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The horrors of war are just now making a deeper impression than
ever on the popular mind, owing to the close contact with the
battle-field and the hospital into which the railroad and the
telegraph and the newspaper have brought the public of all
civilized countries. Wars are fought out now, so to speak, under
every man's and woman's eyes; and, what is perhaps of nearly as
much importance, the growth of commerce and manufactures, and the
increased complication of the social machine, render the smallest
derangement of it anywhere a concern and trouble to all nations.
The consequence is that the desire for peace was never so deep as
it is now, and the eagerness of all good people to find out some
other means of deciding international disputes than mutual
killing never so intense.

And yet the unconsciousness of the true nature and difficulties
of the problem they are trying to solve, which is displayed by
most of those who make the advocacy of peace their special work,
is very discouraging. We are far from believing that the
incessant and direct appeals to the public conscience on the
subject of war are not likely in the long run to produce some
effect; but it is very difficult to resist the conclusion that
the efforts of the special advocates of peace have thus far
helped to spread and strengthen the impression that there is no
adequate substitute for the sword as an arbiter between nations,
or, in other words, to harden the popular heart on the subject of
military slaughter. It is certain that, during the last fifty
years, the period in which peace societies have been at work,
armies have been growing steadily larger, the means of destruction
have been multiplying, and wars have been as frequent and as
bloody as ever before; and, what is worse, the popular heart goes
into war as it has never done in past ages.

The great reason why the more earnest enemies of war have not
made more progress toward doing away with it, has been that, from
the very outset of their labors down to the present moment, they
have devoted themselves mainly to depicting its horrors and to
denouncing its cruelty. In other words, they almost invariably
approach it from a side with which nations actually engaged in it
are just as familiar as anybody, but which has for the moment
assumed in their eyes a secondary importance. The peace advocates
are constantly talking of the guilt of killing, while the
combatants only think, and will only think, of the nobleness of
dying. To the peace advocates the soldier is always a man going
to slaughter his neighbors; to his countrymen he is a man going
to lose his life for their sake - that is, to perform the loftiest
act of devotion of which a human being is capable. It is not
wonderful, then, that the usual effect of appeals for peace made
by neutrals is to produce mingled exasperation and amusement
among the belligerents. To the great majority of Europeans our
civil war was a shocking spectacle, and the persistence of the
North in carrying it on a sad proof of ferocity and lust of
dominion. To the great majority of those engaged in carrying it
on the struggle was a holy one, in which it was a blessing to
perish. Probably nothing ever fell more cruelly on human ears
than the taunts and execrations which American wives and mothers
heard from the other side of the ocean, heaped on the husbands
and sons whom they had sent to the battle-field, never thinking
at all of their slaying, but thinking solely of their being
slain; and very glad indeed that, if death had to come, it should
come in such a cause. If we go either to France or Germany
to-day, we shall find a precisely similar state of feeling. If
the accounts we hear be true - and we know of no reason to doubt
them - there is no more question in the German and French mind
that French and German soldiers are doing their highest duty in
fighting, than there was in the most patriotic Northern or
Southern home during our war; and we may guess, therefore, how a
German or French mother, the light of whose life had gone out at
Gravelotte or Orleans, and who hugs her sorrow as a great gift of
God, would receive an address from New York on the general
wickedness and folly of her sacrifice.

The fact is - and it is one of the most suggestive facts we know
of - that the very growth of the public conscience has helped to
make peace somewhat more difficult, war vastly more terrible.
When war was the game of kings and soldiers, the nations went
into it in a half-hearted way, and sincerely loathed it; now that
war is literally an outburst of popular feeling, the friend of
peace finds most of his logic powerless. There is little use in
reasoning with a man who is ready to die on the folly or
wickedness of dying. When a nation has worked itself up to the
point of believing that there are objects within its reach for
which life were well surrendered, it has reached a region in
which the wise saws and modern instances of the philosopher or
lawyer cannot touch it, and in which pictures of the misery of
war only help to make the martyr's crown seem more glorious.

