Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/About War

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Let us imagine the first news of the destruction of the Maine in the harbor of Havana had been accompanied by clear proof that the catastrophe was caused by a torpedo or a mine — what would have been the duty of our government? Would it have been to rush forthwith into a war with Spain upon the assumption that Spanish officials were really responsible, and, if they were found to be, whether the Spanish government were willing or not to make due atonement for the acts of its agents? What man of good sense and of sound moral instincts would wish that war be resorted to while an honorable adjustment seems attainable? And yet a resort to war is on every possible occasion spoken of, not only by the miscreants with whom the stirring up of a war excitement is a mere business speculation, but even by otherwise rational and respectable persons, with a flippancy as if war were nothing more serious than an international yacht-race or a football-match.

That war has in the history of mankind sometimes served good purposes in forming nations, in repressing barbarism, in enforcing justice, in removing obstructions to the spread of civilization, will hardly be denied by anybody. How much of such work is still to be done, and how far the instrumentality of war may still be required to that end, it is needless to discuss here. In any event, it will be admitted that whatever object is to be accomplished, war is to be regarded as the last expedient to be resorted to, and not the first. What does civilization mean if not the progress from the arbitrament of brute force to the arbitrament of reason and the maintenance of justice by peaceable methods in the righting of wrongs, and in the settlement of conflicting opinions or interests? If it were proposed to abolish our courts, and to remand the decision of difficulties between man and man to trial by single combat, or by street fight between armed bands enlisted by the contending parties, it would be called a relapse into barbarism too absurd as well as too dreadful to be thought of. We denounce the application of lynch law as a practice utterly repugnant to the fundamental principles of civilized life, and as a blot upon the character of a civilized people. What a strange anachronism it is that while we abhor the arbitrary resort to brute force in private life as a crime against human society, the same arbitrary resort to brute force in deciding differences between nation and nation, although infinitely more horrible in its effects, has still remained the custom of the civilized world, and is surrounded with a halo of heroic romance! It may, indeed, be said that it is far more difficult to find and institute practical methods for the peaceable adjustment of some kinds of disputes between nations than between individuals, so that occasionally war remains the only expedient. This is true, just as it is true that occasionally the social order may become so disturbed that the individual man has no refuge for the protection of his rights except in self-help outside of the rule of law. But in each case this should be regarded only as the very last extremity when everything else fails.

General Sherman once said: “You would know what war is? War is hell.” He knew what he was speaking of, and he meant it. Was it an exaggeration? When the news of the destruction of the Maine arrived we threw up our hands in horror. Two hundred and fifty men killed by the explosion! What a frightful calamity! Thus we feel, and thus we speak, in a state of peace. How in time of war? Two hundred and fifty men killed? Only a skirmish, a slight brush with the enemy. Nothing of importance. A pitched battle comes. Five thousand killed and fifteen thousand wounded on our side; the loss of the enemy believed to be greater. A hard fight, but, perhaps, not decisive. Then more battles; more thousands of killed, more tens of thousands of wounded; the hospitals crowded with countless multitudes of sick. Naval fights also; of those mysterious monsters called battle-ships some go to the bottom of the sea, some of our own as well as some of the enemy's. How many men perish with them? Two hundred and fifty? A mere trifle. It must be many times two hundred and fifty to make a sensation. What is then our first thought? The gaps must be filled, and more of our young men are sent to the front and upon the ships. And the crowds of parents made childless, and of widows and orphans! “Well, very sad, but war is war. Let us take care of them the best way we can to keep them from starving.” But more than this. Wherever the armies operate, devastation, ravage, and ruin; wherever the war-ships sail, destruction of commerce and mutual havoc — the fruit of years of patient industry and exertion ruthlessly wiped out; and those agencies of intercourse and mutual advancement by which modern civilization has made the nations of the world dependent upon one another disastrously interrupted, and loss, desolation, and misery spread broadcast. Was General Sherman wrong when he said that “war is hell”?

But we are told that a nation needs a war from time to time to prevent it from becoming effeminate, to shake it up from demoralizing materialism, and to elevate the popular heart by awakening heroic emotions and the spirit of patriotic self-sacrifice. This has a captivating sound. But is there not something intensely ludicrous in the idea that the American people, while the rugged work of subduing this vast continent to civilization is yet unfinished, need wars to save them from effeminacy? Were we more effeminate before our civil war than we have been since? As to the demoralizing materialism, was the pursuit of money, the greed of material possession and enjoyment, less prevalent after the civil war than before it? Did not the war itself stimulate that “materialism” to a degree not known among us before? As to heroic emotions and the spirit of patriotic self-sacrifice, it is true that war is apt to call forth splendid manifestations of them. But does war create those noble impulses? Could it bring out the manifestations of them if they did not, although unmanifested, already exist? And is, after all, the readiness to die for one's country the sum of all bravery? Is there no call for heroic emotions and patriotic self-sacrifice in a state of peace? Is not a patient and faithful struggle for the truth against the fanaticism of prejudice, and for justice against arrogant power, as brave a feat as the storming of a battery? And is not that civic virtue more rare than the physical courage of the soldier, and, on the whole, more needful to the republic? On the other hand, while war calls forth demonstrations of heroic spirit, does it not also stimulate the baser passions of a larger number? Have we ever heard of a war which, whatever great objects it may otherwise have served, improved private or public morals or stimulated the cultivation of those quiet and unostentatious civic virtues which are most needful to the vitality of free government?

But we are told that there are things worse than war. No doubt. Loss of honor and self-respect, for instance. Surely we should not tamely accept a deliberate insult; but neither should we by offensive bluster provoke one. We should preserve our self-respect, but also respect the self-respect of others. We should not submit to manifest wrong, but we must not forget that others too have rights; and we must not see a wrong irremediable, except by war, in every difference of opinion or clash of interest. Whenever the question of redress or remedy is to be settled, we should not forget that “war is hell,” and that a war honorably averted is a nobler achievement than a battle won.

But will not this horror of war at last make cringing cowards of us all? No danger of that. Whatever our love of peace, when the republic needs defenders, hundreds of thousands of her sons will eagerly rush to arms, and the people will pour forth their wealth without stint, no matter if “war is hell.” Of this there will never be doubt. No peace feeling can emasculate our patriotism. The danger lies in the opposite direction. It is that the popular mind may too easily forget that war is justifiable only when all the resources of statesmanship to avert it have been exhausted, and when the true value of the object to be accomplished through it outweighs the blood and loss of wealth and human misery and demoralization it will cost. This being the temper of a high-spirited people, so much more do the fiends who seek to drive the nation into unnecessary war by false reports or by unscrupulous appeals to prejudice and passion deserve to be execrated by all good men, and so much more gratitude is due to those in power who, firmly resisting the screams of a reckless demagogy, know no higher duty than to spare the people the scourge of war so long as the blessing of peace can honorably be preserved.

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz - 1898-03-05 - About War.PNG