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Charles Edward Montague: War propaganda leaves bill to be settled in peacetime

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

British writers on peace and war

Charles Edward Montague: Selections on war and its aftermath

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Charles Edward Montague
From Disenchantment

“Our casualties will be enormous,” a General at G.H.Q. said with the utmost serenity on the eve of one of our great attacks in 1917. The average war correspondent – there were golden exceptions – insensibly acquired the same cheerfulness in face of vicarious torment and danger. In his work it came out at times in a certain jauntiness of tone that roused the fighting troops to fury against the writer. Through his despatches there ran a brisk implication that regimental officers and men enjoyed nothing better than “going over the top”; that a battle was just a rough, jovial picnic; that a fight never went on long enough for the men; that their only fear was lest the war should end on this side of the Rhine. This, the men reflected in helpless anger, was what people at home were offered as faithful accounts of what their friends in the field were thinking and suffering.

Most of the men had, all their lives, been accepting “what it says ‘ere in the paper” as being presumptively true. They had taken the Press at its word without checking. Bets had been settled by reference to a paper. Now, in the biggest event of their lives, hundreds of thousands of men were able to check for themselves the truth of that workaday Bible. They fought in a battle or raid, and two days after they read, with jeers on their lips, the account of “the show” in the papers. They felt they had found the Press out. The most bloody defeat in the history of Britain, a very world’s wonder of valour frustrated by feckless misuse, of regimental glory and Staff shame, might occur on the Ancre on July 1, 1916, and our Press come out bland and copious and graphic, with nothing to show that we had not had quite a good day – a victory really. Men who had lived through the massacre read the stuff open-mouthed. Anything, then, could figure as anything else in the Press – as its own opposite even. Black was only an aspect of white. With a grin at the way he must have been taken in up to now, the fighting soldier gave the Press up. So it comes that each of several million ex-soldiers now reads every solemn appeal of a Government, each beautiful speech of a Premier or earnest assurance of a body of employers with that maxim on guard in his mind – “You can’t believe a word you read.”

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The only new thing about deception in war is modern man’s more perfect means for its practice. The thing has become, in his hand, a trumpet more efficacious than Gideon’s own. When Sinon set out to palm off on the Trojans the false news of a Greek total withdrawal, that first of Intelligence officers made a venture like that of early man, with his flint-headed arrow, accosting a lion. Sinon’s pathetic little armament of yarns, to be slung at his proper peril, was frailer than David’s five stones from the brook. Modern man is far better off. To match the Lewis gun with which he now fires his solids, he has to his hand the newspaper Press, a weapon which fires as fast as the Lewis itself, and is almost as easy to load whenever he needs, in his wars, to let fly at the enemy’s head the thing which is not.

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Any weapon you use in a war leaves some bill to be settled in peace, and the Propaganda arm has its cost like another. To say so is not to say, without more ado, that it should not be used. Its cost should be duly cast up, like our other accounts; that is all. We all agree – with a certain demur from the Quakers – that one morality has to be practised in peace and another in war; that the same bodily act may be wrong in the one and right in the other. So, to be perfect, you need to have two gears to your morals, and drive on the one gear in war and on the other in peace. While you are on the peace gear you must not even shoot a bird sitting. At the last stroke of some August midnight you clap on the war gear and thenceforth you may shoot a man sitting or sleeping or any way you can get him, provided you and he be soldiers on opposite sides.

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War confers on those who wage it much the same self-dispensing power. They can absolve themselves of a good many sins. Persuade yourself that you are at war with somebody else and you find your moral liberty expanding almost faster than you can use it. An Irishman in a fury with England says to himself “State of war – that’s what it is,” and then finds he can go out and shoot a passing policeman from behind a hedge without the discomfort of feeling base. The policeman’s comrades say to themselves “State of war – that’s what it has come to,” and go out and burn some other Irishman’s shop without a sense of doing anything wrong, either. They all do it “over the left.” They have stolen the key of the magical garden wherein you may do things that are elsewhere most wicked and yet enjoy the mental peace of the soldier which passeth all understanding.

To kill and to burn may be sore temptations at times, but not so besetting to most men as the temptation to lie is to public speakers and writers. Another frequent temptation of theirs is to live in a world of stale figures of speech, of flags nailed to the mast, of standing to one’s guns, of deaths in last ditches, of quarter neither asked nor given. It is their hobby to figure their own secure, squabblesome lives in images taken from war. And their little excesses, their breaches of manners, and even, sometimes, of actual law, are excused, as a rule, in terms of virile disdain for anything less drastic and stern than the morals of the real warfare which they know so little. We have to think in what state we might leave these weak brethren after a long war in which we had practised them hard in lying for the public good and also in telling themselves it was all right because of the existence of a state of war. State of war! Why, that is what every excitable politician or journalist declares to exist all the time. To the wild party man the party which he hates is always “more deadly than any foreign enemy.” All of us could mention a few politicians, at least, to whom the Great War was merely a passing incident or momentary interruption of the more burningly authentic wars of Irish Orange and Green, or of English Labour and Capital.

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For in this new warfare the journalist untruthful from previous habit and training would have just that advantage over the journalist of character which the Regular soldier had over the New Army officer or man in the old….

After the war was over he would return to his trade with an immense accession of credit. He would have been decorated and publicly praised and thanked. Having a readier pen than the mere combatant soldiers, he would probably write a book to explain that the country had really been saved by himself, though the fighting men were, no doubt, gallant fellows. He would, in all likelihood, have completed the disengagement of his mind from the idea that public opinion is a thing to be dealt with by argument and persuasion, appeals to reason and conscience. He would feel surer than ever that men’s and women’s minds are most strongly moved not by the leading articles of a paper but by its news, by what they may be led to accept as “the facts.” So the practice of colouring news, of ordering reporters to take care that they see only such facts as tell in one way, would leap forward. For it would have the potent support of a new moral complacency. When a man feels that his tampering with truth has saved civilization, why should he deny himself, in his private business, the benefit of such moral reflections as this feeling may suggest?

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And then, your war won, there would be that new lie-infested and infected world of peace. In one of his great passages Thucydides tells us what happened to Greece after some years of war and of the necessary war morality. He says that, as far as veracity, public and private, goes, the peace gear was found to have got wholly out of working order and could not be brought back into use. “The meaning of words had no longer the same relation to things, but was changed by men as they thought proper.” The pre-war hobby of being straight and not telling people lies went clean out of fashion. Anyone who could bring off a good stroke of deceit, to the injury of some one whom he disliked, “congratulated himself on having taken the safer course, over-reached his enemy, and gained the prize of superior talent.” A man who did not care to use so sound a means to his ends was thought to be a goody-goody ass. War worked in that way on the soul of Greece, in days when war was still confined, in the main, to the relatively cleanly practice of hitting your enemy over the head, wherever you could find him. The philosophers in our dugouts preserved moderation when they expected as ugly a sequel for war in our age, when the chivalrous school seems to have pretty well worked itself out and the most promising lines of advance are poison gas and canards. But the survivors among them are not detached philosophers only. They act in the new world that they foresaw, and the man whose word you could trust like your own eyes and ears, eight years ago, has come back with the thought in his mind that so many comrades of his have expressed: “They tell me we’ve pulled through at last all right because our propergander dished out better lies than what the Germans did. So I say to myself ‘If tellin’ lies is all that bloody good in war, what bloody good is tellin’ truth in peace?'”

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