The Nation and the Individual

A Protest Against the Sacrifice of Modern Warfare.

February 1 1917

The Nation and the Individual

A Protest Against the Sacrifice of Modern Warfare.

February 1 1917

The Nation and the Individual

A Protest Against the Sacrifice of Modern Warfare.

"THE willingness of men to die in struggles that effect no permanent good, and leave no contribution to civilization makes the tragedy of individual life pathetic. The crime of the nation against the individual is not that it demands his sacrifices against his will, but that it claims a life of eternal significance for ends that have no eternal value.” This is the theme of a rather stirring article by Reinhold Niebuhr in the Atlantic Monthly. which we quote in part as follows:

The incurable optimists who feel called upon to find a saving virtue in every evil and in every loss a compensation have been comforting the world since the outbreak of the great war with the assurance th*t the nations of Europe would arise purified and ennobleu

from the ashes of the war’s destruction. It is 1 not difficult to share this hope, but it gives us little comfort if we have any sense of proportion and are able to see what the individual is paying for a possible ultimate gain to the nations. We cannot help but think of the thousands of graves on the countryside of Europe that are mute testimonies to the tragedy of individual life as revealed in this war, when we are asked to accept these optimistic assurances. The heroes and victims will no£ arise from their graves, though Europe m^y rise from its destruction.

This xjtar presents a tragic climax to a pathery of individual life in its relation ation. This history is a pathetic one the individual has held a pitiful place y from the very beginning. The race er had an adequate appreciation of .„sue worth, and has always been too ready to claim his loyalty for petty endî. In primitive society the individual owned no property {hat the tribe could not claim, and he dared no action that its customs did not sanction. His life was valuable only in so far as it could be used -to realize tribal and national ambitions. Since primitive society lacked the direction of public opinion, these ambitions were dictated by the caprice of the rulers, j Whether the ruler was a tribal chieftain, rxlcial king, builder of empires, or feudal lord, ho sacrificed the individual’s life in any ventura or adventure to which he was prompted by his jealousy or avarice, his pride or passion. ICo cause was too petty to be advanced by bloojd; no price in human values too high to be paid for its advancement. History is not lacking in national ventures that can be morally Justified, but on the whole it presents a dismal succession of petty jealousies, often more personal than national, of cheap ambition arid unrighteous pride, all of which claimed the individual as a victim.

To tbit history of individual life this war is a tragic climax, because it convinces us that the forces of history have not favored individual life as much as we thought. Before thfe wajr there was a general tendency to re-



wajr t d tfie ionali«

moral weaknesses and injustices of sm as relics of primitive days which the forces of modern civilization were gradually overcoming and eliminating. But the war ha * taught us that the nationalism of today is ( listinctly modern in some of its aspects, in its 1 suits as well as in its virtues.

To b gin with, the nation has never been so powerf il as it is now. Two forces have contributed to its power. One is the rise of racial self-coi sciousness which began with the fall of the Hainan Empire, or. to be more exact, with tie disintegration of the Empire of Charlemagne. The development of nations upon the basis of racial unity proceeded slowly during the Middle Ages, hampered as it was by the power of feudal lórds and by the custom of dividing a. kingdom among all the heirs of the king. Nevertheless, racial solidarity gradually became the basis of political power. Among the nations of to-day vJcrmany is perhaps the best example of national power based on racial solidarity. It is not antempire of peoples, and, popular opinion notwithstanding, it seems not to cherish the imperial deal; it feels that its power is derived from the intense self-consciousness of a single race. That is more or less true of all modern nations, although most of them control several minor races without absorbing them, j

The,other, and even more potent, cause of modern nationalism is the advance of democracy. There is a peculiar irony in this fact. Democracy, we rejoiced to believe, favored the individual. It is indeed based upon a greater appreciation of personal and individual values, and has resulted in their development. But. although it may have espoused the cause of the individual, it has strengthened the power of the jraee with even greater success. The democratic tendencies of modern history have done more to free the race from the tyranny and caprice of its rulers than to free the individual from exploitation by the face. They have taken the supreme power of history out of the hands of the few and lodged it with the many, but they have done less to secure the liberty of the one against the power of the many. Democracy has trodden in the paths of constitutionalism, and constitutionalism gives stability to the state. A government

established upon law and deriving it* power from the people is naturally more stable than were the governments that lived by the power and fell with the weakness of individual rulers. Its power to exploit the individual is correspondingly enhanced.

