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John Middleton Murry: The morality of bombing civilians is not arithmetic

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

British writers on peace and war

John Middleton Murry: Selections on peace and war

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John Middleton Murry
From The Pharisee and the Publican (1937)

Is it the mere size of the murder that we protest against? As though to bomb 5,000 innocent civilians were a hundred times worse than bombing 50, and five thousand times worse than bombing one! If that is the casuistry of modern morality, then I vastly prefer the more civilized casuistry of old. I can understand the essential difference between a venial and a mortal sin; I can see no essential difference between deliberately blowing one civilian to pieces and blowing up a million.

There is a story in the gospel of St. Luke which is pretty familiar, so familiar, I suppose, that it has long ceased to mean anything. It tells how two men went into the Temple to pray: The one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself: “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are – extortioners, unjust, adulterers. I fast twice a week, and pay my taxes.” But the publican, standing afar off, would not even lift his eyes toward heaven, but beat his breast and said: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And Jesus said that the publican went home accepted by God, while the Pharisee was rejected.

I cannot help thinking that those who would protest against the outrages of Japan in China are like the Pharisee. Men who live in an England made rich as a result of the same type of outrages, men who are, and must be, members of a country which is prepared, under stress of “necessity,” to commit precisely the same outrages as Japan, and for the same ends – surely, they cannot do otherwise than as the publican: humiliate themselves and repent. They cannot protest – at least against anyone other than themselves.

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