The Delusion of Militarism

 
 
THE DELUSION OF MILITARISM
BY
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
 
A fascinating article entitled ‘The Delusion of Militarism’ appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1908. It was penned by Charles Edward Jefferson (1860-1937), a New York author and minister. The first paragraph grabs the eye:

“The future historian of the first decade of the twentieth century will be puzzled. He will find that the world at the opening of the century was in an extraordinarily belligerent mood, and that the mood was well-nigh universal, dominating the New World as well as the Old, the Orient no less than the Occident. He will find that preparations for war, especially among nations which confessed allegiance to the Prince of Peace, were carried forward with tremendous energy and enthusiasm, and that the air was filled with prophetic voices, picturing national calamities and predicting bloody and world-embracing conflicts.”

As we know only too well from two world wars, not to mention several other major wars besides, the prophesies were self-fulfilling. The imagined violence and repeated affirmations of coming horrors were realized in fact, as if some sort of post-hypnotic suggestion were in force. Yet, at the same time universal calamity was being envisioned and professed, peace was being championed by world leaders and national statesmen, international workers’ organizations and peace leagues, conventions and courts. Indeed, we recall from our popular histories about the Great War that, prior to its outbreak in 1914, many experts considered international peace to be the foregone conclusion of economic development; after all, with the world inextricably linked by trade, what mammonist in his right mind would want to destroy accumulated capital and sever trade relations by waging war? Nevertheless, contrary to the proposition that perpetual peace was at hand, rumor had it that world war was imminent. As a matter fact, we know that generals had been preparing for 14 August several years prior to the invasion.

Confronted as he was with the contradiction between professed peace and the profession of war, with the “unprecedented growth of peace sentiment, accompanied by a constant increase of jealousy and suspicion, of fear and panic, among the nations of the earth,” Jefferson conducted an investigation, and tracked down the source of the war rumors to their origin: “(The) fountains from which flowed these dark and swollen streams of war rumor were all located within the military and naval encampments.”

Jefferson followed the flow of war talk downstream to legislative bodies where representatives had been convinced by the violent images and affirmations of the military experts, that war was in fact imminent, therefore their countries were really in grave danger. Hence an insane armament race around the world was launched. For instance, we recall the infamous Dreadnought race, between Germany with its Naval League, and Britain with its two-for-one policy, requiring it to have twice the naval power of any other two nations in order to secure world peace. The United States, also making a proactive suggestion along naval channels, sent a fleet of battleships on a peace mission around the world. Of course armies were enlarged accordingly and weapons improved and proliferated so that the world would have peace. But how absurd. The militant vision was driving men mad:

“(The) mere presence of the shining apparatus of death may have kindled in men’s hearts feelings of jealousy and distrust, and created panics…. It was only men who lived their life with guns who were haunted by horrible visions and kept dreaming hideous dreams and that the larger the armament the more was a nation harassed by fears of invasion and possible annihilation…. Was it a form of national lunacy, this frenzied outpouring of national treasure for the engines of destruction? Was it an hallucination, this feverish conviction that only by guns can a nation’s dignity be symbolized, and her place in the world’s life and action be honorably maintained?”

In other words, knowing fully well that war is butchery, murder, hell on earth, men built more guns, launched more battleships, recruited colossal armies and justified all this as peace-making with a pagan maxim in mind: “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.” What was the result of this mass delusion? Chaos and war. Imagine that. It is as if anxious people in want of peace were to join a perverse group therapy program, where, in session after session, they are firmly commanded to relax, to breath deeply as the group-affirmation is repeated: “The world is out to get us, the world is to get us….” Full attention is then directed at clear images of invading armies committing all sorts of atrocities, followed by images of glorious victories over the enemies of peace. If the therapy is effective, the subjects will be possessed by an unshakeable conviction in the patently absurd creed that peace is made by murdering other peace-makers. But this creed will be something different than normal dogmatism and fanaticism: if the power of suggestion in professional hands is as powerful as it is said to be, the subjects will eventually be rendered unable to believe in any alternative concept of reality. They shall begin to hallucinate, to see an enemy approaching where there is none, and no argument shall suffice to convince them otherwise: “A man who has the impression he is being tracked,” writes Jefferson, “by a vindictive and relentless foe, is not going to sit down and quietly listen to an argument the aim of which is to prove that no such enemy exists.” The group will take on an overpowering significance to which all ideas of persecution will be referred for the suggested response – killing people to save the world. It will be difficult to wrest the delusion of the supreme importance of the all-absorbing state from members of the group, because the delusion gives them a feeling of security. Jefferson duly notes that the militarist “is exceedingly impatient under contradiction; and, here again, he is like all victims of hallucinations. To deny his assumptions or to question his conclusions, is to him both blasphemy and treason, a sort of profanity and imbecility worthy of contempt and scorn.”

