Can War Ever Be Right?

After England had entered the war against the Central Powers, Gilbert

Murray, an English writer, asked this question and answered it by

saying "Yes," and giving his reasons.

He had always favored peace. He hated war, not merely for its own

cruelty and folly, but because it was an enemy of good government, of

friendship and gentleness, and of art, learning, and literature.

Yet he believed fir
ly that England was right in declaring war against

Germany on August 4, 1914, and that she would have failed in her duty

if she had remained neutral. France, Russia, Belgium, and Serbia had no

choice. They were obliged to fight, for the war was forced upon them.

Germany did not wish to fight England; but after carefully looking over

the whole matter, England, of her own free will, declared war. She took

upon her shoulders a great responsibility. But she was right.

With a few changes in the wording and some omissions, the argument of

Gilbert Murray is as follows:

"How can such a thing be? It is easy enough to see that our cause is

right, and that the German cause is wrong. It is hardly possible to

study the official papers issued by the British, the German, and the

Russian governments, without seeing that Germany--or some party in

Germany--had plotted this war beforehand; that she chose a moment when

she thought her neighbors were at a disadvantage; that she prevented

Austria from making a settlement even at the last moment; that in order

to get more quickly at France she violated her treaty with Belgium.

Evidence shows that she has carried out the violation with a cruelty

that has no equal in the wars of modern and civilized nations. Yet

there may be some people who still feel doubtful. Germany's wrong-doing

they think is no reason for us to do likewise. We did our best to keep

the general peace; there we were right. We failed; the German

government made war in spite of us. There we were unfortunate. It was a

war already on an enormous scale and we decided to make it larger

still. There we were wrong. Could we not have stood aside, as the

United States did, ready to help refugees and sufferers, anxious to

heal wounds and not make them, watchful for the first chance of putting

an end to this time of horror?

"'Try for a moment,' they say, 'to realize the suffering in one small

corner of a battlefield. You have seen a man here and there badly hurt

in an accident; you have seen perhaps a horse with its back broken, and

you can remember how dreadful it seemed to you. In that one corner how

many men, how many horses, will be lying, hurt far worse, and just

waiting to die? Terrible wounds, extreme torment; and all, further than

any eye can see, multiplied and multiplied! And, for all your just

anger against Germany, what have these wounded done? The horses are not

to blame for anybody's foreign policy. They have only come where their

masters took them. And the masters themselves ... though certain German

rulers and leaders are wicked, these soldiers, peasants, working-men,

shop-keepers, and schoolmasters, have really done nothing in

particular; at least, perhaps they have now, but they had not up to the

time when you, seeing they were in war and misery already, decided to

make war on them also and increase their sufferings. You say that

justice must be done on such wrong-doers. But as far as the rights and

wrongs of the war go, you are simply condemning to death and torture

innocent men, by thousands and thousands; is that the best way to

satisfy your sense of justice? These innocent people, you say, are

fighting to protect the guilty parties whom you are determined to

reach. Well, perhaps, at the end of the war, after millions of innocent

people have suffered, you may at last, if all goes well with your arms,

get at the "guilty parties." You will hold an inquiry, you will decide

that certain Prussians with long titles are the guilty parties, and

even then you will not know what to do with them. You will probably

try, and almost certainly fail, to make them somehow feel ashamed. It

is likely enough that they will instead become great national heroes.

"'And after all, this is supposed to be a war in which one party is

wrong and the other right, and the right wins. Suppose both are wrong;

or suppose the wrong party wins? It is as likely as not; for, if the

right party is helped by his good conscience, the wrong has probably

taken pains to have the odds on his side before he began quarreling. In

that case, all the wild waste of blood and treasure, all the suffering

of innocent people and dumb animals, all the tears of women and

children have not set up the right, but established the wrong. To do a

little evil that great or certain good may come is all very well; but

to do great evil for only a chance of getting something which half the

people may think good and the other half think bad ... that is neither

good morals nor good sense. Anybody not in a passion must see that it

is insanity,' So they say who think war always wrong.

