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by Jonathan Dymond


Chapter 1 Part 1

Chapter 1 Part 2►


Felix, qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas[3] – Virgil

In the attempt to form an accurate estimate of the moral character of human actions and opinions, it is often of importance to inquire how they have been produced.  There is always great reason to doubt the rectitude of that of which the causes and motives are impure; and if, therefore, it should appear from the observations which follow, that some of the motives to war and of its causes are inconsistent with reason or with virtue, I would invite the reader to pursue the inquiry that succeeds them, with suspicion, at least, of the rectitude of our ordinary opinions.

There are some customs which have obtained so generally and so long, that what was originally an effect becomes a cause and what was a cause becomes an effect, until, by the reciprocal influence of each, the custom is continued by circumstances so multiplied and involved that it is difficult to detect them in all their ramifications, or to determine those to which it is principally to be referred.

What were once the occasions of wars may be easily supposed.  Robbery, or the repulsion of robbers, was probably the only motive to hostility, until robbery became refined into ambition, so that it was sufficient to produce a war when a chief was not content with the territory of his fathers.  But by the gradually increasing complication of society from age to age, and by the multiplication of remote interests and obscure rights, the motives to war have become so numerous and so technical that ordinary observation often fails to perceive what they are.  They are sometimes known only to a cabinet, which is influenced in its decision by reasoning of which a nation knows little, or by feelings of which it knows nothing; so that of those who personally engage in hostilities there is, perhaps, not often one in ten who can distinctly tell why he is fighting.

This refinement in the motives of war is no trifling evidence that they are insufficient or bad.  When it is considered how tremendous a battle is, how many it hurries in a moment from the world, how much wretchedness and how much guilt it produces, it would surely appear that nothing but obvious necessity should induce us to resort to it.  But when, instead of a battle, we have a war with many battles, and of course with multiplied suffering and accumulated guilt, the motives to so dreadful a measure ought to be such as to force themselves upon involuntary observation, and to be written, as it were, in the skies.  If, then, a large proportion of a people are often without any distinct perception of the reasons why they are slaughtering mankind, it implies, I think, prima facie evidence against the adequacy or the justice of the motives to slaughter.

It would not, perhaps, be affectation to say that of the reasons why we so readily engage in war, one of the principal is that we do not inquire into the subject.  We have been accustomed, from earliest life, to a familiarity with all its “ pomp and circumstance”; soldiers have passed us at every step, and battles and victories have been the topic of everyone around us.  War, therefore, becomes familiarized to all our thoughts, and interwoven with all our associations.  We have never inquired whether these things should be – the question does not even suggest itself.  We acquiesce in it, as we acquiesce in the rising of the sun, without any other idea than that it is a part of the ordinary process of the world.  And how are we to feel disapprobation of a system that we do not examine, and of the nature of which we do not think?  Want of inquiry has been the means by which long continued practices, whatever has been their enormity, have obtained the general concurrence of the world, and by which they have continued to pollute or degrade it, long after the few who inquire into their nature have discovered them to be bad.  It was by these means that the slave trade was so long tolerated by this land of humanity.  Men did not think of its iniquity.  We were induced to think, and we soon abhorred and then abolished it.  In the present moral state of the world, therefore, I believe it is the business of him who would perceive pure morality to question the purity of that which now obtains.

“The vices of another age,” says Robertson, “astonish and shock us; the vices of our own become familiar, and excite little horror…  The influence of any national custom on the understanding, on the heart, and on how far it may go towards perverting or extinguishing moral principles of the greatest importance, is remarkable.  They who (in 1566) had leisure to reflect and to judge, appear to be no more shocked at the crime of assassination than the persons who committed it in the heat and impetuosity of passion.” [4]  Two hundred and fifty years have added something to our morality.  We have learned, at least, to abhor assassination; and I am not afraid to hope that the time will arrive when historians shall think of war what Robertson thinks of murder, and shall endeavor like him to account for the ferocity and moral blindness of their forefathers.  For I do not think the influence of habit in the perversion or extinction of our moral principles is in any other thing so conspicuous or deplorable, as in the subject before us.  Those who are shocked at a single murder in the highway, hear with indifference of the murder of a thousand on the field.  Those to whom the idea of a single corpse would thrill with terror contemplate that of heaps of human carcasses, mangled by human hands, with frigid indifference.  If a murder is committed, the narrative is given in the public newspaper, with many expressions of commiseration, with many adjectives of horror, and with many hopes that the perpetrator will be detected.  In the next paragraph the editor, perhaps, tells us that he has hurried a second edition to the press in order that he may be the first to gladden the public with the intelligence that, in an engagement that has just taken place, eight hundred and fifty of the enemy were killed.  By war, the natural impulses of the heart seem to be suspended, as if a fiend of blood were privileged to exercise a spell upon our sensibilities, whenever we contemplated his ravages.  Among all the shocking and all the terrible scenes the world exhibits, the slaughters of war stand preeminent; yet these are the scenes of which the compassionate and the ferocious, the good and the bad, alike talk with complacency or exultation.

