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by Jonathan Dymond

◄Chapter 1 Part 1

Chapter 1 Part 2

Chapter 2 Part 1►

But I believe the greatest cause of the popularity of war, and of the facility with which we engage in it, consists in this: that an idea of glory is attached to military exploits, and of honor to the military profession.  Something of elevation is supposed to belong to the character of the soldier; whether it is that we involuntarily presume his personal courage; or that he who makes it his business to defend the rest of the community, acquires the superiority of a protector; or that the profession implies an exemption from the laborious and the “meaner” occupations of life.  There is something in war, whether phantom or reality, which glitters and allures; and the allurement is powerful, since we see that it induces us to endure hardships and injuries, and expose life to a continual danger.  Men do not become soldiers because life is indifferent to them, but because of some extrinsic circumstances which attach to the profession; and some of the most influential of these circumstances are the fame, the spirit, the honor, and the glory that, with the agreement of mankind, belong to the warrior.  The glories of battle, and of those who perish in it, or who return in triumph to their country, are favorite topics of declamation with the historian, the biographer, and the poet.  They have told us a thousand times of dying heroes, who “resign their lives amidst the joys of conquest, and filled with (their nation’s) glory, smile in death,” and thus every excitement that eloquence and genius can command is employed to arouse that ambition of fame which can be gratified only at the expense of blood.

There are many ways in which a soldier derives pleasure from his profession.  A military officer [10] when he walks the streets is an object of notice; he is a man of spirit, of honor, of gallantry; wherever he is, he is distinguished from ordinary men; he is an acknowledged gentleman.  If he engages in battle, he is brave, noble, and magnanimous.  If he is killed, he has died for his country; he has closed his career with glory.  Now all this is agreeable to the mind; it flatters some of its strongest and most pervading passions; and the gratification that these passions derive from war is one of the great reasons why men so willingly engage in it.

Now we ask the question of a man of reason, what is the foundation of this fame and glory?  We profess that, according to the best of our powers of discovery, no solid foundation can be found.  Upon the foundation, whatever it may be, an immense structure is however raised – a structure so vast, so brilliant, so attractive, that the greater portion of mankind is content to gaze in admiration, without any inquiry into its basis, or any solicitude for its durability.  If, however, it should be, that the gorgeous temple will be able to stand only until Christian truth and light become predominant, it surely will be wise of those who seek a niche in its apartments as their paramount and final good, to pause ere they proceed.  If they desire a reputation that shall outlive guilt and fiction, let them look to the basis of military fame.  If this fame should one day sink into oblivion and contempt, it will not be the first instance in which wide-spread glory has been found to be a glittering bubble that has burst and been forgotten.  Look at the days of chivalry.  Of the ten thousand Quixotics of the middle ages, where is now the honor or the name?  Yet poets once sang their praises, and the chronicler of their achievements believed he was recording an everlasting fame.  Where are now the glories of the tournament?  Glories…

“Of which all Europe rung from side to side.”

Where is the champion whom princes caressed and nobles envied?  Where are now the triumphs of Duns Scotus, and where are the folios that perpetuated his fame?  The glories of war have indeed outlived these.  Human passions are less mutable than human follies; but I am willing to avow my conviction that these glories are alike destined to sink into forgetfulness; and that the time is approaching when the applauses of heroism and the splendors of conquest will be remembered only as follies and iniquities that are past.  Let him who seeks for fame, other than that which an era of Christian purity will allow, make haste; for every hour that he delays its acquisition will shorten its duration.  This is certain, if there is certainty in the promises of Heaven.

In inquiring into the foundation of military glory, it will be borne in mind that it is acknowledged by our adversaries that this glory is not recognized by Christianity.  No part of the heroic character, says one of the great advocates of war, is the subject of the “commendation, or precepts, or example” of Christ; but the character and dispositions most opposite to the heroic are the subject of them all. [11]  This is a great concession; and it surely is the business of Christians, who are sincere in their profession, to doubt the purity of that “glory” and the rectitude of that “heroic character,” which it is acknowledged that their Great Instructor never in any shape countenanced, and often obliquely condemned. [12]

If it may be attempted to define why glory is allotted to the soldier, we suppose that we shall be referred to his skill, bravery, or patriotism.

Of skill it is not necessary to speak, since very few have the opportunity of displaying it.  The business of the great majority is only obedience, and obedience of that sort which almost precludes the exercise of talent.