"Their argument is wrong. It is judging war as a profit-and-loss

account. It leaves out of sight the fact that in some causes it is

better to fight and be broken than to yield peacefully; that sometimes

the mere act of resisting to the death is in itself a victory.

"Let us try to understand this. The Greeks who fought and died at

Thermopylæ had no doubt that they were doing right to fight and die,

and we all agree with them. They probably knew they would be defeated.

They probably expected that, after their defeat, the Persians would

easily conquer the rest of Greece, and would treat it much more harshly

because it had resisted. But such thoughts did not affect them. They

would not consent to their country's dishonor.

"Take again a very clear modern case: the fine story of the French

tourist who was captured, together with a priest and some other white

people, by Moorish robbers. The Moors gave their prisoners the choice

either to trample on the Cross or to be killed. The Frenchman was not a

Christian. He disliked Christianity. But he was not going to trample on

the Cross at the orders of a robber. He stuck to his companions and

died with them.

"Honor and dishonor are real things. I will not try to define them; but

will only notice that, like religion, they admit no bargaining. Indeed,

we can almost think of honor as being simply that which a free man

values more than life, and dishonor as that which he avoids more than

suffering or death. And the important point for us is that there are

such things as honor and dishonor.

"There are some people, followers of Tolstoy, who accept this as far as

dying is concerned, but will have nothing to do with killing. Passive

resistance, they say, is right; martyrdom is right; but to resist

violence by violence is sin.

"I was once walking with a friend of Tolstoy's in a country lane, and a

little girl was running in front of us. I put to him the well-known

question: 'Suppose you saw a man, wicked or drunk or mad, run out and

attack that child. You are a big man, and carry a big stick: would you

not stop him and, if necessary, knock him down?' 'No,' he said, 'why

should I commit a sin. I would try to persuade him, I would stand in

his way, I would let him kill me, but I would not strike him,' Some few

people will always be found, less than one in a thousand, to take this

view. They will say: 'Let the little girl be killed or carried off; let

the wicked man commit another wickedness; I, at any rate, will not add

to the mass of useless violence that I see all around me.'

"With such persons one cannot reason, though one can often respect

them. Nearly every normal man will feel that the real sin, the real

dishonor, lies in allowing such an act to be committed under your eyes

while you have the strength to prevent it. And the stronger you are,

the greater your chance of success, by so much the more are you bound

to interfere. If the robbers are overpoweringly strong and there is no

chance of beating them, then and only then should you think of

martyrdom. Martyrdom is not the best possibility. It is almost the

worst. It is the last resort when there is no hope of successful

resistance. The best thing--suppose once the robbers are there and

intent on crime--the best thing is to overawe them at once; the next

best, to defeat them after a hard struggle; the third best, to resist

vainly and be martyred; the worst of all, the one evil that need never

be endured, is to let them have their own will without protest.

"We have noticed that in all these cases of honor there seems to be no

counting of cost, no balancing of good and evil. Ordinarily we are

always balancing results, but when honor or religion come on the scene,

all such balancing ceases. The point of honor is the point at which a

man says to some wrong proposal, 'I will not do it. I will rather die.'

"These things are far easier to see where one man is concerned than

where it is a whole nation. But they arise with nations, too. In the

case of a nation the material consequences are much larger, and the

point of honor is apt to be less clear. But, in general, whenever one

nation in dealing with another relies simply on force or fraud, and

denies to its neighbor the common consideration due to human beings, a

point of honor must arise.

"Austria says suddenly to Serbia: 'You are a wicked little state. I

have annexed and governed against their will some millions of your

countrymen, yet you are still full of anti-Austrian feeling, which I

do not intend to allow. You will dismiss from your service all

officials, politicians, and soldiers who do not love Austria, and I

will further send you from time to time lists of persons whom you are

to dismiss or put to death. And if you do not agree to this within

forty-eight hours, I, being vastly stronger than you, will make you. As

a matter of fact, Serbia did her very best to comply with Austria's

demands; she accepted about two thirds of them, and asked for

arbitration on the remaining third. But it is clear that she could not

accept them all without being dishonored. That is, Serbia would have

given up her freedom at the threat of force; the Serbs would no longer

be a free people, and every individual Serb would have been humiliated.

