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John Horn: False Ideas About War and Peace

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

American writers on peace and against war

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John Horn
False Ideas About War and Peace

How the angels in heaven must weep and those in hell laugh at the sorrowful plight in which the nations of the world now present themselves! It is nigh two thousand years since the Man of Peace commanded, saying, “Put up thy sword into the sheath.” Only to-day, and even reluctantly, have the civilized and Christian nations assembled in delegation to consider the practicability of this command. Only to-day, and the world, led by its stump orators and sensational journalists, treats the whole affair as a fiasco, as a Utopia which only deserves serious consideration among the dreamers of the millennium. Disarmament? Pshaw! Life is a struggle, a contest. War is a very undesirable and sorrowful thing, but it is in strict accordance with the laws of nature. No nation can be great without it. All history proclaims that the people who cannot or will not fight must perish. There is no room for weaklings or cowards. It is the merest sentimentalism to cry over it. Let us be brave, heroic, patriotic. At the sacrifice of the few the many shall live.

Such, in brief, is the doctrine presented by those who tell us that war is a necessary factor in the civilization and elevation of humanity. And this doctrine, while it is as false as the devil in principle and fatal as hell in its effects, is still accepted by civilized and Christian countries as the only reasonable and practicable doctrine for solving international disputes.

And so the world continues to move in the same old way – round and round – never forward or onward. Humanity, howling, cursing, swearing, continues its circular march, wades through the blood-stained fields and over the blood-stained hills, dyeing them a deeper crimson and adding to the number of dead carcasses over which it tramples. It believes in peace, not the peace of the river, but the peace of the ocean which bears on its calm surface the wrecks and ruins of a roaring tempest. It believes in peace, but it is the peace obtained at the point of the bayonet or the mouth of the cannon. And so to-day every nation is busily engaged increasing its army and navy. Men are working day and night manufacturing the instruments of peace – battleships and gunpowder. Each nation believes itself to be specially fitted and specially predestined by the Lord of Hosts for uniting under one flag the peoples of the earth. But this union will not be a united brotherhood, it will be a united serfdom. Its accomplishments will not be by the sword of the Spirit, but by the spirit of the sword.

And yet amidst all this turmoil and strife and uproar we need not despair. It is not necessary to banish hope entirely. There are voices other than the voice of Death. Amidst all the bellowings that proceed from the throats of the rulers of the earth; amidst the march of armed men; amidst the clash of steel and roar of cannon, there may still be heard a voice from the highest heavens proclaiming, “Be still and know that I am God.” He that hath an ear let him hear.

And yet, it may be asked, “Is not the voice of God heard in battle?” I am afraid not. Certain it is that the voice of the devil is heard much oftener, asking, after the dead lie buried in the dust, the same old diabolical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Still the voice of God is there if it could only be heard, speaking in words most clear and distinct and emphatic, “Thou shalt not kill”; “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” But is not war beneficial in creating some of the best qualities in man, such as the skill of the physician and the tenderness of the nurse? That it affords abundant opportunity for the practice of such qualities is only too sorrowfully true. That it stimulates and quickens them is also granted. That it creates them is most untrue. They are simply latent qualities brought into exercise. It is an undoubted blessing for the victims of war to have such qualities displayed in their interest, but it is sad indeed to require the blessing. It is mere nonsense to advocate war by such argument. Here is a locomotive moving along not too speedily. A man thinks he can cross the track before it reaches him. He has miscalculated its speed. The engine strikes him and he is severely injured. Quickly an ambulance patrol arrives, and in it he is carried to the hospital, where he receives the skill of the physician and the tender care of the nurse. Are railroad accidents beneficial? Shall we advocate the desirability of multiplying them?