Therefore, we doubt whether the work of peace is well done by
those who, amidst the heat and fury of actual hostilities, dwell
upon the folly and cruelty of them, and appeal to the combatants
to stop fighting, on the ground that fighting involves suffering
and loss of life, and the destruction of property. The principal
effect of this on "the average man" has been to produce the
impression that the friends of peace are ninnies, and to make him
smile over the earnestness with which everybody looks on his own
wars as holy and inevitable, and his neighbors' wars as
unnecessary and wicked. Any practical movement to put an end to
war must begin far away from the battle-field and its horrors. It
must take up and deal with the various influences, social and
political, which create and perpetuate the state of mind which
makes people ready to fight. Preaching up peace and preaching
down war generally are very like general homilies in praise of
virtue and denunciation of vice. Everybody agrees with them, but
nobody is ever ready to admit their applicability to his
particular case. War is, in our time, essentially the people's
work. Its guilt is theirs, as its losses and sufferings are
theirs. All attempts to saddle emperors, kings, and nobles with
the responsibility of it may as well be given up from this time

Now, what are the agencies which operate in producing the frame of
mind which makes people ready to go to war on small provocation?
It is at these the friends of peace must strike, in time of peace,
and not after the cannon has begun to roar and the country has
gone mad with patriotism and rage. They are, first of all,
the preaching in the press and elsewhere of the false and
pernicious doctrine that one nation gains by another's losses,
and can be made happy by its misery; that the United States, for
instance, profits in the long run by the prostration of French,
German, or English industry. One of the first duties of a peace
society is to watch this doctrine, and hunt it down wherever they
see it, as one of the great promoters of the pride and hardness
of heart which make war seem a trifling evil. America can no more
gain by French or German ruin than New York can gain by that of
Massachusetts. Secondly, there is the mediaeval doctrine that the
less commercial intercourse nations carry on with each other the
better for both, and that markets won or kept by force are means
of gain. There has probably been no more fruitful source of war
than this. It has for three centuries desolated the world, and
all peace associations should fix on it, wherever they encounter
it, the mark of the beast. Thirdly, there is the tendency of the
press, which is now the great moulder of public opinion, to take
what we may call the pugilist's view of international controversies.
The habit of taunting foreign disputants, sneering at the cowardice
or weakness of the one who shows any sign of reluctance in drawing
the sword, and counting up the possible profit to its own country
of one or other being well thrashed, in which it so frequently
indulges, has inevitably the effect not only of goading the
disputants into hostilities, but of connecting in the popular mind
at home the idea of unreadiness or unwillingness to fight with
baseness and meanness and material disadvantage. Fourthly, there
is the practice, to which the press, orators, and poets in every
civilized country steadily adhere, of maintaining, as far as their
influence goes, the same notions about national honor which once
prevailed about individual "honor" - that is, the notion that it is
discreditable to acknowledge one's self in the wrong, and always
more becoming to fight than apologize. "The code" has been abandoned
in the Northern States and in England in the regulations of the
relations of individual men, and a duellist is looked on, if not
as a wicked, as a crack-brained person; but in some degree in
both of them, and in a great degree in all other countries, it
still regulates the mode in which international quarrels are
brought to a conclusion.

Last of all, and most important of all, it is the duty of peace
societies to cherish and exalt the idea of _law_ as the only true
controller of international relations, and discourage and denounce
their submission to _sentiment_. The history of civilization is the
history of the growth amongst human beings of the habit of
submitting their dealings with each other to the direction of rules
of universal application, and their withdrawal of them from the
domain of personal feeling. The history of "international law" is
the history of the efforts of a number of rulers and statesmen to
induce nations to submit themselves to a similar régime - that is, to
substitute precedents and rules based on general canons of morality
and on principles of municipal law, for the dictates of pride,
prejudice, and passion, in their mode of seeking redress of
injuries, of interpreting contracts, exchanging services, and
carrying on commercial dealings. Their success thus far has been
only partial. A nation, even the most highly civilized, is still, in
its relations with its fellows, in a condition somewhat analogous to
that of the individual savage. It chooses its friends from whim or
fancy, makes enemies through ignorance or caprice, avenges its
wrongs in a torrent of rage, or through a cold-blooded thirst for
plunder, and respects rules and usages only fitfully, and with small
attention to the possible effect of its disregard of them on the
general welfare. The man or the woman and, let us say, "the
mother" - since that is supposed to be, in this discussion, a term of
peculiar potency - who tries to exert a good influence on public
opinion on all these points, to teach the brotherhood of man as an
economical as well as a moral and religious truth; to spread the
belief that war between any two nations is a general calamity to the
civilized world; that it is as unchristian and inhuman to rouse
national combativeness as to rouse individual combativeness, as
absurd to associate honor with national wrong-doing as with
individual wrong-doing; and that peace among nations, as among
individuals, is, and can only be, the product of general reverence
for _law_ and general distrust of _feeling_ - may rest assured that
he or she is doing far more to bring war to an end than can be done
by the most fervid accounts of the physical suffering it causes. It
will be a sorrowful day for any people when their men come to
consider death on the battle-field the greatest of evils, and the
human heart will certainly have sadly fallen off when those who stay
at home have neither gratitude nor admiration for those who shoulder
the musket, or are impressed less by the consideration that the
soldiers are going to kill others than by the consideration that
they are going to die themselves. There are things worth cherishing
even in war; and the seeds of what is worst in it are sown not in
camps, barracks, or forts, but in public meetings and newspapers and
legislatures and in literature.