He would have confessed himself to be the kind of man who will yield

when an Austrian bullies him. And if it is urged that under good

Austrian government Serbia would become richer and safer, and the

Serbian peasants get better markets, such pleas cannot be listened to.

They are a price offered for slavery; and a free man will not accept

slavery at any price.

"Germany, again, says to Belgium: 'We have no quarrel with you, but we

intend for certain reasons to march across your territory and perhaps

fight a battle or two there. We know that you are pledged by treaty not

to allow any such thing, but we cannot help that. Consent, and we will

pay you afterwards; refuse, and we shall make you wish you had never

been born.' At that moment Belgium was a free, self-governing state. If

it had yielded to Germany's demand, it would have ceased to be either

free or self-governing. It is possible that, if Germany had been

completely victorious, Belgium would have suffered no great material

injury; but she would have taken orders from a stranger who had no

right to give them, simply because he was strong. Belgium refused. She

has had some of her towns destroyed, some thousands of her soldiers

killed, many more thousands of her women, children, and non-combatants

outraged and beggared; but she is still free. She still has her honor.

"Let us think this matter out more closely. The follower of Tolstoy

will say: 'We speak of Belgium's honor and Serbia's honor; but who is

Serbia and who is Belgium? There is no such person as either. There are

only great numbers of people who happen to be Serbians and Belgians,

and who mostly have had nothing to do with questions at issue. Some of

them are honorable people, some dishonorable. The honor of each one of

them depends very much on whether he pays his debts and tells the

truth, but not in the least on whether a number of foreigners walk

through his country or interfere with his government. King Albert and

his ministers might feel humiliated if the German government compelled

them to give way against their will; but would the ordinary

population? Would the ordinary peasant or shop-keeper or artisan in the

districts of Vise and Liége and Louvain have felt particularly

disgraced or ashamed? He would probably have made a little money and

been greatly amused by the sight of the troops passing. He would not

have suffered any injury that can for a moment be compared with what he

has suffered now, in order that his government might feel proud of


"I will not raise the point that, as a matter of fact, to grant a right

of way to Germany would have been to declare war against France, so

that Belgium would not, by giving up her independence, have been spared

the danger of war. I will assume that it was simply a question of

honor. And I believe that our follower of Tolstoy is very wrong.

"Is it true, in a healthy and well-governed state, that the average

citizen is indifferent to the honor of his country? We know that it is

not. True, the average citizen may often not understand what is going

on, but as soon as he knows, he cares. Suppose for a moment that the

King, or the Prime Minister, or the President of the United States,

were found to be in the pay of a foreign state, can any one pretend

that the ordinary citizens of Great Britain or America would take it

quietly? That any normal man would be found saying: 'Well, the King, or

the President, or the Prime Minister, is behaving dishonorably, but

that is a matter for him, not for me. I am an honest and honorable man,

and my government can do what it likes.' The notion is absurd. The

ordinary citizen would feel instantly and without question that his

country's honor involved his own. And woe to the society in which it

were otherwise! We know of such societies in history. They are the kind

which is called 'corrupt,' and which generally has not long to live.

Belgium has proved that she is not that kind of society.

"But what about Great Britain herself? At the present moment a very

clear case has arisen, and we can test our own feelings. Great Britain

had, by a solemn treaty, pledged herself to help keep the neutrality of

Belgium. Belgium is a little state lying between two very strong

states, France and Germany, and in danger of being overrun or abused by

one of them unless the Great Powers guaranteed her safety. The treaty,

signed by Prussia, Russia, Austria, France, and Great Britain, bound

all these Powers not to attack Belgium, move troops into it, or annex

any part of it; and further, to resist by armed force any Power which

should try to do any of these things. Belgium, on her part, was bound

to maintain her own neutrality to the best of her power, and not to

side with any state which was at war with another.

