The Charlotte News -- Sunday, March 18, 1928
The Moving Row
"We are no more than a moving row of fantastic shapes which come and go."
By W. J. Cash
Who nurtures War?
What and who spawns it are, I take it, fairly well established. Sired by economic rivalry, it is fashioned in the womb of chauvinism. There is, for example, the late butcherfest in Europe.
Primarily, it sprang from the conflicting desires of Britain and Germany for trade supremacy. But it drew its life-blood from the madness of France to repossess Alsace and Lorraine--stolen, by the way, from the German States by Louis XIV--her passion for revenge for the humiliation of the war of 1870--precipitated by Napoleon III--and from Russia's insistent demand for a port on the Straits and a place in the sun of the Western World.
Well, but who feeds the mother of the brat? Who pours down her gullet delicacies and fine wines to be transmuted into life for the monster? Who heralds this yet-to-be-born Caliban to the world as the Prince of Glory? Why, when the eminent obstetricians--like Grey, the Hohenzollern, Poincaire, Izvolski--get together and fetch forth the beast do not the outraged people rise up and destroy it and its sponsors? Who is it who garners in the youth of the land and joyfully offers them as pap to feed the hydra-mouthed fiend?
Where is the point of contact between imperialists, like Grey and Von Hiddenburg, between chauvinists, like Poincaire, and the people?
It is inconceivable that this Cockney hawker in Petticoat Lane, this cabbie at Victoria, this sheepherder on the lonely downs of Sussex actually cares whether or not Britain attains mastery of Persia. It is inconceivable that Pierre in his "boucherie" at Tours, Jean with his goats in sleepy Avignon, or Francois with his vineyard in Burgundy actually care two whoops in hades who owns two German provinces on the other side of the mountains. It is inconceivable that Hans, swilling his beer and dreaming Bach in Munchen, actually cares about the Bagdad Railway. What lunacy to suppose that this muzhik plowing his oxen cares, or wots, of the Turks in Europe.
Well, but war is born into the world and straightway these simple folk go singing out to die at Ypres, at Verdun, in the Dardanelles, under the white sun of the desert, in the frozen wastes of Siberia. Why? What makes them easy victims for such cries as "saving civilization" on the one hand and "the glory of the Fatherland" on the other? Who has so blinded them to the true countenance of Chauvinism as to lead them to count that harlot sacred, to feel it a duty and a privilege to die for her filthy offspring?
Governor McLean tells the folk of Lumberton that organized veterans of the late war are the best guarantee that there will not be another. I respectfully beg to question that.
Governor McLean states what ought to be true. Apparently, it is a reasonable proposition that men who one hour have clicked glasses or bummed a Camel from a peasant fellow and in the next have seen him spin blank-faced, hissing in his throat, and crumple, men who have known the stench of the corruption of human flesh, ought to hate war. But men are not reasonable.
Actually, veterans of any war look back upon it with sentimental fondness, speak of it with wistfulness, see it through an aura that waxes luminous as the years thunder on. Ten years after even a Laurence Stallings or a John Dos Passos forgets to carp about the "apple-sauce of glory," and takes to framing more romantic things than "What Price Glory?" or "Three Soldiers."
It is the inevitable working of a law of memory. The time when Hal, that good fellow of the gun crew, left off laughing to become some bloody shreds of smoking clothing buried in the charred trunk of a nearby tree drops out of mind. But that grand, brave night in a "Debit du Vin," that kiss stolen from a pretty bonne, that morning when one awoke in his cottage billet to find the family pig nosing him in the face--these things remain, nostalgic, haunting, to become the epitome of Adventure and High Romance.
And the Adventure urge is the Wagnerian motif of Life, forever pulsing beneath the clangor and the discords of commerce. Your clerk broods upon brave dreams of tilting lances in the splendor of a high cause, of being hailed by kings, of "flowers and furs and cheeks" as his rewards. But prosaic concerns press hard upon him. Society is organized to ignore his desires for flame and crimson--foolishly, I think. It requires enormous courage to break away, to launch out upon the trackless world beyond the sunset. Few men have it. Your bond salesman must put away his trappings of purple and yellow, must crush down imagination, resign himself to the monotony of business, a fat wife and insatiate children--a dreary enough prospect, in all truth.