The feeling of amazement with which the world is looking on at the
Prussian campaigns comes not so much from the tremendous display of
physical force they afford - though there is in this something almost
appalling - as from the consciousness which everybody begins to have
that to put such an engine of destruction as the German army into
operation there must be behind it a new kind of motive power. It is
easy enough for any government to put its whole male population
under arms, or even to lead them on an emergency to the field. But
that an army composed in the main of men suddenly taken from civil
pursuits should fight and march, as the Prussian army is doing, with
more than the efficiency of any veteran troops the world has yet
seen, and that the administrative machinery by which they are fed,
armed, transported, doctored, shrived, and buried should go like
clock-work on the enemy's soil, and that the people should submit
not only without a murmur, but with enthusiasm, to sacrifices such
as have never before been exacted of any nation except in the very
throes of despair, show that something far more serious has taken
place in Prussia than the transformation of the country into a camp.
In other words, we are not witnessing simply a levy _en masse_, nor
yet the mere maintenance of an immense force by a military monarchy,
but the application to military affairs of the whole intelligence of
a nation of great mental and moral culture. The peculiarity of the
Prussian system does not lie in the size of its armies or the
perfection of its armament, but in the character of the men who
compose it. All modern armies, except Cromwell's "New Model Army"
and that of the United States during the rebellion, have been
composed almost entirely of ignorant peasants drilled into passive
obedience to a small body of professional soldiers. The Prussian
army is the first, however, to be a perfect reproduction of the
society which sends it to the field. To form it, all Prussian men
lay down their tools or pens or books, and shoulder muskets.
Consequently, its excellences and defects are those of the community
at large, and the community at large being cultivated in a
remarkable degree, we get for the first time in history a real
example of the devotion of mind and training, on a great scale, to
the work of destruction.

Of course, the quality of the private soldier has in all wars a
good deal to do with making or marring the fortunes of commanders;
but it is safe to say that no strategists have over owed so much
to the quality of their men as the Prussian strategists. Their
perfect handling of the great masses which are now manoeuvring
in France has been made in large degree possible by the
intelligence of the privates. This has been strikingly shown on
two or three occasions by the facility with which whole regiments
or brigades have been sacrificed in carrying a single position.
With ordinary troops, only a certain amount can be deliberately
and openly exacted of any one corps. The highest heights of
devotion are often beyond their reach. But if it serves the
purposes of a Prussian commander to have all the cost of an
assault fall on one regiment, he apparently finds not the slightest
difficulty in getting it to march to certain destruction, and not
blindly as peasants march, but as men of education, who understand
the whole thing, but having made it for this occasion their
business to die, do it like any other duty of life - not hilariously
or enthusiastically or recklessly, but calmly and energetically,
as they study or manufacture or plough. They get themselves killed
not one particle more than is necessary, but also not one particle

A nation organized in this way is a new phenomenon, and is worth
attentive study. It gives one a glimpse of possibilities in the
future of modern civilization of which few people have hitherto
dreamed, and it must be confessed that the prospect is not
altogether pleasing. We have been flattering ourselves - in
Anglo-Saxondom, at least - for many years back that all social
progress was to be hereafter in the direction of greater
individualism, and among us, certainly, this view has derived
abundant support from observed facts. But it is now apparent that
there is a tendency at work, which appears to grow stronger and
stronger every day, toward combination in all the work of life.
It is specially observable in the efforts of the working classes
to better their condition; it still more observable in the
efforts of capital to fortify itself against them and against the
public at large; and there is, perhaps, nothing in which more
rapid advances have been made of late years than in the power of
organization. The working of the great railroads and hotels and
manufactories, of the trades unions, of the co-operative
associations, and of the monster armies now maintained by three
or four powers, are all illustrations of it. The growth of power
is, of course, the result of the growth of intelligence, and it
is in the ratio of the growth of intelligence.

Prussia has got the start of all other countries by combining the
whole nation in one vast organization for purposes of offence and
defence. Hitherto nations have simply subscribed toward the
maintenance of armies and concerned themselves little about their
internal economy and administration; but the Prussians have
converted themselves into an army, and have been enabled to do so
solely by subjecting themselves to a long process of elaborate
training, which has changed the national character. When reduced
to the lowest point of humiliation after the battle of Jena, they
went to work and absolutely built up the nation afresh. We may
not altogether like the result. To large numbers of people the
Prussian type of character is not a pleasing one, nor Prussian
society an object of unmixed admiration, and there is something
horrible in a whole people's passing their best years learning
how to kill. But we cannot get over the fact that the Prussian
man is likely to furnish, consciously or unconsciously, the model
to other civilized countries, until such time as some other
nation has so successfully imitated him as to produce his like.