The rational and immortal being, who raises the edifice of his fame on simple bravery, has chosen an unworthy and frail foundation.  Separate bravery from motives and purposes, and what will remain but that which is possessed by a mastiff or a gamecock?  All just, all rational, and, we will venture to affirm, all permanent reputation refers to the mind or to virtue; and what connection has animal power or animal hardihood with intellect or goodness?  I do not decry courage.  I know that He who was better acquainted than we are with the nature and worth of human actions attached much value to courage; but he attached none to bravery.  Courage He recommended by his precepts and enforced by his example; bravery He never recommended at all.  The wisdom of this distinction, and its accordance with the principles of his religion, are plain.  Bravery requires the existence of many of those dispositions that he disallowed.  Animosity, resentment, the desire for retaliation, and the disposition to injure and destroy – all this is necessary to bravery, but all this is incompatible with Christianity.  The courage that Christianity requires is to bravery what fortitude is to daring – an effort of the mind rather than of the spirits.  It is a calm, steady determinateness of purpose that will not be diverted by solicitation or awed by fear.  “Behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there, save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me.  But none of these things move me; neither count I my life dear unto myself.” [13]  What resemblance has bravery to courage like this?  This courage is a virtue, and a virtue that it is difficult to acquire or to practice; and we have, therefore, heedlessly or ingeniously transferred its praise to another quality, which is inferior in its nature and easier to acquire, in order that we may obtain the reputation of virtue at a cheap rate.  That simple bravery implies much merit, it will be difficult to show – at least, if it is meritorious, we think it will not always be easy, in awarding the honors of a battle, to determine the preponderance of virtue between the soldier and the horse that carries him.

But patriotism is the great foundation of the soldier’s glory.  Patriotism is the universal theme.  To “fight nobly for our country;” to “fall, covered with glory, in our country’s cause;” to “sacrifice our lives for the liberties, laws, and religion of our country” are phrases in the mouth of every man.  What do they mean, and to whom do they apply?

We contend that to say generally of those who perish in war, that “they have died for their country,” is simply untrue; and for this simple reason, that they did not fight for it.  To impugn the notion of ages, is perhaps a hardy task – but we wish to employ, not dogmatism, but argument; and we maintain that men have commonly no such purity of motive, that they have no such patriotism.  What is the officer’s motive for entering the army?  We appeal to himself.  Is it not that he may obtain an income?  And what is the motive of the private?  Is it not that he prefers a life of idleness to industry, or that he had no wish but the wish for change?  Having entered the army, what, again, is the soldier’s motive to fight?  Is it not that fighting is a part of his business – that it is one of the conditions of his servitude?  We are not now saying that these motives are bad, but we are saying that they are the motives, and that patriotism is not.  Of those who fall in battle, is there one in a hundred who even thinks of his country’s good?  He thinks, perhaps, of its glory, and of the honor of his regiment, but for his country’s advantage or welfare, he has no care and no thought.  He fights because fighting is a matter of course to a soldier, because his personal reputation is at stake, because he is compelled to fight, or because he thinks nothing at all of the matter, but seldom, indeed, because he wishes to benefit his country.  He fights in battle as a horse draws a carriage – because he is compelled to do it, or because he has done it before – but he seldom thinks more of his country’s good than the same horse, if he were carrying corn to a granary, would think he was providing for the comforts of his master.

And, indeed, if the soldier speculates on his country’s good, he often cannot tell how it is affected by the quarrel.  Nor is it to be expected of him that he should know this.  When there is a rumor of a war, there is an endless diversity of opinions as to its expediency, and endless oppositions of conclusion, whether it will tend more to the good of the country, to prosecute or avoid it.  If senators and statesmen cannot calculate the good or evil of a war, if one promises advantages and another predicts ruin, how is the soldier to decide?  And without deciding and promoting the good, how is he to be patriotic?  Nor will much be gained by saying that questions of policy form no part of his business, and that he has no other duty than obedience; since this is to reduce his agency to the agency of a machine; and moreover, by this rule, his arms might be directed, indifferently, to the annoyance of another country, or to the oppression of his own.  The truth is that we give to the soldier that of which we are wont to be sufficiently sparing – a gratuitous concession of merit.  In ordinary life, an individual maintains his individual opinions and pursues correspondent conduct, with the approbation of one set of men, and the censures of another.  One party says he is benefiting his country, and another maintains that he is ruining it.  But the soldier, for whatever he fights, and whether really in promotion of his country’s good or in opposition to it, is always a patriot, and is always secure of his praise.  If the war is a national calamity, and was foreseen to be such, still he fights for his country.  If his judgment has decided against the war and against its justice or expediency, still he fights for his country.  He is always virtuous.  If he but uses a bayonet, he is always a patriot.

