in a millennium. Les jeunes would be amazed if they read the nauseous poppycock which was written in 1914-15 in England, and doubtless in all the belligerent countries, except France, where practically nothing was printed at all. (However, the French have made up handsomely for the loss since then.) “Our splendid troops” were to come home – oh, very soon – purged and ennobled by slaughter and lice, and were to beget even nobler fellows to go and do likewise…
It was the régime of Cant before the War which made the Cant during the War so damnably possible and easy. On our coming of age the Victorians generously handed us a charming little cheque for fifty guineas – fifty-one months of hell, and the results. Charming people, weren’t they? Virtuous and farsighted. But it wasn’t their fault? They didn’t make the War? It was Prussia, and Prussian militarism? Right you are, right ho! Who made Prussia a great power and subsidized Frederick the Second to do it, thereby snatching an empire from France? England. Who backed up Prussia against Austria, and Bismarck against Napoleon III? England. And whose Cant governed England in the nineteenth century? But never mind this domestic squabble of mine – put it that I mean the “Victorians” of all nations.
One human mind cannot hold, one memory retain, one pen portray the limitless Cant, Delusion, and Delirium let loose on the world during those four years. It surpasses the most fantastic imagination. It was incredible – and I suppose that was why it was believed. It was the supreme and tragic climax of Victorian Cant, for after all the Victorians were still in full blast in 1914, and had pretty much the control of everything. Did they appeal to us honestly, and say: “We have made a colossal and tragic error, we have involved you and all of us in a huge war; it’s too late to stop it; you must come and help us, and we promise to take the first opportunity of making peace and making it thoroughly”? They did not. They said that they didn’t want to us, but they thought WE ought to go; they said our King and Country needed us; they said they’d kiss us when we come home (merci! effect of the Entente Cordiale?); they said one of the most civilized nations in the world were “Huns”: they invented Cadaver factories; they asserted that a race of men notorious during generations for their kindliness were habitual baby-butchers, rapers of women, crucifiers of prisoners; they said the “Huns” were sneaks and cowards and skedaddlers, but failed to explain why it took fifty-one months to beat their hopelessly out-numbered armies; they said that they were fighting for the Liberty of the World, and everywhere there is less liberty; they said they would Never sheath the Sword until etcetera, and this sort of criminal rant was called Pisgah-Heights of Patriotism…They said…Why go on? It is desolating, desolating. And then they wonder why the young are cynical and despairing and angry and chaotic! And they still have adherents, who still dare to go on preaching to us. Quick! A shrine to the goddesses Cant and Imprudence…