But War! Ah, there is the solution. Then the decision shall be taken from his hands. Desire will have become one with duty. No reproachful eyes now for abandoning a "promising career." Medals, glory wait. The very glory he would have above all others besought of Aladdin. For from birth, our notions of what is fine and noble and most worthy of praise center about war. We are, as the behaviourists would have it, conditioned to war in the cradle. War-lords and commanders become our heroes. We speedily discover that to the Napoleons of the earth have gone Man's highest honors, his greatest rewards.
Sires who fought the wars of Yesterday tell their children stories--of War. But not of the cruelty, the violated women, the towns made torches, the rotting colloids that once housed bravery and love and laughter. Their contests deal with what the Corporal said to them at Austerlitz or Leipzig, what Lee thought of North Carolina and Pickett's charge, with how Foch or Pershing once planted a cross upon their coats, how they foraged, how they slew the beastial Hun who set fire to the village church, how they kissed a thousand girls.
I am reminded of a picture in the curious Wiertz Museum at Brussels. Poor Art but excellent Truth, it depicts a gaudy gallant palm medals, cannon, sabres, rifles, all the glittering baubles of the business, while an infant, yet unborn, smilingly clutches for them from the mists of Infinity. It is titled, I believe, "Toys for the Next Generation." It might just as well have been called, I think, "The Old Soldier Dreams."
Pin a man down, say to him that he is teaching his son that war is a desirable thing and he will deny it indignantly and rush home to admonish the scion that war is always regrettable. But children are realists who pay no heed to professions. What those about them count true values they speedily discover.
Again, isolate the individual, show him that huge armed forces have invariably hastened conflict, and he will be inclined to question the use of it all. He will admit, as a rule, that no reasonable cause for war ought any more to be recognized in the world. He will comprehend that no conflict of interests exist which cannot be settled to more profit by mutual compromise than by wasteful slaughterings that bankrupt all.
But organize him, give him an unscrupulous or--more likely--a stupid leader, and he joins the clamor for great armies and navies to "defend" his fireside from imaginary bogeys that close on every hand. The crowd is never reasonable. Emotion governs its every action. And the individual, who alone would be sane, gives way, in the mass, to the hankering for the things that were, the lost glories that never existed.
The circle, then, is complete. The war generation prepares the next for the sacrifice by identifying the instinct for Adventure with War, by establishing the thesis that the greatest horror among men is due the warrior. He goes further, he provides weapons for the next war.
I have said that I think that ought not to be. Nevertheless, I do not mean to blame. The conditions are inherent in human nature, I suspect. If memory serves to rob past experience of horror, Ego clearly lends countenance to any version of the problem which tends to make of the veteran a hero. It is natural that he should desire to be counted a gallant in the eyes of his sons, that he should wish his own deeds to be held as the measure of the finest. Moreover, it is manifestly ridiculous to expect, the average to comprehend what he is about.
The responsibility, as a matter of fact, rests with those who set themselves up as leaders. The mass is plastic, easily molded and, as a rule, disposed to decency. Even a Poincaire and a William of Potsdam must invent splendid strawmen before they can effect their purposes. It might be possible, it seems to me, for the leaders of the organized veterans of this and other countries to point out the danger of the thing, to make the people understand that a child nourished on War will inevitably be fodder in the hands of the Edward Greys and the Izvolskies of the world.
That, of course, presumes intelligence on the part of the leadership. It presupposes something besides a self-serving politician. I have said it. I stick to it. It might be possible for honest leaders to make organized veterans a crusading force to wipe war forever from the world. But I look about me at the Theodore Roosevelts, the Spaffords, and, finding no others, I doubt that it is likely.
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