England is a land of benevolence, and to human misery she is of all nations, the most prompt in the extension of relief.  The immolations of the Hindus fill us with compassion or horror, and we are zealously laboring to prevent them.  The sacrifices of life by our own criminal executions are the subject of our anxious commiseration, and we are strenuously endeavoring to diminish their number.  We feel that the life of a Hindu or a malefactor is a serious thing, and that nothing but imperious necessity should induce us to destroy the one, or to permit the destruction of the other.  Yet what are these sacrifices of life in comparison with the sacrifices of war?  In the late campaign in Russia, there fell, during one hundred and seventy-three days in succession, an average of two thousand nine hundred men per day.  More than five hundred thousand human beings in less than six months!  And most of these victims expired with peculiar intensity of suffering.  “Thou that teachest another, teachest thou not thyself?”  We are carrying our benevolence to the Indies, but what becomes of it in Russia or at Leipzig?  We are laboring to save a few lives from the gallows, but where is our solicitude to save them on the field of battle?  Life is life, wherever it may be sacrificed, and has everywhere equal claims to our regard.  I am not now inquiring whether war is right, but whether we do not regard its calamities with an indifference with which we regard no others, and whether that indifference does not make us acquiesce in evils and in miseries which we should otherwise prevent or condemn.

Among the immediate causes of the frequency of war, there is one that is, indisputably, irreconcilable in its nature with the principles of our religion.  I speak of the critical sense of national pride, and the consequent aptitude of offence and violence of resentment.  National irritability is at once a cause of war, and an effect.  It disposes us to resent injuries with bloodshed and destruction; and a war, when it is begun, inflames and perpetuates the passions that produced it.  Those who wish a war, endeavor to rouse the spirit of a people by stimulating their passions.  They talk of the insults, or the encroachments, or the contempt of the destined enemy, with every artifice of aggravation they tell us of foreigners who want to trample upon our rights, of rivals who ridicule our power, of foes who will crush, and of tyrants who will enslave us.  These men pursue their object, certainly, by efficacious means; they desire a war, and therefore irritate our passions, knowing that when men are angry they are easily persuaded to fight.

In, this state of irritability, a nation is continually alive to occasions of offence; and when we seek for offences, we readily find them.  A jealous sensibility sees insults and injuries where sober eyes see nothing, and nations thus surround themselves with a sort of artificial tentacle, which they throw wide in quest of irritation, and by which they are stimulated to revenge by every touch of accident or inadvertency.

He who is easily offended will also easily offend.  The man who is always on the alert to discover trespasses on his honor or his rights never fails to quarrel with his neighbors.  Such a person may be dreaded as a torpedo.  We may fear, but we shall not love him; and fear without love easily lapses into enmity.  There are, therefore, many feuds and litigations in the life of such a man that would never have disturbed his quiet, if he had not captiously snarled at the trespasses of accident, and savagely retaliated insignificant injuries.  The viper that we chance to molest, we suffer to live if he continues to be quiet; but if he raises himself in menaces of destruction, we knock him on the head.

It is with nations as with men.  If, on every offence we fly to arms, and raise the cry of blood, we shall of necessity provoke exasperation; and if we exasperate a people as petulant and bloody as ourselves, we may probably continue to butcher one another, until we cease only from emptiness of treasuries or weariness of slaughter.  To threaten war is therefore often equivalent to beginning it.  In the present state of men’s principles, it is not probable that one nation will observe another levying men, and building ships, and founding cannon, without providing men and ships and cannon themselves; and when both are thus threatening and defying, what is the hope that there will not be a war?

