Gilbert Murray.

Faith, war, and policy; addresses and essays on the European War online

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the offender? That is the sort of spirit, perhaps the only
spirit, in which any man of conscience can without in-
ward misery approach the killing and torturing of his
fellow creatures. He is ready, if need be, to shed blood;
but he must know that he does it for the Right, and be-


cause he must. It would sicken him to think that while
doing it, he was secretly paying off old scores, or making
money out of it, or, still worse, enjoying the cruelty.
This slaying of men, if you do it for the right motive,
may be a high and austere duty; if you admit any wrong
motive, it begins to be murder — and hypocritical

And yet, as soon as you let loose in war the whole of a
big nation, you have handed over that high and austere
duty to agents who cannot possibly perform it : to masses
of very ordinary people, and not only of ordinary people,
but of stupid and vulgar and drunken and covetous and
dishonest and tricky and cruel and brutal people, who
will transform your imagined crusade into a very dif-
ferent reality.

When the war was flung into the midst of all this
seething, heterogeneous mass of men who make up
Great Britain or the British Empire, it called out nat-
urally those who in their different ways were most akin
to it. It called out both the heroes and the ruffians. But
in the main, as the war atmosphere deepened among the
civilian population, the men who were interested in
justice became unimportant; those who were specially
interested in humanity were advised to be discreet in
their utterances. It is quite others who came to the front :
the men — for such exist in all countries — who believe
in Force and love Force; who love to wage bloody bat-
tles, or at least to read about them and lash their
younger neighbours into them; who rage against the
"mere lawyers" who care about right and wrong; de-
spise the puling sentimentalists who have not deadened
their hearts to all feeling of human compassion ; loathe
the doctrinaire politicians who dare to think about the


welfare of future generations instead of joining in the
carnival of present passion.

What is to be our attitude to this change? Does it
invalidate the whole position of our Society? I think

We knew we should let loose these evil powers, but we
believe we can cling to our duty in spite of them. It was
part of the price we had to pay, if we wished to save Eu-
rope, to save the small nationalities, to save liberty and
civilization. And it is by no means all the price. It is
only an extra. It comes as an addition to the long bill of
dead and wounded, of the mountains of unatoned and
inexplicable suffering, the vista of future famine and
poverty, and the beggary of nations. And it is not the
only extra. There is something that goes wrong in us

On every side one sees the influence of that queer, dis-
torting force which protects our tired nerves by cheapen-
ing and marring all our high emotions. We entered on
this war in a state of moral exaltation. If ever in the
course of my life I have been privileged to look on pure
heroism, it was in some of the young men who volun-
teered for military service in the first few months of the
war. It is not difficult to get vigorous young men to risk
their lives. But the men I mean did far more than that.
They gave up almost all they cared for in life, all their
enjoyments, their intellectual aims, the causes for which
they were working; they gave up a fife of constructive-
ness and brotherly love, to which they were devoted, to
undertake a life, not only of great hardship and danger,
— that is simple, — but one consecrated to malignity
and destruction, which they loathed. And the motive
which impelled and inspired them was a faith, a very


high faith, that a crisis had arisen in the history of man-
kind which made this strange sacrifice desirable. A vast
crime was suddenly before us; a crime striding to accom-
plishment, almost triumphant, and so dire in its ultimate
meaning that each of these men felt within him, "That
must never happen while I live!" In that faith they
turned from their old ideals, from their hopes, their
causes, their books, their music, their social work, or
their philosophy; they served to the utmost of their
strength and the greater number of them are now dead.

I speak of the class of men I knew best. But the same
spirit in different degrees ran through the larger part of
Great Britain. '

That is how it happens. You face the beginning of a
war with intense feeling. You feel the casualties, you
feel the pain of the wounded, you feel the horror of what
your friends have to do, as well as what they have to
suffer. You feel also the uplifting emotion of sacrifice for
a great cause.