Delusions are usually individual mistakes, not mistakes held in common, such as the optical illusion that the world is flat. Jefferson poses the question, “Is it possible, someone asks, for a world to become insane?” He answers in the affirmative and provides several examples: the witchcraft delusion in Salem; the insanity associated with the Gunpowder Plot in London; the “hallucination” a thousand years ago that the world was coming to an end. We can think of many more cases. Mind you, Jefferson wrote his essay in 1908 – he did not have available as examples the mass insanity of the Great War and its devastating sequel, World War II.

We should ask ourselves today, Have we been hoodwinked or hypnotized into sailing on calm seas towards yet another holocaust by small groups of influential, paranoid, right-wing, regressive authoritarians at the helms of warships camouflaged as merchant vessels? Today a small fraction of the population does not have to have a legitimately defined state with armies, warships, and air forces to wage war in order to save the world from itself. Instead, a hijacked passenger airliner will do nicely, followed up by the deployment of compact weapons of mass destruction.

Alas, the great powers know not what they have done, hence they will continue to do it. Once in power, they manufactured enemies in their own image all over the world. They established themselves in power by revolutionary treason; and, if they win and prosper, they think they stand on higher moral ground, forgetting that the application of their original principle of liberty was treasonous. The implications of following suit are stupendous today. Now that much more can be done with much less, splitting a few atoms here and there can devastate a large portion of the world. A few men and women can destroy a city with a trunk if not a suitcase. Even a relatively small act of terror in comparison to the murder of millions can terrorize a paranoid populace into running amok in the name of global peace. Whether the force is exercised by a legitimate state or a group without a country, in both revolution and war we find a militant fundamentalist minority egging the masses on to chaos, They would soon make cannon meat out of millions of people. These neo-fundamentalists in state departments and remote caves preach the old doctrine, that life is a war of all against all; that might makes right; that life on earth, according to the old model of god, is meant to be hell on earth so that the fittest who obey god’s orders may survive, at least in the nebulous Hereafter. All those who die in battle are said to rest in Eternal Peace, or to have gone Home.

Proposals have often been made to liquidate the war-mongering minority at home and abroad: kill the enemy terrorists and kill one’s own leaders. Of course he who kills his own kind is evil, but killing another kind is fitting in the international jungle of anarchic natural right, where the natural law of reasonable society is not recognized. Of course there are exceptions to that rule: one may murder hundreds, thousands, millions of one’s own kind, providing they are sent off to war against the enemy. In any case, the burden of proof is always on the enemy, who is guilty until proven innocent, of doing what every egoistic leviathan has done or is doing: secretly preparing for war in order to secure the domestic peace.

A leader of the free world may not openly murder someone at home, but he may covertly authorize the assassination of alien leaders. He may for instance foster the rape and murder of “leftist” nuns and priests and the murder of countless “communists” in Latin America, sometimes whole native villages including women and children. He may deal drugs and arms, consort with international mobsters, and support the tyrants and terrorists he will later want to kill. He may have suspects murdered abroad without a trial; he may hold others in concentration camps for indefinite periods without legal process. And all this while preaching democracy to the world – at home he will be a great hero. The great democratic leader might condemn a diabolical man and his satanic generals for their mass murders, then offer them asylum somewhere. And knowing fully well that sanctions have never worked; knowing that sanctions have served only to enrich tyrants and aggravate the harm to their tyrannized subjects, who are not inclined to rise up against the tyrants unless they are promised military assistance; – the hero of democracy may impose and continue sanctions until at least one million innocent people have been killed, then point at the prosperous tyrant and say, “Look what he has done! Why didn’t the people rise up against him? Now I must save them.” And when people, thinking he is their ally, do rise up at his instigation against the tyrant, the democratic hero stands down while thousands of them are killed and buried in mass graves.