The accumulation of national debts is a striking example of this development. Primitive states would not have dared to make unborn generations responsible for stupendous national debts in the making of which they had no part. They refrained from this policy of modern states, not because they possessed less power. They lacked the credit to amass large debts. When constitutions did not fix the order and mode of succession, kings could not guarantee the payment of debts by thei; successors and, therefore, quit fighting when their exchequer was empty. The enormous national debts of to-day are obviously byproducts of constitutionalism. The stability of modern governments is making the nation more powerful than it has ever been in history. There was a time when other communities disputed the nation’s claim to the loyalty of the individual. In the Middle Ages the church, the empire, and the fief competed with the nation for supremacy; and in more recent times the class tried to establish itself as the ultimate community. But when this war broke out, class consciousness, so carefully nurtured before the war, was impotent before the passion of patriotism and the superior organization of the nation. The ruthless manner in which the belligerent nations have been able to suppress opinions that differed from the national policy, arouses the suspicion that the latter is a more potent factor in modern nationalism than the former

The possession of power does not necessarily imply its unrighteous or oppressive ase. although it generally awakes suspicion. We have no right to assume, therefore, that the nation is oppressing the individual because it is powerful enough to do so. However, if a strong nationalism is not in itself oppressive of1 individual life, certain conditions of contemporary civilization seem to have conspired to make it so. One of these is the development of individual life and personal values The individual soul stands for more than, it once did. both in its own eyes and in the esteem of its fellows. The German scientist Haeckel contended in a recent article on th«war that his nation was bringing greater sacrifices than any other belligerent because th*nersonal life-value of the German soldier wn* higher than that of the black and yellow fiehters in the ranks of the Allies. This »■laim is based unon a significant truth, though Haeckel’s partisan application of it is rnthei far-fetched. Civilization has increased the value of the individual soul. More and more man emerges from the mass and takes a distinctive place among his fellows. Education has given him the independence of his own opinions. His Christian faith has made his happiness the very goal of historv and his destiny independent of the future of his race Science has tamed the hostility of his bitteres' enemy, nature. Nature has always favored the race against th«> individual.

So careful of the type she seems.

So careless of the single life.

But the ingenuity of man has bent many of her forces to his own uses. All of these factors have given the single life a higher value and a more unique worth. W’hen a nation demands these lives it is asking for greater sacrifices and is inflicting more acute pains and agonies than did the primitive state when it summoned its men. The artisans and professional men. the business men and thinkers who are manning the trenches of Europe and whose blood is drenching its battlefields, mean more or meant more to theii friends, stood for more in their communities, and added more to the sum total of human values than the soldiers of ancient armies who could follow the standards of their leaders and espouse their country’s cause without forsaking any particular task or abandoning any distinctive place in their community. Were modern nationalism no stronger than of old. this development of personal values would make its demands upon them more cruel ana painful.

The methods of modern warfare serve te aggravate the pain of sacrificing individual values for racial ends. In the face of the development of individual life modem warfare

demands an unprecedented suppression of individuality and sacrifice of personal values. Modern armies still need men, more than ever before, btit the very qualities that make the.i lives worth while in civic life and endow their personalities with a unique distinction are least needed in the modern army. Both the ascendancy of the machine, of modern artillery, in warfare, and the machine-like character of the army itself have caused this state of affairs.

So impersonal is the modern machinery of I war tha': not even the individuality of its I manipulators stands out distinctly. The j greatest war of all history has produced very i few heroe» and great personalities. Courage i is still an asset in the army of to-day, but not that romajitic valor, so celebrated in ancient | histories, in which the qualities of personal prowess and initiative predominated. The ; courage that is needed to-day is the submisj sive courage that executes strategical plans without understanding them and obeys com| mands without fathoming their purpose. Thus grimness is overshadowing the romance of war, and machine-like precision has become more necessary than spectacular heroism. This is the reason why modern warfare is so i fruitful of mental agony as well as of physi¡ cal pain. The individual, never more eager ■ for a unique distinction among his follows, ! has never been more completely lost in the ! mass than in the modern army. !