But you cannot possibly go on feeling like that. War
is a matter of endurance, and if you allow yourself to
feel continually in this intense way, you will break down.
In mere self-protection a man, whether soldier or civil-
ian, grows an envelope of defensive callousness. Instinc-
tively, by a natural process, you avoid feeling the hor-
rors, and you cease to climb the heights of emotion.
After all, an average man may be sorry for the Czecho-
slovaks; he may even look them up on a map; but he
cannot go on grieving about them year in and year out.
He may realize in flashes the actual meaning in terms of
human misery of one hour of the war which he is not
fighting indeed, but ordering and paying for. But he
could not live if he did so steadily. He proceeds, quite


naturally, first to put the enemy's suffering out oi*&c-
count. He deserves all he gets, anyhow. Then the suf-
ferings of the victim nations : he is very sorry, of course,
for Belgium, Poland, Serbia, Rumania, the Armenians.
But it is no good being sorry. Better to get on with the
war! Then the sufferings of his own people, the young
men and middle-aged men who have gone out to France
or the East. He cannot quite forget these ; he must think
about them a good deal and the thought is painful. So
he transforms them. When they once put on khaki, they
became, he imagines, quite different. They were once
James Mitchell the clerk, Thomas Brown the railway
porter, John Baxter the Wesleyan carpenter. But now
they are "Tommies." And we invent a curious psy-
chology for them, to persuade ourselves somehow that
they like the things they do, and do not so very much
mind the things they suffer.

And then, in spite of all this protective callousness, in
spite of the pretences we build up in order to make
ourselves comfortable, there continues underneath the
brazen armour of our contentment a secret horror, a
raging irritation — how shall I put it? It is the cease-
less, bitter sobbing of all that used once to be recognized
as the higher part of our nature, but now is held prisoner,
stifled and thrust aside . . . because the need of the
world is for other things. And some of us throw up the
moral struggle and go blindly for pacifism. (I met a man
lately who had left the useful and peaceful work he had
been allowed by the military authorities to follow, be-
cause he felt he could never find peace except in prison
or on the scaffold.) Most of us, I believe, do our duty as
best we can; trying amid so much heroic fortitude tp
show a little decent power of self-denial, and amid such


oceans of cruelty to scatter the few drops of personal
kindness that we can. And a third set, almost all civil-
ians, led partly by party passion and self-interest, partly
by the overflow of angry impulses which cannot find
vent in honest fighting, partly by mere vulgarity and
love of excitement, dance a kind of devil's chorus in fury
lest any calm wisdom, any reasoned judgement, any
scrupulous honour, should still be allowed a voice in the
future of England.

Let me read you some passages from a letter written
by a soldier, not an officer, about his impressions of us
civilians in England when he returned after a long and
meritorious time of service in France. He seems to see
us across a gulf of mutual misunderstanding.

You speak lightly [he says] ; you assume that we shall speak
lightly of things . . . which to us are solemn or terrible. You
seem ashamed, as if they were a kind of weakness, of the ideas
which sent us to France, and for which thousands of sons and
lovers have died. You calculate the profits to be derived from
War after the War, as though the unspeakable agonies of the
Somme were an item in a commercial proposition. You make
us feel that the country to which we have returned is not the
country for which we went out to fight. . . . We used to blas-
pheme and laugh and say, "Oh, it's only the newspapers.
People at home can't really be like that." But after some
months in England I have come to the conclusion that your
papers don/t caricature you so mercilessly as we supposed.
No, the fact is you and we have drifted apart. We have
slaved for Rachel, but it looks as if we had got to live with

He speaks of the ideas with which we entered upon
the war.

«How often, fatigued beyond endurance, or horrified by one-'s
own actions, does one not recur to those ideas for support and


consolation! It is worth it/because ... It is awful, but I need
not loathe myself because . . . We see things which you can
only imagine. We are strengthened by reflections which you
have abandoned. . . . While you seem to have been surrender-
ing your creeds with the nervous facility of a Tudor official, our
foreground may be different, but our background is the same.
It is that of August to November, 1914. We are your ghosts.