What hypocrisy! Well, then, why don’t the peace-loving people of the world rise up together and exterminate the war-mongering minorities of every nation? For one thing, that remedy would be a continuation of war as usual. Secondly, other licensed mass murderers would fill their bloody boots. Furthermore, the history of the Great War teaches us that, once war is started, internationalist pacifists take sides and become militant nationalists rallying around their respective flags, no matter what form of government the war banners symbolize.

Besides, it seems that people both male and female love to kill each other for the thrill of it or for no apparent reason at all – prosperity is no guarantee of peace. Zoologists tell us that even animals make war; alas, scientific experiments have yet to find the cause – there was plenty of things and space to go around, but one day some animals of the same kind showed up and all hell broke loose. The traditional justifications and rationalizations for war before and after the fact make ‘reason’ appear to be a mangy albeit logical dog dragged behind the war machine. Perhaps war, the greatest evil of all – some say it the greatest good – is caused by a virus or a bacterium; that is, if humans are not originally evil. Charles Edward Jefferson speculated on the possibility as follows:

“There are multiplying developments which are leading thoughtful observers to suspect that this pre-Christian maxim (“If you wish peace, prepare for war.”) is a piece of antiquated wisdom, and that the desire to establish peace in our modern world by brandishing the instruments of war is a product of mental aberration. Certainly there are indications pointing in this direction. The world’s brain may possibly have become unbalanced by a bacillus carried in the folds of a heathen adage. The most virulent and devastating disease now raging on the earth is militarism.”

Jefferson obviously resorts to metaphor: there is no such thing as an evil germ, bacillus, or virus in the microscopic sense. We might just as well say that peace causes war. We would not be the first to make the converse pronouncement that, “If you want war, prepare for peace.” This is not a mere play on words. Not only can repeated suggestions of war lead to war: so may repeated suggestions of peace made in the name of brotherly or neighborly love, accompanied by a vision of a definite utopias, lead to war – especially when someone wants to impose a particular visions. Militarists naturally imagine the violent means, and as ends in themselves if they love war enough. A warrior’s duty is not to question but to do his duty but to make war on command, even if that means, teaches the Gita, that one’s own relative will be killed. Now that war is not the occupation of a caste, it is no wonder that people at large who must dutifully die in wars want civilian control over the military forces – of course many soldiers once engaged in battle have often begged to differ with the principle of civilian control during the war itself. However that may be, politicians may dream of a certain universal peace to be had. Maybe they want to make the world safe for social democracy, or republican democracy, or national socialism, if not for brotherly love. Therefore they must make war to impose their version of universal peace onto the world.

Irving Babbit in his 1920 lecture, ‘Democracy and Imperialism’, points out that the masses have been sacrificed to the humanitarian theory of universal brotherhood:

“(This) particular ideal of union among men actually promotes the reality of the strife that it is supposed to prevent. One might without being too fanciful establish a sort of synchronism between the prevalence of pacific schemes and the outbreak of war. The propaganda of the Abbe de Saint-Pierre was followed by the wars of Frederick the Great. The humanitarian movement of the end of the eighteenth century, which found expression in Kant’s treatise on Perpetual Peace, was followed and attended by twenty years of the bloodiest fighting the world has ever known. The pacifist agitation of the early twentieth century, that found outer expression in the Peace Palace at The Hague, was succeeded by battle lines hundreds of miles long. The late M. Boutroux, whom no one will accuse of being a cynic, said to a reporter of the Temps in 1912 that from the amount of peace talk abroad, he inferred that the future was likely to be ‘supremely warlike and bloody.'”

Babbitt compares the clashes between states and alliances of states to clashes between Frankenstein monsters, and reminds us that Dr. Frankenstein’s monster had a beautiful sentimental soul, but he became ruthless when the beauty of his soul and his yearnings were not appreciated by others. Babbitt concludes his lecture with, “Here again the last stage of sentimentalism is homicidal mania.”

