Rorate Caeli

Chesterton: Is War Irrational -- or is Pacifism Feverish?

The Peace Fever
Gilbert Keith Chesterton
May 29, 1915
It is customary to talk about the war fever, but in those who still exhibit it, the peace fever is much more feverish. With these people peace is not as much a prejudice as a mania.

There is said to be a sort of person in the lunatic asylums who thinks he is a chicken. But even he is only somewhat exaggerating his legitimate claim to know his own business best. He is too modest to commit himself to the proposition that all human beings are chickens. That, however, is very much the proposition to which the extreme Pacifist commits himself: for he really talks of man as if he were talking of some other animal; as if a naturalist were to class men with poultry merely because they have two legs. Legs can be used for other purposes than that of running away; and man's highest moral and mental powers can be used for other purposes than that of keeping the peace. Mere Pacifism has in this crisis [World War I] failed fully to support anything or anybody, even its own best exponents, and that for a perfectly simple reason: that mere Pacifism is morally wrong. Mere peace does not fill the heart; it does not satisfy the conscience or even the affections. I have heard of a person having the highly unpleasant accomplishment of being able to stop his heart from beating; and men of a generous and civilised breed can only reject the case for just anger and battle by an artificial stoppage of the heart.

It is one of the results of this that those Pacifists who are too old to drop their doctrine entirely, but too healthy-minded to apply it entirely, are driven to the most extraordinary compromises. One of the most brilliant and idealistic of our Liberalists, for example, admitted that complete peace could only be imposed on the world as the Roman peace was imposed; that is, by a central armed force superior to any other that could take the field. He seemed to admit that the Hague Conference would have to be equipped with such coercive powers if it was to do any good. But he added that he himself would prefer that it should be naval rather than military [land] power. This seems to me a startling incidence of the utterly meaningless moderation of men who lose their own dogmas but cannot find any other.

A central power to police the whole world into peace may be, as this writer would think it, the dawn of political perfection. It may be, as I should think it, a nightmare of political oppression. But I cannot conceive why the act of oppression should be any better because you do it in a boat; or why the act of peace and justice should be any worse because you do it in your boots and walking about on dry land. It is hard to see what there is more "Christian" (I use the word as these people use it) about interfering in other people's business with a naval gun than with a field-gun. It is also obvious, of course, that coercion applied by a cosmopolitan navy alone would not be even cosmopolitan; for it could not be universal. A war might rage between the Hungarians and the Poles and go on forever; because Warsaw is scarcely a seaside resort. On the other hand, if anybody tried to do anything in particular in the Hebrides or in the Channel Islands, the international Tolstoian fleet could give them a devil of a time. I see a dreary vision of the poor peacemaker sailing round and round Europe in a great big ship with a great big gun, bumping into all kinds of capes and islands, but trying in vain to stop a war going on somewhere in the middle of Russia. I give this one instance out of a hundred merely to show the hopeless chaos of compromise into which the minds even of the ablest peace philosophers have fallen.

Because they are men, because they are Europeans, because they are inheritors of an older and more manly morality, they simply cannot at this moment enforce the full Quaker doctrine of supporting any peace against any war. But, like all men who have lost their own first principles, they cast about trying to draw the line somewhere and draw it everywhere but in the right place. They will distinguish between Colonial wars and Continental wars, between wars against cultured peoples and wars against uncultured peoples, between wars that are approached slowly and diplomatically, and wars that are undertaken swiftly and suddenly. But somehow they cannot bring themselves simply to distinguish between wars that are right and wars that are wrong. I should say, rather, perhaps, attacks or resistances; for the war itself is not one thing at all, but is necessarily the collision of two things. And one half of the war is right simply because the other half of the war is wrong.

[Published in The Illustrated London News (main excerpt)]