It will scarcely be disputed that we should not kill one another unless we cannot help it.  Since war is an enormous evil, some sacrifices are expedient for the sake of peace; and if we consulted our understandings more and our passions less, we should soberly balance the probabilities of mischief and inquire whether it would not be better to endure some evils that we can estimate than to engage in a conflict of which we can neither calculate the mischief nor foresee the event, which may probably conduct us from slaughter to disgrace, and which is at last determined, not by justice, but by power.  Pride may declaim against these sentiments; but my business is not with pride, but with reason; and I think reason determines that it would be wiser, and religion that it would be less wicked, to diminish our punctiliousness and irritability.  If nations fought only when they could not be at peace, there would be very little fighting in the world.  The wars that are waged for “ insults to flags,” and an endless train of similar motives, are perhaps generally attributable to the irritability of our pride.  We are at no pains to appear pacific towards the offender; our remonstrance is a threat; and the nation, which would give satisfaction to an inquiry, will give no other answer to a menace than a menace in return.  At length we begin to fight, not because we are aggrieved, but because we are angry.

The object of the haughtiness and petulance which one nation uses towards another is, of course, to produce some benefit: to awe into compliance with its demands, or into forbearance from aggression.  Now it ought to be distinctly shown that petulance and haughtiness are more efficacious than calmness and moderation; that an address to the passions of a probable enemy is more likely to avert mischief from ourselves than an address to their reason and their virtue.  Nations are composed of men, and of men with human feelings.  Whether with individuals or with communities, “a soft answer turneth away wrath.”  There is, indeed, something in the calmness of reason – in an endeavor to convince rather than to intimidate – in an honest solicitude for friendliness and peace, which obtains, which commands, which exhorts forbearance and esteem.  This is the privilege of rectitude and truth.  It is an inherent quality of their nature, an evidence of their identity with perfect wisdom.  I believe, therefore, that even as it concerns our interests, moderation and forbearance would be the most politic.  And let not our duties be forgotten, for forbearance and moderation are duties, absolutely and indispensably imposed upon us by Jesus Christ.

The “balance of power” is a phrase with which we are made sufficiently familiar, as one of the great objects of national policy, which must be attained at whatever cost of treasure or of blood.  The support of this balance, therefore, is one of the great purposes of war, and one of the great occasions of its frequency.

It is, perhaps, not idle to remark that a balance of power among nations is inherently subject to continual interruption.  If all the countries of Europe were placed on an equal standing today, they would of necessity become unequal tomorrow.  This is the inevitable tendency of human affairs.  Thousands of circumstances which sagacity cannot foresee will continually operate to destroy an equilibrium.  Of men, who enter the world with the same possessions and the same prospects, one becomes rich and the other poor; one harangues in the senate, and another labors in a mine; one sacrifices his life to intemperance, and another starves in a garret.  Howsoever accurately we may adjust the strength and consequence of nations to each other, the failure of one harvest, the ravages of one tempest, the ambition of one man, may unequalize them in a moment.  It is, therefore, not a trifling argument against this anxious endeavor to attain an equipoise of power, to find that no equipoise can be maintained.  When negotiation has followed negotiation, treaty has been piled upon treaty, and war has succeeded to war, the genius of a Napoleon, or the fate of an armada, nullifies our labors without the possibility of prevention.  I do not know how much nations have gained by a balance of power, but it is worth remembrance that some of those countries that have been most solicitous to preserve it have been most frequently fighting with each other.  How many wars has a balance of power prevented, in comparison with the number that have been waged to maintain it?

It is, indeed, deplorable enough that such a balance is to be desired, and that the wickedness and violence of mankind are so great that nothing can prevent them from destroying one another but an equality of the means of destruction.  In such a state of malignity and outrage, it need not be disputed that, if it could be maintained, an equality of strength is sufficiently desirable; as tigers may be restrained from tearing one another by mutual fear without any want of savageness.  It should be remembered, then, that whatever can be said in favor of a balance of power, can be said only because we are wicked; that it derives all its value from our crimes; and that it is wanted only to restrain the outrage of our violence, and to make us contented to growl when we should otherwise fight.