Hard-core militarists despise “feel-good” brotherly love as weakness or cowardice or stupidity, or they deny the possibility of a universal humanitarian brotherhood, preferring the clean love of barracks and trenches. The brotherly love of their fighting unit is better than any other brotherly love, especially the brotherly love of (expletive deleted) liberals who want to destroy the natural peace-making order of war; therefore, like other heretics and atheists, pacifists of all persuasions should be sent to the hell they are going to anyway lest they contaminate others. Like Carlyle, some conservatives accuse lovers of veiled hate: “Beneath this rose-colored veil of universal benevolence is a dark, contentious, hell-on-earth,” sayeth St. Carlyle. Be forewarned, then, that all efforts besides war to pacify the human race are doomed to failure. War is good and inevitable because men do not know what is good without submitting the important questions to the ultimate test. A life not worth dying for is not worth living. Long periods of peace corrupt and demoralize men. Peace is the cause of war.

We very well should be mindful of the dangers of making a universal out of a particular idea, of imposing a particular concrete utopia on the human race. But we are also mindful of the dangers of preaching violent means to achieve any sort of peace. We are but children grown up. Jefferson, speaking of the pageants of battleships given in his day, reminds us that children are most impressionable to our worship of violence and displays of weapons:

“Children cannot look upon symbols of brute force, extolled and exalted by their elders, without getting the impression that a nation’s power is measured by the calibre if its guns, and that its influence is determined by the explosive force of its shells. A fleet of battleships gives the wrong impression of what America is, and conceals the secret which has made America great. Children do not know that we became a great world power without the assistance of either army or navy, building ourselves up on everlasting principles by means of our schools and churches.”

War historians will beg to differ with Jefferson’s analysis. For example, after Geoffrey Perret graduated from high school in Wheaton, Illinois, he joined the U.S. Army. He is armed with degrees from the University of Southern California and Harvard – he studied law at Berkeley. His first book was about World War II. But I highly recommend his A Country Made by War, From the Revolution to Vietnam – the Story of America’s Rise to Power (1989). To wit: War makes America great. On the other hand, it behooves us to remember that there was a revolution within the American Revolution. The principles of the Declaration of Independence have still not been fully outlined by the U.S. Constitution. “Our fathers had an intuition,” says Charles Edward Jefferson, “that the New World would be different from the Old, that it had a unique destiny, and that it must pursue an original course.”

What Original Course does our author and minister recommend instead of the violent images and affirmations? “The deliverance will come as soon as men begin to think, and examine the sophistries with which militarism has flooded the world.” In other words, rather than leaving us with constructive images, perhaps with some quotes from the New Testament, he seems to recommend the talking-cure, the analytical method, in hopes that it will bring people to their senses, that it will wake people up to the truth. Think again and again. As previously noted, once war breaks out, pacifists tend to become patriots and internationalists become nationalists – or go into prison, into death camps, into exile. What truth should we wake up to? We are all by nature born imitators. What vision should we imitate? What affirmation shall we daily repeat? Should we raise up the Cross of Jesus and repeat the maxim unto our dying breath: “It is better to be killed than to kill.”

Does anyone have New World vision of peace to offer, one that the whole of humanity can believe is a realizable ideal? In 1908 Charles Edward Jefferson said that the Old World policy of militarism was dead wrong. He was proven right by the Great War, World War II, and every war thereafter. But, tired of waiting then, our minister finally capitulates, and plays an old tune: “It is possible to buy peace at too high a price. Better fight and get done with it than keep nations incessantly thinking evil thoughts about their neighbors.”

In want of a better model, we leave off here to search for one, with the beginning of Jefferson’s concluding paragraph in mind:

“Will America become a leader? At present we are an imitator.”

Sources:

The Delusion of Militarism, The Atlantic Monthly, CIII, 1908

Democracy and Leadership, by Irving Babbitt, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1924

Selected Quotations:

“The key to German historical teaching is to be found in Count Moltke’s dictum: ‘Perpetual peace is a dream, and it is not even a beautiful dream. War is an element in the order of the world ordained by God.’ ‘Without war the world would stagnate and lose itself in materialism.’ And the anti-Christian German philosopher, Nietzsche, found himself quite at one with the pious field-marshal. ‘It is mere illusion and pretty sentiment,’ he observes, ‘to expect much (even anything at all) from mankind if it forgets how to make war. As yet no means are known which call so much into action as a great war that rough energy born of the camp, that deep impersonality born of hatred, that conscience born of murder and cold-bloodedness, that fervour born of effort in the annihilation of the enemy, that proud indifference to loss, to one’s own existence, to that of one’s fellows, that earthquake-like soul-shaking which a people needs when it is losing its vitality.'” – The Outline of HIstory by H.G. Wells, New York: Macmillan 1921

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