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John McGovern: War: three letters, fifty million plunged into worst misfortune


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

American writers on peace and against war


John McGovern
From The Golden Censer

The first great duty of society is to feed and clothe her individuals. This burden is just beginning to sit on her shoulders without galling weight. The next effort is to protect the more industrious against the forays of the wicked and the mistakes of the unwise. This is the problem with which the past century has had most to deal. It is an immeasurably greater question than is that of drunkenness, and it is immeasurably far from solution. For instance, a foolish statesman can to-day plunge fifty millions of people into war – a thing represented among words by three letters, but which among events entirely fails to find complete expression, from the lack of any other misfortune worthy of comparison. An angry statesman, acting like a boy, may stop, not a game of marbles, but ten thousand grain-laden ships.


The whole history of human sickness is a continuous outcry of the goodness of woman. Wherever the red hand of war has risen to smite, there the white hand of woman has hastened to soothe. After the roar of the conflagration and amidst the ruins piled up by the earthquake ever has that sweet minister sought out the hungry and succored the suffering.


Forced into geographical relations with the Irish, an unwarlike people with indomitable tongues, England has in the middle ages, naturally done to this unwarlike people just what a warlike people would do in the middle ages – taken everything. With painful volubility the unwarlike people has for centuries sounded its fate over the world, touching the heart of Gladstone and other good Englishmen, and tempting him and them to many struggles. Behold him at the next step, then, in the role of warring upon the unwarlike, of oppressing the oppressed, of answering an Irish clack with a British click! Is it not pitiful? Gladstone fell ill from it. He paid there and then for his illustrious name. And, next, of those brave Boers! God nerved their quick muscles and darted straight their wonderful eye; and when the single hand rose against the hundred hands of British Briarius they were not forsaken. Oh! how clearly that question seemed to an American! No geographical necessity was there – no race hatred, no hotbed to foment conspiracy against the sister country England. The independence of those Boers, if they desired it, ought to have been fought for by England, by Gladstone, willingly, irresistibly—in the very name of England’s own love of liberty for herself.


Napoleon, possibly, never had a true friend in his life. He certainly never deserved one. Each year saw him surrounded by new associates, whom he meant to sacrifice, if he could.

Upon the bloody firld of Aspern and Essling, he offered up Marshal Lannes. He was forced to stand by that brave dying man and listen to his awful reproaches. So, again, in the terrible carnage of Spain at Eylau, at Borodino, Lutzen, Bautzen, Dresden, Leipsic, Hanau, everywhere, he was compelled to hear the outspoken protests of the men who had held the ladder for him—to stamp his foot at the constant declarations of “Dukes,” “Princes,” and “Kings,” that he was a monster whose thirst demanded only human blood. At last, the whole world cried out that it had had “enough of Bonaparte!”

The expression became a war-cry, and the world escaped from the baleful sceptre under whose shadow it had too long suspired. “What millions died that Cæsar might be great!” cries Campbell. “None think the great unhappy but the great,” says Young. They deserve their unhappiness. It is the mess of pottage to obtain which they have sold everything. Fame has always seemed to the philosopher like some mountain in a polar clime – cold, lonesome, inhospitable.


A library of books, every one of which you have read, is a mine without “walls.” It is a merry assembly of old friends ever faithful. Grief cannot drive them away. Slander cannot alienate them. They cannot have rival interests. They cannot want anything you have got, and you can take all they have got, and not rob them at all.

If any members of your family have the love of books, aid them in satisfying it. Such are the salt of the earth. They are the blazed trees in the dark forests of the present generations, to mark out that course which shall, in future ages, be the highway of the whole world.

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