Wars are often promoted from considerations of interest, as well as from passion.  The love of gain adds its influence to our other motives to support them, and without other motives, we know that this love is sufficient to give great obliquity to the moral judgment, and to tempt us to many crimes.  During a war of ten years, there will always be many whose income depends on its continuance; and a countless host of commissaries, and purveyors, and agents, and mechanics, commend a war, because it fills their pockets.  These men have commonly but one question respecting a war, and that is whether they profit from it.  This is the standard of their decision, and this regulates the measure of their support.  If money is in prospect, the desolation of a kingdom is of little concern; destruction and slaughter are not to be put in competition with a larger paycheck.  In truth, it seems to be the system of those who conduct a war to give to the sources of gain every possible consideration.  The more there are who profit by it, the more numerous will be its supporters; and thus the wishes of the cabinet become united with the avarice of the people, and both are gratified in slaughter and devastation.

A support more systematic and powerful is, however, given to war, because it offers to the higher ranks of society a profession which unites gentility with profit, and which, without the vulgarity of trade, maintains or enriches them.  It is of little consequence to inquire whether the distinction of vulgarity between the toils of war and the toils of commerce is fictitious.  In the abstract, it is fictitious; but of this species of reputation public opinion holds the arbitrium, et jus, et norma [5] – and public opinion is in favor of war.

The army and the navy therefore afford to the middle and higher classes a most acceptable profession.  The profession of arms is like the professions of law or medicine – a regular source of employment and profit.  Boys are educated for the army like they are educated for the bar; and parents appear to have no other idea than that war is part of the business of the world.  Of younger sons, whose fathers do not choose to support them at the expense of the heir, the army and the navy are the common resource.  They would not know what to do without them.  To many of these, the news of a peace becomes a calamity; principle is not powerful enough to cope with interest; they prefer the desolation of the world to the loss of military rank.  It is in this manner that much of the rank, the influence, and the wealth of a country become interested in the promotion of wars; and when a custom is promoted by wealth, and influence, and rank, what is the wonder that it should be continued?

Yet it is a dreadful consideration that the destruction of our fellows should become a business by which to live; and that a man can find no other occupation of gain than that of butchering his neighbors.  It is said (if my memory serves me, by Sir Walter Raleigh), “He that taketh up his rest to live by this profession, shall hardly be an honest man.”  “Where there is no obligation to obey,” says Lord Clarendon, “ it is a wonderful and an unnatural appetite that disposes men to be soldiers, that they may know how to live; and whatsoever reputation it may have in politics, it can have none in religion, to say that the art and conduct of a soldier is not infused by nature, but by study, experience, and observation; and therefore that men are to learn it – when, in truth, this common argument is made by appetite to excuse, and not by reason to support, an ill custom.” [6]  People do not often become soldiers in order to serve their country, but to serve themselves.  An income is commonly the motive to the great, and idleness to the poor.  To plead the love of our country is therefore hypocrisy; and let it be remembered that hypocrisy is itself an evidence, and an acknowledgment, that the motive which it would disguise is bad.

By depending upon war for subsistence, a powerful inducement is given to desire it; and I would submit it to the conscientious part of the profession that he who desires a war for the sake of its profits has lost something of his virtue.  He has, at least, enlisted one of the most influential of human propensities against it, and when the prospect of gratification is before him – when the question of war is to be decided – it is to be feared that he will suffer the whispers of interest to prevail and that humanity, religion, and his conscience will be sacrificed to promote it.  But whenever we shall have learned the nature of pure Christianity, and have imbibed its dispositions, we shall not be willing to avail ourselves of such a horrible source of profit; nor to contribute to the misery, wickedness, and destruction of mankind in order to avoid a false and foolish shame.

It is frequently in the power of individual statesmen to involve a people in a war.  “Their restraints,” says Knox, “ in the pursuit of political objects, are not those of morality and religion, but solely reasons of state, and political caution.  Plausible words are used, but they are used to hide the deformity of the real principles.  Wherever war is deemed desirable in an interested view, a specious pretext never yet remained unfound.” [7]  “When they have once said what they think convenient, howsoever untruly, they proceed to do what they judge will be profitable, howsoever unjustly; and this, men very absurdly and unreasonably would have called reason of state, to the discredit of all solid reason, and all rules of probity.” [8]  Statesmen have two standards of morality – a social and a political standard.  Political morality embraces all crimes; except, indeed, that it has that technical virtue which requires that he who may kill a hundred men with bullets, should not kill one with arsenic.  And from this double system of morals it happens, that statesmen who have no restraint to political enormities but political expediency, are sufficiently amiable in private life.  But “probity,” says Bishop Watson, “ is a uniform principle; it cannot be put on in our private closet, and put off in the council-chamber or the senate.”  I fear that he who is wicked as a statesman, if he is good as a man, has some other motive to goodness than love – that he is decent in private life because it is not expedient that he should be flagitious.  It cannot be hoped that he has much restraint from principle.  I believe, however, the time will come when it will be found that God has instituted but one standard of morality, and that to that standard is required the universal conformity of nations and of men.