I can forgive you for representing war as a spectacle instead
of a state of existence. I suppose that to a correspondent who
is shepherded into an observation post on a show day, it does
seem spectacular. But the representation of the human beings
concerned is unpardonable. There has been invented a kind of
conventional soldier, whose emotions and ideas are those which
you find it most easy to assimilate with your coffee and
marmalade. And this "Tommy" is a creature at once ridicu-
lous and disgusting. He is represented as invariably " cheer-
ful," as revelling in the excitement of war, as finding sport in
killing other men, ? as "hunting Germans out of dug-outs as a
terrier hunts rats," as overwhelming with kindness the captives
of his bow and spear. The last detail is true to life, but the
emphasis you lay on it is both unintelligent and insulting. Do
you expect us to hurt them or starve them?

Of the first material reality of war, from which everything
else takes its colour, the endless and loathsome physical ex-
haustion, you say little; for it would spoil the piquancy, the
verve, of the picture. Of your soldiers' internal life, the con-
stant collision of contradictory moral standards, the liability
of the soul to be crushed by mechanical monotony . . . the
sensation of taking a profitless part in a game played by
monkeys and organized by lunatics, you realize, I think,
nothing. Are you so superficial as to imagine that men do not
feel emotions of which they rarely speak: or do you suppose
that, as a cultured civilian once explained to me, these feelings
are confined to "gentlemen" and are not shared by "common
soldiers" ? . . .

They carry their burden with little help from you. For
when men work in the presence of death, they cannot be
satisfied with conventional justifications of a sacrifice which
seems to the poor weakness of our flesh intolerable. They
hunger for an assurance which is absolute, for a revelation of


the spirit as poignant and unmistakable as the weariness of
their suffering bodies. ... To most of us it must come from you
or not at all. For an army does not live by munitions alone,
but also by fellowship in a moral idea or purpose. And that,
unless you renew your faith, you cannot give us. You cannot
give it us because you do not possess it.

These are grave charges. I will presently say a word
or two in answer to them, but for the present the serious
fact for us to realize is that such charges are made. The
man who makes them is not a pacifist, but a good sol-
dier; not an eccentric, not a sentimentalist nor a man of
immature judgement. Quite the reverse. And he feels,
on returning to England after two years of war, that we
have not only sent him and his fellows out to die for us,
but that in their absence we have betrayed them. We
sent them out to fight for an England which was the
champion of Freedom and the Human Conscience and
International Right; and when once they were gone we
cast these phrases away, having no more use for them,
and left them to fight and die for the "Times" and the
"Daily Mail."

Now, there are many pleas that can be urged in ex-
tenuation of these charges. I will mention them pres-
ently. I wish first to urge another point. Admit for the
moment that they are largely true; that we have fallen
from our ideals. Would it have altered our action, ought
it to have altered our action, in August, 1914? If we had
known that, in addition to the awful waste of human
life, in addition to the incalculable sum of suffering, in
addition to the desperate impoverishment of Europe,
the war was likely to bring upon us a certain lowering
of the national ideals, and a time of bitter and perhaps
sordid reaction ; if we had known all this, should we still


have declared war against the German Empire? My
answer is, Yes.

As a matter of fact we did know it, or at least surmise
it. I was looking back at some speeches I made myself
in 1914 and 1915 and I find that I mentioned explicitly
every one of these evils among the probable results of
the war. And I have no doubt that others did the same.
We foresaw it; and we disliked and dreaded the prospect.
We would have done almost anything, have sacrificed
almost anything, to avoid both the war and its conse-
quences; but we were faced by the one thing we could
not do, we were asked for the one sacrifice we could not
give. We could not agree that, while we still had life
and strength, the world should with our consent be con-
quered by naked Force and held down by Terrorism.

However badly we may have been, or are yet likely to
be, demoralized by this war, that is a lesser evil than if all
free Europe were conquered by Germany. And even to
be conquered by Germany now, after all we have suf-
fered, would be a lesser evil than to have submitted to
her without a struggle. If after the invasion of Belgium
the rest of Europe had submitted to the Germans with-
out a struggle, it would have saved millions of lives, tons
of treasure, oceans of suffering; but it would have meant
a greater evil to mankind than any such measurable
losses. It would have meant that the Spirit of Man
itself was dead.

