The Peacefulness of Being at War (1915)

During the last twelve months the life of Great Britain has been acquiring a unitary aim or purpose. The aim itself is warlike; but it has been attended with some increase of mental peace. When war broke out we were living, as a nation, without any end or aim. We had our philosophers, of course, who instructed us that the end of the state was this or that; but very few persons consciously adopted the philosopher's end as their own; and those high-minded souls who did so must have felt themselves somewhat lonely--must, at all events, have lacked the calmness and strength which come from realizing that our neighbors are sharing our devotion to the common ideal. Whatever ideals existed had but a piecemeal acceptance: they waxed and waned, here to-day and gone to-morrow; they were at war with one another, and their devotees were mostly unconscious of any deeper principle on which they could unite. And beyond the relatively narrow circle where these ideals maintained their precarious dominion lay the vast dim populations, held together by group instincts, by geographical conditions, and by the necessities of the economic struggle for existence. Regarded from the moral point of view, the scene was one of indescribable confusion: it was, in fact, a moral chaos. (¶ 1)

Our inner state, in consequence, was marked by profound unrest. I doubt if there ever was a time when in general the minds of Englishmen were so agitated as they were in the few years preceding the war. Rest for our souls was hardly to be found anywhere. In religion, in philosophy, in politics, we were all at sixes and sevens, fighting one another in the name of our ideals, or striving to rouse the lethargic masses who cared not a button for any of our idealism; and often, it must be confessed, we were in a state of chronic irritation; and to make matters worse, a school of writers had arisen, represented by Mr. Bernard Shaw, who made it their business to irritate and, incidentally, to confuse us still further. (¶ 2)

I believe that twelve months of war have brought to England a peace of mind such as she has not possessed for generations. This statement, I should like to say, is not an experiment in paradox, but a sober statement of a psychological fact. It is, to some extent, a personal confession; but one which I should not dare to make were there not abundant evidence of its being a common state of mind. In spite of all we have suffered and have still to suffer: the loss of our friends and kinsmen; the awful anxieties for those at the front; the knowledge of the immense miseries of the nations at war; the grave uncertainties of the future--in spite of this, and all else in the catalogue of evils, I am convinced that the mind of England is much calmer than it was twelve months ago. To judge by my own observation, I would say further that the calmest people are precisely those who have suffered, or stand to suffer, most; or else they are the people, of whom the soldiers at the front are chief, who are making the greatest exertions and facing the greatest sacrifices in the common cause. That element of poise in life, which Matthew Arnold valued so highly, has become an actual possession of millions in whom twelve months ago it was utterly lacking. One feels its presence--or perhaps only the beginning of its presence--in the social atmosphere, and in the faces and voices of men and women. It is preëminently the soldiers' contribution to the new and better ethos of our time. This life just satisfies me, wrote a young officer from the front. Up to the time I came out here I never quite felt that I was doing my proper job. But I feel it now. (¶ 3)

The feeling expressed in this officer's letter is spreading and deepening all over the country. It seems a strange phenomenon, one we could hardly have predicted in advance of its actual appearance, and to those who hear of it from afar perhaps incredible. And yet it is nothing more or less than the peaceof mind which comes to every man who, after tossing about among uncertainties and trying his hand at this and that, finds at last a mission, a cause to which he can devote himself body and soul. At last he has something to live for; and though living may be hard and costly he makes no complaint; all that is well repaid by the harmony which comes from the unitary aim of his life. It is so with nations. Take, for example, the colossal expenditure of the nation's wealth. That we are spending well over a thousand millions per annum in financing the war is enough to appal anybody. But it does not appal us, for we know and approve the object of the expenditure, which is the defence of the liberties of our race. Is there anything better on which national wealth could be spent? Surely there is more ground for anxiety in the thought which forces itself upon us in time of peace that all this wealth we are accumulating in ever greater quantities has an unknown destination; that a thousand dangerous uses await it in the prevailing moral chaos. Better that the nation grow poor for a cause we can honor, than grow rich for an end that is unknown. Who can regard without deep misgiving the process of accumulating wealth unaccompanied by a corresponding growth of knowledge as to the uses to which wealth must be applied This is what we see in normal times, and the spectacle is profoundly disturbing. Far less disturbing at all events is that process of spending the wealth which we have now to witness. Certainly it does not alarm us to the extent one would have thought probable before the event. England spending her money, and knowing for what she spends it, has more peaceof mind than England making her money, but in grave doubt and uncertainty as to the social and individual uses to which it will be put. I believe that England, at a time when she is spending three millions a day on the war, is not nearly so anxious about her wealth as she is in times of peace. (¶ 4)

It is a literal fact that millions of men and women who twelve months ago were at loose end and living aimless lives have now discovered that they have a mission. The effect of this discovery is greatest, of course, upon the individuals who have made it; cases are known to the present writer which might be described as veritable conversions. But the whole temper of society is affected by the presence in its midst of so many people to whom a vocation has come at last and the change is in the direction of mental steadiness and equilibrium. To that extent it may be claimed that we are happier than we were. It would be a serious mistake in any event to suppose we are all sadder than we were before the war. I have seen several articles by American writers describing London as gloomy, overshadowed, depressed. This I confess appears to me mere superficial observation. No doubt the streets are less brilliant, the hotels less crowded, the noise less obtrusive. But the individual is not more gloomy. He is brighter, more cheerful. He worries less about himself. He is a trifle more unselfish and correspondingly more agreeable as a companion or neighbor. There is more repose in social intercourse than there was: indeed I venture to think that an American visitor might find that our manners were somewhat improved. The tone and substance of conversation are better. The type of person who is bored with himself and with the world is less frequently met with. People are glad to see one another, and eager to hear each other's thoughts. There is more health in our souls, and perhaps more in our bodies. For years I was the victim of insomnia. But since the war I have slept remarkably well. This remark was made the other day by a person wholly unaware of its significance. (¶ 5)

This feeling of being banded together, which comes over a great population in its hour of trial, is a wonderful thing. It produces a kind of exhilaration which goes far to offset the severity of the trial. The spirit of fellowship, with its attendant cheerfulness, is in the air. It is comparatively easy to love one's neighbor when we realize that he and we are common servants and common sufferers in the same cause. A deep breath of that spirit has passed into the life of England. No doubt the same thing has happened elsewhere. (¶ 6)

L. P. Jacks,
Principal, Manchester College, Oxford.