Again, it may be asked, “Is not war the foundation of all science and art?” If by science is meant the invention of all kinds of instruments for the wholesale destruction of human life, then war is the foundation of all science. So rapidly and so skillfully are we progressing in this science that, in a short time, the most scientific nation will be able to force its enemy to turn on a strong current of electricity and exterminate itself, just as we now do in the case of condemned murderers. But if by science is meant a knowledge of nature, and if we include the invention of those instruments which are helpful in the attainment of such knowledge, then science has nothing to do with war, except as an object of destruction. An army of soldiers has no more regard for a scientific laboratory than a herd of cattle for the flowers of the field wherein they are grazing. Students of science, like all other students, pursue their studies not amidst tumult and uproar, but where there is quietness and peace. The roar of cannon and the roar of infuriated armed men is no incentive to them. War minimizes the possibilities for scientific progress. It cannot, therefore, be the foundation of science.

And now as to war being the foundation of art, what is to be said? We are told that art nourishes only in those countries whose people are imbued with a spirit to fight and who delight in war. An agricultural nation has no artistic quality, a manufacturing one is essentially opposed to war. When it is pointed out that the ancient Romans, whose great empire was built and maintained by war, were not by any means lovers or producers of art, we are told that at heart they must have been a class of farmers and not soldiers! We speak of the pen being mightier than the sword, but this is only the idle talk of an uncivilized agricultural nation or of a degenerate manufacturing one, if the foregoing theory be true. If such be true, then the sword would be mightier than the pen, the brush and the chisel put together. Nay, it would be more. The virtue and magic of these art instruments would owe their origin to the sword. What a weary and monotonous world this would be without war! There would be nothing beautiful to cheer and elevate us. There would be no art, no literature, no paintings, no sculpture. There would be simply a race of people totally depraved by a mania for agriculture and manufacture, because, alas, too ignoble to fight! But if war is the foundation of art, why not perpetuate the realities of it? Why not chisel out to us on stone, the least perishable, a few thousand skulls with crossbones?

Why not paint us pictures as we paint our hills and dales with blood? Why not write us a few epics of the weaklings of the earth who were unable to adapt themselves to the environment of an elevated and noble civilization-war?

The late Mr. John Ruskin, the greatest exponent of the theory that war is the foundation or creative principle of all that is great and true and noble in humanity, was forced to admit that all modern war is murder, that it created nothing but tombs. Since modern war is all that affects us in modern times, we need not trouble ourselves further with the effects of ancient or “classic” war.

There is one other argument commonly expressed, although never uttered on platform or published in news paper or magazine, which proclaims the benefits that accrue from war. We are told that, the labor market being overrun with wage-earners, what is required is a war conducted on an extensive scale, so that such a deplorable condition of affairs may be remedied. Let us chop off a few thousand heads, then there shall be work for all. The most sorrowful thing about this argument is its advocacy by workingmen. How it ever entered their heads and gained expressed approval, God only knows. Still it may be heard in the workshop, in the club-room and on the street. I have no intention of discussing this question here to-night. To do so would be an insult to your intelligence. I mention it simply to illustrate the extreme folly and degradation to which the masses have descended. Of all the foulness and corruption that proceeds from sooty hell, this is the most criminal and most accursed.

There are other theories and arguments by which an endeavor is made to prove, not only that war is justifiable, but that it is an essential factor in the progress and elevation of humanity. I trust, however, in dealing with the foregoing theories and arguments, I may at least have proved helpful in my endeavor to show you that, in the present condition of the world’s civilization and enlightenment, with all the opportunities afforded for arbitration and mediation, war is neither justifiable nor elevating. It may have been necessary, it may have been elevating in the infancy and early history of a savage and uncivilized world, but at the eve of the twentieth century of Christian teaching, it is nothing short of murder, and murder in its most brutal, vicious and degrading form. Now, I do not assert that the modern soldier is a murderer. What I do assert is that all modern war is murder whoever is responsible for the crime committed. The soldier of every nation generally thinks that he is engaged in a noble and holy cause. In thinking thus he thinks wrongly. Still he thinks as he has been taught. We have all been taught to believe in the righteousness of war; taught to believe that the extension of territory for commercial purposes is more valuable than human life. The worst thing about this teaching is that the Church upholds it. We might justly say, therefore, that the Church deserves greater condemnation than any of its co-partners in this great crime.