And now for my pleas in extenuation. I think the
charges brought by my friend in that letter (the whole
letter, by the way, has been printed as a leaflet and can
be bought from the " Nation" office) are in some degree
true. At least they waken in my own mind a feeling of
mixed guilt in myself and resentment against others


more guilty. But I believe that, in the natural pain and
shock of his disappointment, he has felt the marks of our
corruption to be more permanent and deep-rooted than
they are. Many of the symptoms that seem worst are
really misinterpreted.

Have you noticed how, at a play, when a particularly
moving or touching moment occurs, you will always hear
some people laugh? You probably feel in your fury that
they are brute beasts, outcasts from the human race;
but they are not. The explanation merely is that, as is
usual at touching moments, they had two contrary im-
pulses at the same time, one bidding them cry and one
bidding them laugh. And, in a natural self-protection,
they checked the first and indulged the second.

All this callous cheerfulness, all this gay brutality,
with which people sometimes speak of bursting shells
and "the leg of a fat Hun performing circles in the air,"
or of poking into dug-outs with bayonets and "picking
out the Boches like periwinkles on a pin" ... all that
loathsome stuff is to a great extent mere self-protection.
It is a kind of misplaced tact. Something more real,
more near the truth, more undisguisedly horrible, is just
round the corner of the speaker's mind, and he is de-
termined not to let it show itself. If it emerged, it
would make every one feel awkward. ... I do not say
that this sort of language is not bad ; it is, very bad, both
in origin and in effect. But I do say strongly that it is
not profound, and is not what it appears to be.

Similarly, when a man with a conscience or sense of
justice in him goes along the streets of London and looks
at the posters, his heart sometimes fails him and he
thinks, "Is this the nation for which I am fighting, and
for which my friends have died?" And the answer is


No. It is not. Those posters do not represent the na-
tion. They do not really represent even the wretched
man who made them. They are based, no doubt, on
something in his mind. But that something has been
first distorted in the way he imagines will please people
inferior to himself; next, concentrated and squashed so
as to be expressed in two or three words; and then
"gingered up" to attract the notice of a tired and busy
crowd whose eyes are dazed with hosts of similar plac-

Our nation itself is nothing like as unjust and greedy,
nothing like as factious and fond of lies, as intolerant,
as cruel, or as stupid as it would seem, and does seem,
to a foreigner studying the streets and the newspapers.
For a purely temporary cause, we cannot express our-
selves freely while the war lasts. " Why not? " asks some
unrepentant Radical, and the answer is easy. Simply
because there are sixty million people listening who want
to kill us, and we must be careful that they do not over-
hear anything that may help them in doing so. Parlia-
ment is muzzled and largely impotent ; and Parliament
is the one place, the one great institution, in which any
statement, however unpopular, can be made; and where
any false statement made can be challenged and an-

That is what makes Parliament the unique and irre-
placeable guardian of our liberties. The newspapers can
never possibly take its place. Many of them, I gladly
admit, do their best under uphill conditions. I am often
filled with admiration for the power with which some
few of our great journalists maintain day after day,
under every circumstance of trial, the same high level of
thought and style, of self-command and of patriotism.