Of the wars of statesmen’s ambition, it is not necessary to speak, because no one to whom the world will listen, is willing to defend them.

But statesmen have, besides ambition, many purposes of nice policy that make wars convenient; and when they have such purposes, they are cool speculators in blood.  They who have many dependants have much patronage, and they who have much patronage have much power.  By a war, thousands become dependent on a minister; and if he is disposed, he can often pursue schemes of guilt and entrench himself in unpunished wickedness, because the war enables him to silence the clamor of opposition by an office, and to secure the suffrages of venality by a bribe.  He has therefore many motives to war: in ambition that does not refer to conquest or in fear that extends only to his office or his pocket, and fear or ambition are sometimes more interesting considerations than the happiness and the lives of men.  Or perhaps he wants to immortalize his name by a splendid administration, and he thinks no splendor so great as that of conquest and plunder.  Cabinets have, in truth, many secret motives for wars of which the people know little.  They talk in public of invasions of right, of breaches of treaty, of the support of honor, and of the necessity of retaliation, when these motives have no influence on their determination.  Some untold purpose of expediency, or the private quarrel of a prince, or the pique or anger of a minister are often the real motives to a contest, while its promoters are loudly talking of the honor or the safety of the country.  The motives for war are indeed without end to their number, or their iniquity, or their insignificance.  What was the motive of Xerxes in his invasion of Greece?

It is to be feared that the world has sometimes seen the example of a war, begun and prosecuted for the simple purpose of appeasing the clamors of a people by diverting their attention:

“I well might lodge a fear
To be again displaced; which, to avoid,
I cut them off, and had a purpose now
To lead out many to the Holy Land,
Lest rest and lying still might make them look
Too near into my state. Therefore, my Harry,
Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels; that action hence borne out
May waste the memory of former days.” – Shakespeare, Henry IV

When the profligacy of a minister, or the unpopularity of his measures, has excited public discontent, he can perhaps find no other way of escaping the resentment of the people than by thus making them forget it.  He therefore discovers a pretext for announcing war on some convenient country in order to divert the indignation of the public from himself to their newly made enemies.  Such wickedness has existed, and may exist again.  Surely, it is nearly the climax of possible iniquity.  I know not whether the records of human infamy present another crime of such enormous or such abandoned wickedness.  A monstrous profligacy or ferocity that must be, which for the sole purpose of individual interest, enters its closet, and coolly fabricates pretences for slaughter; that quietly contrives the exasperation of the public hatred, and then flings the lighted brands of war among the devoted and startled people.

The public, therefore, whenever a war is designed, should diligently inquire into the motives of engaging in it.  It should be an inquiry that will not be satisfied with idle declamations on indeterminate dangers, and that is not willing to take anything upon trust. [9]  The public should see the danger for themselves; and if they do not see it, should refuse to be led to blindly murder their neighbors.  This, we think, is the public duty, as it is certainly the public interest.  It implies a forgetfulness of the ends and purposes of government, and of the just degrees and limitations of obedience, to be hurried into in so dreadful a measure as a war, without knowing the reason or asking it.  The people have the power of prevention, and they ought to exercise it.  Let me not, however, be charged with recommending violence or armed resistance.  The power of preventing war consists in the power of refusing to take part in it.  This is the mode of opposing political evil that Christianity permits and, in truth, requires.  And as it is the most Christian method, so, as it respects war, it is certainly the most efficacious; for it is obvious that war cannot be carried on without the cooperation of the people.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Part 2►

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[3] Loosely translated – Happy is he who is able to know the causes of things.

[4] History of Scotland.

[5] The meaning of a word is determined by its use.

[6] Lord Clarendon’s Essays.

[7] Knox’s Essays.

[8] Lord Clarendon’s Essays.

[9] Transcriber’s note – The United States went to war against Iraq in 2003 with just such “idle declamations on indeterminate dangers” – the much touted “weapons of mass destruction” – and few questioned it.