"At the end of July, 1914, the exact case arose in which we had

pledged ourselves to act. Germany, suddenly and without excuse, invaded

Belgium, and Belgium appealed to us and France to defend her. Meantime

she fought alone, desperately, against overwhelming odds. The issue was

clear. The German Chancellor, Herr von Bethmann-Hollweg, in his speech

of August 6, admitted that Germany had no grievance against Belgium,

and no excuse except 'necessity.' She could not get to France quick

enough by the direct road. Germany put her case to us, roughly, on

these grounds. 'True, you did sign a treaty, but what is a treaty? We

ourselves signed the same treaty, and see what we are doing! Anyhow,

treaty or no treaty, we have Belgium in our power. If she had done what

we wanted, we would have treated her kindly; as it is we shall show her

no mercy. If you will now do what we want and stay quiet, later on we

will consider a friendly deal with you. If you interfere, you must take

the consequences. We trust you will not be so insane as to plunge your

whole empire into danger for the sake of "a scrap of paper."' Our

answer was: 'Evacuate Belgium within twelve hours or we fight you.'

"I think that answer was right. Consider the situation carefully. No

question arises of overhaste or lack of patience on our part. From the

first moment of the crisis, we had labored night and day in every court

of Europe for any possible means of peace. We had carefully and

sincerely explained to Germany beforehand what attitude she might

expect from us. We did not send our ultimatum till Belgium was already

invaded. It is just the plain question put to the British government,

and, I think, to every one who feels himself a British citizen: 'The

exact case contemplated in your treaty has arisen: the people you swore

to protect is being massacred; will you keep your word at a gigantic

cost, or will you break it at the bidding of Germany?' For my own part,

weighing the whole question, I would rather die than submit; and I

believe that the government, in deciding to keep its word at the cost

of war, has expressed the feeling of the average British citizen.

"War is not all evil. It is a true tragedy, which must have nobleness

and triumph in it as well as disaster, but we must not begin to praise

war without stopping to reflect on the hundreds of thousands of human

beings involved in such horrors of pain that, if here in our ordinary

hours we saw one man so treated, the memory would sicken us to the end

of our lives; we must remember the horses and dogs, remember the gentle

natures brutalized by hardship and filth, and the once decent persons

transformed by rage and fear into devils of cruelty. But, when we have

realized that, we may begin to see in this desert of evil some oases of


"Do the fighting men become degraded? Day after day come streams of

letters from the front, odd stories, fragments of diaries, and the

like; full of the small intimate facts which reveal character, and

almost with one accord they show that these men have not fallen, but

risen. No doubt there has been some selection in the letters; to some

extent the writers repeat what they wish to have remembered, and say

nothing of what they wish to forget. But, when all allowances are made,

one cannot read the letters and the dispatches without a feeling of

admiration for the men about whom they tell. They were not originally a

set of chosen men. They were just our ordinary fellow citizens, the men

you meet on a crowded pavement. There was nothing to suggest that their

conduct in common life was better than that of their neighbors. Yet

now, under the stress of war, having a duty before them that is clear

and unquestioned and terrible, they are daily doing nobler things than

we most of us have ever had the chance of doing, things which we hardly

dare hope that we might be able to do. I am not thinking of the rare

achievements that win a V.C. or a Cross of the Legion of Honor, but of

the common necessary heroism of the average man; the long endurance,

the devoted obedience, the close-banded life in which self-sacrifice is

the normal rule, and all men may be forgiven except the man who saves

himself at the expense of his comrade. I think of the men who share

their last biscuit with a starving peasant, who help wounded comrades

through days and nights of horrible retreat, who give their lives to

save mates or officers.