But I shall not specially accuse or condemn it. We are all responsible and deserving of condemnation, unless we are opposing it in some form or manner. The ministry or government that declares war, the minister or priest who prays that the enemy may be completely vanquished, the great mass of humanity who receive with joyous acclamation the news of the massacre of the enemy, all are responsible for this great crime of murder. I cannot, therefore, my brother, join you in your cheer of victory.

I weep for the victims; weep because of the homes that have been broken up and for the hearts that have been made sad; but, more than anything else, I weep for you in your cheers. Still I am not without hope, not without courage. I believe the day is nigh at hand when I too shall cheer; shall cheer for the victory, not of the strong over the weak, but of the strong for the weak; shall cheer, not for the power that destroys, but for the power that helps and saves; shall cheer when the nations of the earth are united, not to blow the life out of each other, but to breathe a newer and higher life into each other.

This is the season that inspires us with hope. The winter has gone and spring has reappeared. In the vegetable kingdom the manifestations of life proclaim the coming of spring when the fields and woods will greet us with the beauty and fragrance of their flowers and blossoms. What a beautiful scene it would be if a similar manifestation could be witnessed in the animal kingdom, in one branch of it at least, that of man.

What a glorious transformation it would be. I have hoped that such a change will soon take place. And in my hope I would fain desire that the present year may mark the close of the world’s winter, which has been so long, so dreary, so desolate and so tragic in its history.

I would fain desire that the coming year, the year 1901, whether it commences a new century or not, may commence a new era, even the spring of a higher and nobler life in man. The spring once with us, the summer would soon appear, when there would bloom up in our midst flowers more beautiful than the lily or the rose. Instead of witnessing on the field and on the hillside those ghastly mutilated forms, bruised and broken and destroyed by the implements of war, with less thought and with a lighter heart than is displayed in plucking the weeds from the ground, there would spring up all over the land a multitude of flowers, which in their grace and symmetry of form, in their virtue and light and love, in all their varied manifestations of life, would proclaim the fulfillment of the prophecy of the angels at the birth of the Son of Man, “On earth peace, goodwill toward men.”

My hope for the future lies in the good work already accomplished at the recent Hague Conference, which is but the prologue of what may be achieved in the near future. I say good work already accomplished, because even at that first conference much has been done in formulating articles on arbitration and mediation whereby two nations in dispute may, if they so choose, have an honorable and peaceful solution of their differences.

This is much to be thankful for, even although the work of the Conference has been laughed and jeered at. The laughs and jeers will cease when the great mass of humanity take up the question in real earnest. The practical success of all future conferences depends on the earnestness of the people. I know too well that no amount of articles agreed upon and signed by the delegates will prove fruitful unless they express the sentiment of the people. But let the people be in real earnest; let them take the same interest in a crusade of peace that they do in a crusade of war; let them put the influence and force of their whole being into it; let them be possessed with the same heroism as the soldier; let them be willing to bear similar privations; let them stand unitedly against the attacks of the enemy; let them be willing to give their lives a sacrifice for the cause, and I tell you that the sun would never again set on the land where peace and joy would reign forever and forevermore.

If there is one country better suited than another for influencing the peace movement, that country is the United States. Its desire for the peace of nations is traditional. This desire was very forcibly expressed by our delegates to The Hague in their earnest insistence for practical measures. But more than this, the United States is a miniature world. Its population is so heterogeneous that all the various characteristics of the different nations of the earth – social, political and psychological – may be studied at home. Much could be done in this direction in overcoming national prejudices. In so far as we are able to obtain respect and obedience to our laws from such a variety of people; in so far as we are able to induce them to live among each other with the spirit of fraternal affection, just so far have we accomplished the practicability of international federation.

If there is one day more suited than another for making special effort in this cause, that day is the Fourth of July, the day we celebrate our independence from tyranny and oppression. I say “our independence,” because all of us, no matter of what nationality, participate in the same privileges and blessings which are the inheritance of that independence so heroically fought for, so honorably established and so gloriously maintained.

Still, instead of celebrating our own independence, which is indeed forever secure and safe, it would be nobler by far to utilize that day in an endeavor to accomplish a still greater object, the disarmament of nations and the establishment of peace; a peace which the world has not yet experienced; a peace, not obtained by the sword, but from the sword.

 

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