But the final indictment of modern nationj alism is not that it demands such great sacriI fiçes. If modern warfare did nothing more j than demand greater sacrifices and inflict ¡ more cruel pain than before, it might be endured. Mankind has not outgrown its capa! city for «aerifice or outlived its need of it. j This war has taught us that prosperity has i not made men as flabby and complacent as ! we thought it had. We see the individual \ wronged by the nations, not because they demand so much of him, but because they demand so much to so little purpose. We are grieved, not because democracy has’given the nation ao much pow’er, but because it has endowed it; with too little conscience. Though democracy may have freed us of the capricious adventures of tyrants, it does not seem ¡ to have delivered us from the unrighteous pride and avarice of the race. This does not mean that the moral character of the race has not developed as well as that of the individual, but the former does not seem to have held pace with the letter. At any rate, too many of the purposes involved in national ambitions and of the issues involved in national struggles are of a kind that will not and should not appeal to the conscience of the individual, if he is permitted to regard them sanely and is not blinded by the chauvinistic passion that national crises so easily unloose. Man is not unwilling to make sacrifices, but he has never longed for issues that will hallow his sacrifices and make them worth while.

The nations of to-day are hard pressed to meet this i íemand. Perhaps this is true, not so much because they lack conscience, but because con lirions over which they have no control hav« robbed their issues of their ultimate character. There was a time when the nation was man’s ultimate community and he had m> higher obligation than to serve i.s interests. Eut he no longer lives in his country alone, ¡ríe is a citizen of the world. He j draws his spiritual sustenance from all the j races. Their geniuses instruct him in their | wisdom and their moral struggles enrich his j spiritual lift). All humanity serves the mod' ern man and puts him under obligations by I that service. He does violence to his conj science if he presses the interests of his race • against the interests of the wider spiritual community in which he lives.

It is unnecessary to establish here that the , principal cause of modern warfare is commet; rial rivalry. Economic issues underlie practically all national animosities. Nations have j other and worthier ambitions than the one | to be prosperous; but only their economic ■ ambitions seem to call for physical combat , with their nenghbors. The others they can realize in peace. There may be exceptions, but to enumerate them would lead us too far astray. We are speaking generally, and in that sense it is true that commercial supremj acy—or, to put it more broadly, prosperity - ! is the end for which the modern nation de-

mands the sacrifices of its citizens. This, then, is the stuff that modern nationalism is made of. at least in so far as it w manifested in modern warfare. What a pitiful thing it is that the Pomeranian peasant or the miner of Wales is asked to sacrifice his life in a struggle that is to determine whether future generations of Hamburg or Liverpool merchants shall wax rich from overseas commerce and the exploitation of undeveloped ¡ countries! That is the tragedy of modern j nationalism—if offers the modern man. with ¡ all his idealism and sensitive moral instincts, no better cause to hallow his sacrifices than the selfish and material one of securing his ) nation's prosperity.

It is. by the way, a sad commentary on j contemporary civilization that commercial competition is so strongly national. We try to be international in our spiritual interests, and send missionaries to other lards to bestow our spiritual possessions on other nations: but we build tariff walls and develop national commerce at the risk of bloodshed, in Vrder to keep our materia! possessions strictly for ourselves and if possible develop a prosperity beyond tha't which other nations enjoy.

If the purposes for which the nation claims the sacrifices of :ts citizens are not worthy onesi the question arises why these sacrifices are still so successfully demanded and *o readily made Or.e answer is that the nation is still powerful enough to cintra. thougn :ts purposes are rot always great enough to deserve. the individual's sacrifices. Another answer is that the average man is not able to fathom the real motives that underlie national policies and cause national struggles. But the principal reason for the satisfaction which the modern soldier is still able -So find in the sacrifices he makes, is that in times of war j loyalty and courage are made ultimate virtues for which men are honored without regard to the ends which these virtues may »erve. But by peculiar irony, history applies other standards to the actions of men than those of the tribunals of contemporary opinion. It sees many men as fools who were heroes in their own time. For its loyalty is not an end in itself» It looks to the ends that this virtue may serve. That is the reason posterity often honors men for their non-conformity, while contemporary opinion respects them for their conformity; that is why there are as many rebels as patriots on the honor rolls of history. The state owes man issues that will hallow his sacrifices, not only in his own eyes and in those of contemporaries, but in the estimation of history: it owes him issues that have a value for civilization and through which he may perpetuate his life in history.

The individual of to-day feels that the nations are not fulfilling this obligation and that he is being wronged by them. But the cause of the nation is no more righteous if he does not feel this and is duped by pretexts that hide the real issues.