Home > Uncategorized > Halldór Laxness: There are ideals in war too, slaughtering men by the million

Halldór Laxness: There are ideals in war too, slaughtering men by the million


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

Nobel prize in literature recipients on peace and war

Scandinavian writers on peace and war

Halldór Laxness: In war there is no cause except the cause of war. A bitter disappointment when it turned out they could defend themselves

Halldór Laxness: Three questions about war on earth and in heaven


Halldór Laxness
From Independent People
Translated by J.A. Thompson

This so-called World War, perhaps the most bountiful blessing that God has sent our country since the Napoleonic Wars saved the nation from the consequences of the Great Eruption and raised our culture from the ruins with an increased demand for fish and whale-oil, yes, this beautiful war, and may the Almighty grant us another equally beautiful at the earliest possible moment – this war began with the shooting of a scruffy little foreigner, a chap called Ferdinand or something, and the death of this Ferdinand was taken so much to heart by various ill-disposed citizens that they kept on hacking one another to pieces like suet in a trough, for four consecutive years and more. And in the little loft in Summerhouses, where on the occasion of the Shepherd’s Meet there had assembled once more all those indomitable warriors who themselves had waged a lifelong unremitting struggle much more serious than any World War, and one that was prosecuted for reasons far weightier than that any Ferdinand should ever have been assassinated, this war was now the theme of debate.


‘Well, apart from this one fellow and his name, whatever it may have been,” said Krusi of Gil, “what I could never understand about this business was why the others had to start squabbling simply because this bastard of a Ferdinand was shot”

“Oh, let them squabble, damn them,” said Bjartur. “I only hope they keep it up as long as they can. They aren’t half so particular about what they eat now that they’re face to face with the realities of life. They’ll eat anything now. They’ll buy anything from you. Prices are soaring everywhere. Soon they’ll be buying the muck from your middens. I only hope they go on blasting one another’s brains out as long as other folk can get some good out of it. There ought to be plenty of people abroad. And no one misses them.”

“Oh, there are ideals in war too, though they may not be particularly noticeable,” said Einar apologetically, for to him Bjartur invariably seemed a thought too forceful in expression, whether in prose or verse. “Bjartur,” he added, “you who are an old ballad enthusiast ought to know that there is always an ideal lying behind every war, though that ideal may not loom very large in the eyes of men who have more serious things to think about.”

“Ideal?” asked Bjartur, and did not understand the word.

“Well, significance, then,” said Einar in explanation.

“Huh, you’re the first I’ve ever heard say that there was any significance behind these wars of theirs nowadays. They’re just madmen, pure and simple. It was another matter altogether in the olden days, when your heroes sailed off perhaps to distant quarters of the globe to fight for a peerless woman, or anything else that they considered some sort of flower in their lives. But such is not the case nowadays. Nowadays they fight just from sheer stupidity and obstinacy. But, as I’ve said before, stupidity is all right as long as other people can turn it to account.”

“There may be a good deal in what you say, Bjartur,” said the Fell King then, “but I think it behoves us also to examine this war from rather a different point of view. What we have to realize is that such a World War is accompanied not only by great blessings, such as the extra money we farmers now make on all our produce, but also by extensive damage and all sorts of hardship in the countries in which It is being waged, as for instance the other day there when they destroyed that cathedral in France, a magnificent edifice that had stood there for upwards of a hundred years.”

‘What the hell does it matter to me if they destroy the cathedral in France?” cried Bjartur, spitting contemptuously. ”They’re more than welcome for me. They could shell Rauthsmyri Church itself and I still wouldn’t give a damn.”

“Unfortunately it isn’t the cathedral alone,” said the Fell King. “They say they don’t even think twice about blowing whole cities to pieces. Just think, for instance, of the amount of gold and jewels alone that must be destroyed if a large city, London or Paris for instance, is razed to the ground. Think of all those marvelous palaces of theirs. And all the libraries.”


“Now, if I were to give you my opinion,” said Thorir of Gilteig, “I should say that this war was being waged principally to give a dissolute rabble the chance to invade other people’s countries and rape all the foreign women. I heard from a man who was abroad for some time that these swine of soldiers and generals are the most lecherous beasts that ever crawled on the face of the earth. And some of the stories I have heard about these military whoremongers are such that it would be pointless to repeat them; one in Iceland here would believe them….”

“But,” said he, taking up his own thread again, “I agree with our worthy Fell King in this, that if you look at the war with one eye upon the ideals that lie behind it, and the other on all those thousands of men and women whom it robs of life and limb, then you can’t help wondering whether it wouldn’t be better to lay more store upon preserving peoples lives than upon fulfilling a set of ideals. For if ideals aim not at improving tire lot of mankind on earth, but at slaughtering men by the million, one may well ask whether it wouldn’t be more praiseworthy to be wholly devoid of ideals, though such a life would naturally be a very empty one. For if ideals are not life, and life is not ideals, what are ideals? And what is life?”

“Well, if they simply must have it that way,” said Bjartur, “they’ve only themselves to blame. Surely anyone who wants war must also be willing to have himself killed. Why can’t they have leave to be as idiotic as they please? And since the swine can he bothered to go to the trouble of butchering one another – from imbecility or ideals, it’s all the same to me – well, I’ll be the last man on earth to grieve for them. To hell with the lot of them. All I say is this: let them continue till doomsday, as long as the meat and the wool keep on rising in price.”

“But what happens if there’s no one left in the end?” asked Erusi of Gil.

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