But such men arc striving against the stream. Such cen-
soring of newspapers as there is tells almost entirely in
one direction, and that the same direction as popular
prejudice. It is no corrective. While war lasts, every
voice, every fact, every principle, which seems likely
to weaken the war-spirit is feared and disapproved and
often suppressed. I do not wish to complain of this one-
sided censorship, though every one admits that its work-
ing is far from perfect. I only want to point out that it
is one-sided. In every subject you can take, as it were,
a sort of central line which represents roughly the opin-
ion of the moderate man ; other opinions are either to the
left of it or to the right of it. I do not, of course, say that
the moderate man is necessarily right. But suppose you
suppress or fiercely discourage all expression of opinion
on one side of that line while allowing it perfect freedom
on the other side ; the result is obviously not a fair rep-
resentation of the opinion of the country. Opinions
which tell in favour of justice, of moderation, of all the
qualities which mankind once thought good and will
assuredly think good again, are suppressed or discour-
aged; the opposite opinions are let loose like wild asses
stamping and braying above the graves of the dead. The
spectacle that sickened my friend was not a true picture
of the nation as it is, nor any reflection of the minds of
the real men and women who go home at night to think
much of their sons and husbands in the trenches, and a
little also of the unhappy people in Serbia or Poland or
France, or it may be in Germany. The outside spectacle
presented by any nation is, I believe, nearly always a
worse and uglier thing than the nature of any average
individual. The men and women themselves are better
than the newspapers and the streets.


Some of you will remember Plato's words in the " Re-
public," answering those who talk violently of the corrup-
tion of the young by false teachers, and his description
of the real false teacher, the real sophist, to whom the
corruption of the world is mostly due. Plato was not
much afraid of sophists like Mr. Shaw or Mr. Morel or
Mr. Snowden; what he dreaded was the great intangible
sophist, with no body to be kicked and no soul to be
damned, who lurks in posters and headlines and tri-
umphant majorities.

Do you believe in young persons corrupted by bad teachers,
and in individual bad teachers who corrupt them, to any
serious extent? Don't you know that the people who talk like
this are themselves the great False Teachers, and always edu-
cating people and finishing them off, young and old, men and
women, exactly to their own taste?

When do you mean? said he.

Whenever they sit down together in a crowd, in a public
meeting or a law court or a theatre or a camp, or any other
collection of human beings, and make a great noise and
shower praise on various things that are said or done and
blame on others, always exaggerating, whichever it is; and
they shout and clap their hands, till the walls of the place
where they are and the rocks outside reecho and multiply the
noise of all the praise and blame? Where do you think a young
man's heart sinks to then? What sort of private education can
hold out, and not be flooded and swept away on the torrent of
all that praise and blame? Till the lad agrees and says all the
same things are good or evil as the crowd says, and follows the
same lines as they follow and becomes just like them?

Of course he must.

Why, I have not yet mentioned the great Must. The real
Must which these teachers and sophists bring to bear, if their
words are not enough. Don't you know what waits for the
man who is not persuaded, confiscations and outlawries and
death? 1

1 Plato, Republic, p. 492.


I do not mean to say that these words specially apply
to us. We have no confiscations or executions. We have,
considering the greatness of the crisis and the prolonged
strain, comparatively little of the persecuting spirit.
The old Liberal England cannot be killed in a day. But
I quote these words as a reminder of two things: first,
that at present, as in all times of great public excite-
ment, there is necessarily this huge, intangible sophist
at his work, perverting wisdom and stirring up the im-
pulses of terror and hatred ; and secondly and with more
emphasis, that, after all, he will not be there forever.
Peace must come some day, and after peace eventually
a return to normal life.

First, that the heart of England must not be judged
by these outward manifestations; and next, that even
these outward manifestations are not things that will

To those who are troubled, as I have been troubled,
by thoughts of the kind raised by my friend's letter, I
would venture to say, therefore, these words of counsel :
First, let us be sure in our hearts that we are not our-
selves false to the ideals of 1914; that the cause for which
our friends have died or suffered, the cause for which we
have assented to the shedding of torrents of innocent
blood, shall never by us be degraded to anything lower
than the cause of Public Right and of Human Freedom.
Let us be sure that, to the best of our powers, we do
not, we Englishmen for whom others have died, let the
champion of Public Right turn aside to persecution or
to lawlessness.

Next, let us keep our faith in our fellow man and our
fellow countryman. He has astonished you by a heroism


and self-sacrifice which seemed to carry us back into the
great ages of legend; do not now lose faith in him about
lesser things. I do not ask you to idealize soldiers as
such. It is a foolish practice. But remember that our

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Online LibraryGilbert MurrayFaith, war, and policy; addresses and essays on the European War → online text (page 18 of 19)