“To sacrifice our lives for the liberties, and laws, and religion of our native land” are undoubtedly high-sounding words, but who are they that will do it?  Who is it who will sacrifice his life for his country?  Will the senator who supports a war?  Will the writer who declaims upon patriotism?  Will the minister of religion who recommends the sacrifice?  Take away glory – take away war – and there is not a man of them who will do it.  Will you sacrifice your life at home?  If the loss of your life in London or at York would procure just so much benefit to your country as the loss of one soldier in the field, would you be willing to lay your head upon the block?  Are you willing to die without notice and without remembrance, and for the sake of this little undiscoverable contribution to your country’s good?  You would, perhaps, die to save your country, but this is not the question.  A soldier’s death does not save his country.  The question is, whether, without any of the circumstances of war, without any of its glory or its pomp, you are willing to resign yourself to the executioner.  If you are not, you are not willing to die for your country.  And there is not an individual among the thousands who declaim upon patriotism who is willing to do it.  He will lay down his life, indeed – but it must be in war.  He is willing to die – but it is for glory, not patriotism.

The argument we think is clear—that patriotism is notthe motive; and that in no rational use of language can it be said that the soldier “dies for his country.”  Men will not sacrifice their lives at all, unless it is in war, and they do not sacrifice them in war from motives of patriotism. [14]

What then is the foundation of military fame?  Is it bravery?  Bravery has little connection with reason, and less with religion.  Intellect may despise it, and Christianity condemns it.  Is it patriotism?  Do we refer to the soldier’s motives and purposes?  If we do, he is not necessarily or often a patriot.  It was a common expression among sailors, and perhaps may be so still: “I hate the French, because they are slaves, and wear wooden shoes.”  This was the sum of their reasoning and their patriotism; and I do not think the mass of those who fight on land possess greater. 

Crimes should be traced to their causes, and guilt should be fixed upon those who occasion, although they may not perpetrate them.  And to whom are the frequency and the crimes of war to be principally attributed?  To the directors of public opinion, to the declaimers upon glory, to men who sit quietly at home in their studies and at their desks, to the historian, the biographer, the poet, the moral philosopher, the pamphleteer, the editor of the newspaper, and to the teacher of religion.  One example of declamation from the pulpit I would offer to the reader: “Go then, ye defenders of your country.  Advance, with alacrity, into the field, where God himself musters the hosts to war.  Religion is too much interested in your success, not to lend you her aid.  She will shed over this enterprise her most select influence.  I cannot but imagine, the virtuous heroes, legislators, and patriots of every age and country are bending from their elevated seats to witness this contest, as if they were incapable, until it is brought to a favorable conclusion, of enjoying their eternal repose.  Enjoy that repose, illustrious immortals!  Your mantle fell when you ascended, and thousands, inflamed with spirit, and impatient to tread in your steps, are ready to swear by Him that sitteth upon the throne, and liveth for ever and ever, that they will protect freedom in her last asylum, and never desert that cause which you sustained by your labors, and cemented with your blood.  And thou, sole Ruler among the children of men, to whom the shields of the earth belong – gird on thy sword, thou most Mighty.  Go forth with our hosts in the day of battle!  Impart, in addition to their hereditary valor, that confidence of success which springs from thy presence!  Pour into their hearts the spirit of departed heroes!  Inspire them with thine own; and while led by thine hand, and fighting under thy banners, open thou their eyes to behold in every valley, and in every plain, what the prophet beheld by the same illumination – chariots of fire, and horses of fire.  Then shall the strong man be as tow [15], and the maker of it as a spark, and they shall both burn together, and none shall quench them!” [16]  Of such irreverence of language, employed to convey such violence of sentiment, the world, I hope, has had few examples.  Oh!  How unlike another exhortation: “Put on mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering, forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man has a quarrel against any.” [17]

