by William Lyon Phelps
War is a sentimental affair; that is why it is so difficult to abolish. War is opposed to the dictates of common sense, prudence, rationality, and wisdom. But the sentiments of man and the passions of man are deeper, more elemental, and more primitive than his intelligence, knowledge, and reasoning powers. For intelligence and morality belong to man alone; his instincts he shares with the entire animal creation.
My own plan for getting rid of war would not win a peace prize, because it would never be adopted. But I believe it strikes at the root of war-sentiment. My plan would be to spoil the good looks of the officers and also take away all their drums, fifes, and brass bands. The uniforms are altogether too handsome, too attractive, too becoming.
It is a familiar saying that every woman is in love with a uniform; to which I would add that every man is also. The naval officers look magnificent in their bright blue frock coats, their yellow buttons, and their shining epaulets. These gorgeous hawks of war are decorated by the government as lavishly as Nature, the greatest of all tailors, fits out her birds of prey. A naval officer excels in brilliance the appearance of a civilian, even as the gay feathers of a sparrowhawk excel those of a sparrow.
Furthermbre, every military and naval officer has a capable man to look after his wardrobe. Not only are his various uniforms beautiful in design and ornamentation, they are without spot or blemish. His trousers are mathematically creased, his coat unwrinkled, his linen like virgin snow. My suggestion is, that if you really want to get rid of war, the first thing to do is to compel all professional warriors to wear ill-fitting handme-downs, shabby and unpressed, and without gold trimmings. The glamour and the glory would vanish with the gold.
Then I would abolish the dance of death. Instead of having perfect drill, hundreds of men deploying with exactitude, I would make them look like Coxey's Army, every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost.
But above all, I would silence the drum and fife, and the big brass band. Although I myself hate war, and should like to see it abolished, whenever I hear the thrilling roll of the drums and the shrill scream of the fifes, followed by the sight and sound of marching men, their bayonets gleaming in the sunshine, I want to cry. A lump comes up in my throat and I am ready to fight anybody or anything. If you really want to get rid of war, you must not surround it with pomp and majesty, you must not give it such a chance at our hearts.
Although wars are never started by warriors, but only by politicians and tradesmen, for the very last place where a foreign war could begin would be at Annapolis or West Point; still, there is no doubt that high officers have a ripping time during a great war, and that the surviving soldiers love to talk about it (among themselves) at their regular reunions in later years. Shakespeare, himself no soldier, understood perfectly how the professional feels. This is the farewell he put in the mouth of Othello:
Farewell the tranquil mind: farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troop and the big wars
That make ambition virtue!
0, farewell! Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
Even so: Othello was a sentimentalist. He had more passion than brains. That is why Iago and not Desdemona made him jealous; that is why, with the loss of war and women, he lost everything. He was without any intellectual resources.
The leaders of thought and the leaders of morals have usually been against war. Although the historical books of the Old Testament and the emotional Psalms celebrated the glory of war, the contemporary sober-minded prophets were against it. They prophesied the coming of universal peace, when the money spent on armaments would be devoted to agriculture and to education. The appearance of Jesus was the signal for peace on earth and good will to men.
Jonathan Swift, more than two hundred years ago, said that men were less intelligent than beasts. A single wild beast would fight for his food or his mate; but you could never, said Swift, induce a lot of wild beasts to line up in dress parade, and then fight another set of wild beasts, whom they did not know.
Benjamin Franklin, the wisest of Americans, immediately after the Revolutionary War, which he had helped to win, said there had never been a good war or a bad peace.
But although the wisdom and morality of mankind have been against war, war goes on; the moment it breaks out in any country, all the forces of sentimentalism are employed to glorify, yes, even to sanctify its course. The first great casualty is Reason.
What shall we say of a scholar like the late Sir Walter Raleigh, Professor of English Literature at Oxford? He continually ridiculed religion for its sentimentality; but the moment the great war broke out, no school-girl was more sentimental than he.
Thus the hope for peace lies not in the poets, the literary men, the preachers and the philanthropists; the hope lies in hardheaded Scotsmen like Ramsay MacDonald, whose idealism is built on a foundation of shrewd sense.