"For example, to take these two stories:

"Relating his experiences to a pressman, Lance-Corporal Edmondson, of

the Royal Irish Lancers, said: 'There is absolutely no doubt that our

men are still animated by the spirit of old. I came on a couple of men

of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who had been cut off at Mons.

One was badly wounded, but his companion had stuck by him all the time

in a country swarming with Germans, and, though they had only a few

biscuit between them, they managed to pull through until we picked them

up. I pressed the unwounded man to tell me how they managed to get

through the four days on six biscuit, but he always got angry and told

me to shut up. I fancy he went without anything, and gave the biscuit

to the wounded man. They were offered shelter many times by French

peasants, but they were so afraid of bringing trouble on these kind

folk that they would never accept shelter. One night they lay out in

the open all through a heavy downpour, though there was a house at hand

where they could have had shelter. Uhlans were on the prowl, and they

would not think of compromising the French people, who would have been

glad to help them.'

"The following story of an unidentified private of the Royal Irish

Regiment, who deliberately threw away his life in order to warn his

comrades of an ambush, is told by a wounded corporal of the West

Yorkshire Regiment now in hospital in Woolwich:

"'The fight in which I got hit was in a little French village near to

Rheims. We were working in touch with the French corps on our left, and

early one morning we were sent ahead to this village, which we had

reason to believe was clear of the enemy. On the outskirts we

questioned a French lad, but he seemed scared and ran away. We went on

through the long narrow street, and just as we were in sight of the

end, the figure of a man dashed out from a farmhouse on the right.

Immediately the rifles began to crack in front, and the poor chap fell

dead before he reached us.

"'He was one of our men, a private of the Royal Irish Regiment. We

learned that he had been captured the previous day by a party of German

cavalry, and had been held a prisoner at the farm, where the Germans

were in ambush for us. He tumbled to their game, and though he knew

that if he made the slightest sound they would kill him, he decided to

make a dash to warn us of what was in store. He had more than a dozen

bullets in him and there was not the slightest hope for him. We carried

him into a house until the fight was over, and then we buried him next

day with military honors. His identification disk and everything else

was missing, so that we could only put over his grave the tribute that

was paid to a greater: "He saved others; himself he could not save."

There wasn't a dry eye among us when we laid him to rest in that little


"Or I think again of the expressions on faces that I have seen or read

about, something alert and glad and self-respecting in the eyes of

those who are going to the front, and even of the wounded who are

returning. 'Never once,' writes one correspondent, 'not once since I

came to France have I seen among the soldiers an angry face or heard an

angry word.... They are always quiet, orderly, and wonderfully

cheerful.' And no one who has followed the war need be told of their

heroism. I do not forget the thousands left on the battlefield to die,

or the groaning of the wounded sounding all day between the crashes of

the guns. But there is a strange, deep gladness as well. 'One feels an

extraordinary freedom,' says a young Russian officer, 'in the midst of

death, with the bullets whistling round. The same with all the

soldiers. The wounded all want to get well and return to the fight.

They fight with tears of joy in their eyes.'

"Human nature is a mysterious thing, and man finds his weal and woe not

in the obvious places. To have something before you, clearly seen,

which you know you must do, and can do, and will spend your utmost

strength and perhaps your life in doing, that is one form at least of

very high happiness, and one that appeals--the facts prove it--not only

to saints and heroes but to average men. Doubtless the few who are wise

enough and have enough imagination, may find opportunity for that same

happiness in everyday life, but in war ordinary men find it. This is

the inward triumph which lies at the heart of the great tragedy."

* * * * *

O yet we trust that somehow good

Will be the final goal of ill,

To pangs of nature, sins of will,

Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

That nothing walks with aimless feet;

That not one life shall be destroyed,

Or cast as rubbish to the void,

When God hath made the pile complete;

That not a worm is cloven in vain;

That not a moth with vain desire

Is shrivelled in a fruitless fire,

Or but subserves another's gain.

Behold, we know not anything;

I can but trust that good shall fall

At last--far off--at last, to all,

And every winter change to spring.