“As long as mankind,” says Gibbon, “shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst for military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters.” [18]  “It is strange to imagine,” says the Earl of Shaftesbury, “that war, which of all things appears the most savage, should be the passion of the most heroic spirits.”  But he gives us the reason: “By a small misguidance of the affection, a lover of mankind becomes a ravager; a hero and deliverer becomes an oppressor and destroyer.” [19]  This is the “vice” and this is the “ misguidance” we say that a large proportion of the writers of every civilized country are continually occasioning and promoting; and thus, perhaps without any purpose of mischief, they contribute more to the destruction of mankind than rapine or ambition.  A writer thinks, perhaps, that it is not much harm to applaud bravery.  The divergence from virtue may, indeed, be small in its beginning, but the effect of his applause proceeds in the line of obliquity, until it conducts, at last, to every excess of outrage, to every variety of crime, and to every mode of human destruction.

There is one species of declamation on the glories of those who die in battle, to which I would beg the notice of the reader.  We are told that when the last breath of exultation and defiance is departed, the intrepid spirit rises triumphantly from the field of glory to its kindred heavens.  What the hero has been on earth, it matters not.  If he dies by a musket ball, he enters heaven in his own right.  All men like to suppose that they shall attain felicity at last, and to find that they can attain it without goodness and in spite of vice, is doubtless peculiarly solacing.  The history of the hero’s achievements wants, indeed, completeness without it; and this gratuitous transfer of his soul to heaven forms an agreeable conclusion to his story.

I would be far from “dealing damnation round the land,” and undoubtedly believe that of those who fall in battle, many have found an everlasting resting place.  But an indiscriminate consignment of the brave to felicity is certainly unwarranted; and if wickedness consists in the promotion of wickedness, it is wicked too.

If we say in positive and glowing language, of men indiscriminately, and therefore of the bad, that they rise on the wings of ecstasy to heaven, we do all that language can do in the encouragement of profligacy.  The terrors of religion may still be dreaded; but we have, at least to the utmost of our power, diminished their influence.  The mind willingly accepts the assurance, or acquiesces in the falsehood that it wishes to be true; and in spite of all their better knowledge, it may be feared that some continue in profligacy, in the doubting hope that what poets and historians tell them may not be a fiction.

Perhaps the most operative encouragement that these declamations give to the soldier’s vices is contained in this circumstance: that they manifest that public opinion does not hold them in abhorrence.  Public opinion is one of the most efficacious regulators of the passions of mankind; and upon the soldier this rein is peculiarly influential.  His profession and his personal conduct derive almost all their value and their reputation from the opinion of the world, and from that alone.  If, therefore, the public voice does not censure his vices – if, in spite of his vices, it awards him everlasting happiness, what restraint remains upon his passions, or what is the wonder if they are not restrained?

The peculiar application of the subject to our purpose is, however, that these and similar representations are motives to the profession of arms.  The military life is made a privileged profession, in which a man may indulge vices with impunity.  His occupation is an apology for his crimes, and shields them from punishment.  And what greater motive for the military life can be given?  Or what can be more atrocious than the crime of those who give it?  I know not, indeed, whether the guilt predominates, or the folly.  Pitiable imbecility surely it is, that can persuade itself to sacrifice all the beauties of virtue, and all the realities and terrors of religion, to the love of the flowing imagery of spirits ascending to heaven.  Whether writers shall do this is a question, not of choice, but of duty.  If we would not be the abettors of crime, and the sharers of its guilt, it is imperative that we refrain.

The reader will, perhaps, have observed that some of those writers who are liberal contributors to the military passion occasionally, in moments when truth and nature seem to have burst the influence of habit, emphatically condemn the system that they have so often contributed to support.  There are not many books of which the tendency is more warlike, or which are more likely to stimulate the passion for martial glory, than The Life of Nelson, by Southey; a work in the composition of which it probably never suggested itself to the author to inquire whether he was not contributing to the destruction of mankind.  A contributor, however as he has been, we find in another of his works this extraordinary and memorable passage: “There is but one community of Christians in the world, and that unhappily, of all communities one of the smallest, enlightened enough to understand the prohibition of war by our Divine Master, in its plain, literal, and undeniable sense; and conscientious enough to obey it, subduing the very instinct of nature to obedience.” [20]  Of these voluntary or involuntary testimonies of the mind against the principles that it habitually possesses, and habitually inculcates, many examples might be given; [21] and they are valuable testimonies, because they appear to be elicited by the influence of simple nature and unclouded truth.  This, I think, is their obvious character.  They will commonly be found to have been written when the mind has become sobered by reason, or tranquilized by religion; when the feelings are not excited by external stimulants, and when conquest, honor, and glory are reduced to that station of importance to which truth assigns them.

