Comment on The Peacefulness of Being at War (1915)

Comment by Graham Wallas

[Note: Dr. Jacks' article is a vivid description of a state of mind which certainly exists in England, though I myself doubt whether it is so general or so continuous as he indicates. The Parliamentary Recruiting Committee have put the same point more tersely, in their poster of a soldier's smiling face with the inscription, He's happy and satisfied; are you? Most, perhaps, of those English men and women who are fighting, or nursing, or making munitions, or who, though they are doing none of these things, have concentrated their whole will and consciousness on the single purpose of a national victory, have for most of their time attained rest for their souls. The young officer whom Dr. Jacks quotes is typical, in that, like the soldier on the poster, he says he is satisfied, using the word in exactly the same sense as Aristotle when he says that pleasure consists in the satisfaction or filling up of a physiological need. But in the present case the mere satisfaction of the physiological need for active and directed exertion is often accompanied, as Dr. Jacks points out, by a unified and harmonious satisfaction of certain intellectual and moral needs. Twelve months of war have, as he says, brought to a large number of English people a peace of mind such as they have not possessed for generations; though if he could visit every house in a working-class street, and penetrate to the inarticulate feelings of each of its inhabitants, he might find that that number was not sufficiently large to be called England. (¶ 1)

Dr. Jacks ends his article with the words, No doubt the same thing has happened elsewhere. Now I have lately talked with several Americans who have been travelling in Germany, have read a certain number of German papers, and have seen a few letters from a German political friend which escaped the censor. From that scanty evidence I gather that the state of mind which Dr. Jacks describes is rather more general and more continuous in Germany than in England. among the French and Belgian non-combatants whom I know it seems to be a good deal less general. (¶ 2)

But this condition of peacefulness, whether one accepts Dr. Jacks' estimate of its prevalence or my own, exists, and its existence raises two interesting questions. Is that condition so supreme a human good that it makes war the best form of international relationship? Or, even if war is an evil, ought each of us to strive during war to attain that condition? The first question is, I think, easily answered. A state of consciousness must be judged not only by its momentary quality, but by its continuance, and the peacefulness of being at war is doomed by the nature of things to be transitory. If the world-war were to last in its present intensity for a whole generation, it would become a conflict of famished women and children fighting each other with their teeth and nails. It seems therefore reasonably certain that, if only for the lack of men and materials, this war must in a comparatively few years come to some sort of an end. The nations will then find that a large proportion of their best and bravest men are dead, while the degenerate or diseased are alive; that the slow development of the material conditions of a good life for the working classes has been checked; and that West European democracy is endangered, because military discipline in the presence of a group of exasperated enemies has become the supreme national need. Under such conditions it is impossible to hope that after the war our present degree of peace of mind, our harmony of purpose, our spirit of fellowship, with its attendant cheerfulness, will continue. We shall return to the moral chaos, which Dr. Jacks describes as existing in England before the war. Our idealisms will again be at war with each other and we shall often be inwardly divided against ourselves. We shall have, in fact, to begin again the mental fight of which Blake spoke, and to undertake again the weary and controversial task of building up a civilization in which some measure of harmonious satisfaction for the human spirit can be found in time of peace. (¶ 3)

The question whether combatants and non-combatants ought during the existenec of war to surrender themselves to that peace of mind which Dr. Jacks describes is more difficult. To the soldier in the trenches it is not only an anodyne which few wlil grudge him, but probably an important source of military efficiency. Non-combatants, however, like Dr. Jacks and myself, who are in the habit of observing our own states of mind, and can therefore to some extent control them, have to come to a deliberate choice. If I too am to make a personal confession, I may say that I believe that the war was mainly the result of German and Austrian aggression, that I intensely desire victory for the Allies, and that a decisive victory for the German governing caste in the present temper would be, in my view, a disaster to all that I most value in civilization. I also recognize that an absolute surrender of consciousness to a single purpose of victory even by non-combatants has a certain military value. But although my choice means that I sleep not better but worse in time of war than in time of peace, I cannot myself make, or desire to make, that surrender, because to do so would be to abandon as far as I am concerned any attempt to control by reasoned thought the policy of my nation. I should choose the unrest of thought because I desire that the war should come to an end the instant its continuance ceases to be the less of two monstrous evils and because I believe that our national policy hsould even during the fighting be guided not only by the will to conquer but also by the will to make possible a lasting peace. (¶ 4)

For the young men who fight, it may be best to abandon the effort of thought, though that fact constitutes not the least of the evils of war; but those who are too old to fight owe to their nation the duty of calculating all the consequences of national policy, however painful and uncertain the process of calculation may be. It is that which Bismarck meant when he insisted on the supreme importance of controlling, even during a war, military action by political thought. Now that whole nations with their parliaments, and churches, and universities, and industries, are mobilized, and the intellectual life of Europe is put under military censorship, such a control is less easy than in 1870 but not less vitally important, and it can only be attained if politicians prefer the struggle for truth to the peacefulness of self-surrender. (¶ 5)

As things are, an article in an American journal is the shortest and easiest way by which an Englishman can communicate with his German friends. I know that there are men in Germany who are in like case with myself. They are in a minority, but as the war goes on, and even more when the war shows signs of coming to an end, their number will increase. Should any one of them read this, I send him greeting, and assure him of my conviction that if ever that imperfect community of nations is to be reconstituted, of which England and Germany once formed part, there will be work for those who during the war have denied themselves the luxury of mental peace. (¶ 6)

Graham Wallas.]