Let those who believe, as Mr. Wendell Phillips says that he
believes, that "the best education a man can get is what he gets
in picking up a living," and that universities are humbugs, and
that from the newspapers and lyceum lecture the citizen can
always get as much information on all subjects, human and divine,
as is good for him or the State, take a look at the Prussian
soldier as he marches past in his ill-fitting uniform and his
leather helmet. First of all, we observe that he smokes a great
deal. According to some of us, the "tobacco demon" ought by this
time to have left him a thin, puny, hollow-eyed fellow, with
trembling knees and palpitating heart and listless gait, with
shaking hands and an intense craving for ardent spirits. You
perceive, however, that a burlier, broader-shouldered, ruddier,
brighter-eyed, and heartier-looking man you never set eyes on;
and as he swings along in column, with his rifle, knapsack,
seventy rounds of ammunition, blanket, and saucepan, you must
confess you cannot help acknowledging that you feel sorry for any
equal body of men in the world with which that column may get
into "a difficulty." He drinks, too, and drinks a great deal,
both of strong beer and strong wine, and has always done so, and
all his family friends do it, and have only heard of teetotalism
through the newspapers, and, if you asked him to confine himself
to water, would look on you as an amiable idiot. Nevertheless, you
never see him drunk, nor does his beer produce on him that
utterly bemuddling or brain-paralyzing effect which is so
powerfully described by our friend Mr. James Parton as produced
on him by lager-bier, in that inquiry into the position of "The
Coming Man" toward wine, some copies of which, we see, he is
trying to distribute among the field-officers. On the contrary,
he is, on the whole, a very sober man, and very powerful thinker,
and very remarkable scholar. There is no field of human knowledge
which he has not been among the first to explore; no heights of
speculation which he has not scaled; no problem of the world over
which he is not fruitfully toiling. Moreover, his thoroughness is
the envy of the students of all other countries, and his hatred
of sham scholarship and slipshod generalization is intense.

But what with the tobacco and the beer, and the scholarship and
his university education, you might naturally infer that he must
be a kid-glove soldier, and a little too nice and dreamy and
speculative for the actual work of life. But you never were more
mistaken. He is leaving behind him some of the finest manufactories
and best-tilled fields in the world. Moreover, he is an admirable
painter and, as all the world knows, an almost unequalled musician;
or if you want proof of his genius for business, look at the speed
and regularity with which he and his comrades have transported
themselves to the Rhine, and see the perfection of all the
arrangements of his regiment. And now, if you think his "bad habits,"
his daily violations of your notions of propriety, have diminished
his power of meeting death calmly - that noblest of products of
culture - you have only to follow him up as far as Sedan and see
whether he ever flinches; whether you have ever read or heard of
a soldier out of whom more marching and fighting and dying,
and not flighty, boisterous dying either, could be got.

Now, we can very well understand why people should be unwilling
to see the Prussian military system spread into other countries,
or even be preserved where it is. It is a pitiful thing to have
the men of a whole civilized nation spending so much time out of
the flower of their years learning to kill other men; and the
lesson to be drawn from the recent Prussian successes is
assuredly not that every country ought to have an army like the
Prussian army, though we confess that, if great armies must be
kept up, there is no better model than the Prussian. The lesson
is that, whether you want him for war or peace, there is no way
in which you can get so much out of a man as by training him, and
training him not in pieces but the whole of him; and that the
trained men, other things being equal, are pretty sure in the
long run to be the masters of the world.


We had, four or five weeks ago, a few words of controversy with the
_Christian Union_ as to the comparative morality of the Prussians
and Americans, or, rather, their comparative religiousness - meaning
by religiousness a disposition "to serve others and live as in God's
sight;" in other words, unselfishness and spirituality. We let it
drop, from the feeling that the question whether the Americans or
Prussians were the better men was only a part, and a very small
part, of the larger question. How do we discover which of any two
nations is the purer in its life or in its aims? and, is not any
judgment we form about it likely to be very defective, owing to the
inevitable incompleteness of our premises? We are not now going to
try to fix the place of either Prussia or the United States in the

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Online LibraryEdwin Lawrence GodkinReflections and Comments 1865-1895 → online text (page 1 of 17)