But whether such testimonies have much tendency to give conviction to a reader, I know not.  Surrounded as they are with a general contrariety of sentiment, it is possible that those who read them may pass them by as the speculations of impracticable morality.  I cannot, however, avoid recommending the reader, whenever he meets with passages like these, to seriously examine into their meaning and their force, to inquire whether they are not accordant with the purity of truth, and whether they do not possess the greater authority because they have forced themselves from the mind when least likely to be deceived, and in opposition to all its habits and all its associations.

Such, then, are among the principal of the causes of war.  Some consist in want of thought, and some in delusion; some are mercenary, and some simply criminal.  Whether any or all of them form a motive for the desolation of empires and to human destruction, such as a good or a reasoning man, who abstracts himself from habitual feelings, can contemplate with approbation, is a question which everyone should ask and determine for himself.  A conflict of nations is a serious thing.  No motive arising from our passions should occasion it, or have any influence in occasioning it.  Supposing the question of lawfulness to be superseded, war should be imposed only by stern, inevitable, unyielding necessity.  That such a necessity is contained in these motives, I think cannot be shown.  We may, therefore, reasonably question the defensibility of the custom, which is continued by such causes and supported by such motives.  If a tree is known by its fruits, we may also judge the fruit by the tree.  “Men do not gather grapes from thorns.”  If the motives for war and its causes are impure, war itself cannot be virtuous; and I would, therefore, solemnly invite the reader to give to the succeeding Inquiry, his sober and Christian attention.

◄Chapter 1 Part 1

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Chapter 2 Part 1►

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[10] These observations apply also to the naval profession, but I have in this passage, as in some other parts of this book, mentioned only soldiers to prevent circumlocution.

[11] Dr. Paley.

[12] “Christianity quite annihilates the disposition for martial glory.”  Bishop Watson.

[13] Acts 20:22.

[14] We know that there may be, and have been, cases in which the soldier possesses purer motives.  An invasion may arouse the national patriotism and arm people for the unmingled purpose of defending themselves.  Here is a definite purpose, a purpose that every individual understands and is interested in; and if he dies under such circumstances, we do not deny that his motives are patriotic.  The actions to which they prompt are, however, a separate consideration, and depend for their qualities on the rectitude of war itself.  Motives may be patriotic when actions are bad.  I might, perhaps, benefit my country by blowing up a fleet, of which the cargo would injure our commerce.  My motive may be patriotic, but my action is vicious.

It is not sufficiently borne in mind that patriotism, even much purer than this, is not necessarily a virtue.  “Christianity,” says Bishop Watson, “does not encourage particular patriotism in opposition to general benignity.”  And the reason is easy of discovery.  Christianity is designed to benefit, not a community, but the world.  If it unconditionally encouraged particular patriotism, the duties of a subject of one state would often be in opposition to those of a subject of another.  Christianity, however, knows no such inconsistencies; and that patriotism which is opposed, in its exercise, to the general welfare of mankind, is, in no degree, a virtue.

[15] Rope or loose fibers.

[16] The Sentiments Proper to the Crisis, a sermon preached October 19, 1803, by Robert Hall, A. M.

[17] Nor is the preacher inconsistent with the apostles alone.  He is also inconsistent with himself.  In another discourse, delivered in the preceding year, he said, “The safety of nations is not to be sought in arts or in arms.  War reverses, with respect to its objects, all the rules of morality.  It is nothing less than a temporary repeal of all the principles of virtue.  It is a system, out of which almost all the virtues are excluded, and in which nearly all the vices are incorporated.  In instructing us to consider a portion of our fellow creatures as the proper objects of enmity, it removes, as far as they are concerned, the basis of all society, of all civilization and virtue; for the basis of these is the good will due to every individual of the species.”  “Religion,” then, we are told, “sheds its most select influence over that which repeals all the principles of virtue,” over that “in which nearly all the vices are incorporated!”  What “religion” it is which does this, I do not know – but I know that it is not the religion of Christ.  Truthnever led into contradictions like these.  Well was it said that we cannot serve two masters.  The quotations that we have given are evidence sufficient that he who holds with the one neglects the other.

[18] Decline and Fall.

[19] Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humor.

[20] History of Brazil.

[21] See chapter 2.