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A New Conscription Post by :aaabyss Category :Essays Author :Henry W. Nevinson Date :April 2011 Read :2648

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A New Conscription

When the Territorial exclaims that, for his part, he would refuse to inhabit a planet on which there was no hope of war, the peaceful listener shudderingly charges the inventor of Territorials with promoting a bloodthirsty mind. After all the prayers for peace in our time--prayers in which even Territorials are expected to join on church parade--it appears an impious folly to appraise war as a necessity for human happiness. Or if indeed it be a blessing, however much in disguise, why not boldly pray to have the full benefit of it in our time, instead of passing it on, like unearned increment, for the advantage of posterity? Such a thing is unimaginable. A prayer for war would make people jump; it would empty a church quicker than the collection. Nevertheless, it is probable that the great majority of every congregation does in its heart share the Territorial's opinion, and, if there were no possibility of war ever again anywhere in the world, they would find life upon this planet a trifle flat.

The impulse to hostilities arises not merely from the delight in scenes of blood enjoyed at a distance, though that is the commonest form of military ardour, and in many a bloody battle the finest fruits of victory are reaped over newspapers and cigars at the bar or in the back garden. There is no such courage as glows in the citizen's bosom when he peruses the telegrams of slaughter, just as there is no such ferocity as he imbibes from the details of a dripping murder. "War! War! Bloody war! North, South, East, or West!" cries the soldier in one of Mr. Kipling's pretty tales; but in real life that cry arises rather from the music-halls than from the soldier, and many a high-souled patriot at home would think himself wronged if perpetual peace deprived him of his one opportunity of displaying valour to his friends, his readers, or his family. All these imaginative people, whose bravery may be none the less genuine for being vicarious, must be reckoned as the natural supporters of war, and, indeed, one can hardly conceive any form of distant conflict for which they would not stand prepared.

But still, the widespread dislike of peace is not entirely derived from their prowess; nor does it spring entirely from the nursemaid's love of the red coat and martial gait, though this is on a far nobler plane, and comes much nearer to the heart of things. The gleam of uniforms in a drab world, the upright bearing, the rattle of a kettledrum, the boom of a salute, the murmur of the "Dead March," the goodnight of the "Last Post" sounding over the home-faring traffic and the quiet cradles--one does not know by what substitutes eternal peace could exactly replace them. For they are symbols of a spiritual protest against the degradation of security. They perpetually re-assert the claim of a beauty and a passion that have no concern with material advantages. They sound defiance in the dull ears of comfort, and proclaim woe unto them that are at ease in the city of life. Dimly the nursemaid is aware of the protest; most people are dimly aware of it; and the few who seriously labour for an unending reign of peace must take it into account.

It is useless to allure mankind by promises of a pig's paradise. Much has been rightly written about the horrors of war. Everyone knows them to be sudden, hideous, and overwhelming; those who have seen them can speak also of the squalor, the filthiness, the murderous swindling, and the inconceivable absurdity of the whole monstrous performance. But the horrors of peace, if not so obvious, come nearer to our daily life, and we are naturally terrified at its softness, its monotony, and its enfeebling relaxation. Of all people in the world the wealthy classes of England and America are probably the furthest removed from danger, and no one admires them in the least; no one in the least envies their treadmill of successive pleasures. The most unwarlike of men are haunted by the fear that perpetual peace would induce a general degeneration of soul and body such as they now behold amid the rich man's sheltered comforts. They dread the growth of a population slack of nerve, soft of body, cruel through fear of pain, and incapable of endurance or high endeavour. They dread the entire disappearance of that clear decisiveness, that disregard of pleasure, that quiet devotion of self in the face of instant death, which are to be found, now and again, in the course of every war. Even peace, they say, may be bought too dear, and what shall it profit a people if it gain a swill-tub of comforts and lose its own soul?

The same argument is chosen by those who would persuade the whole population to submit to military training, whether it is needful for the country's defence or not. Under such training, they suppose, the virtues that peace imperils would be maintained; a sense of equality and comradeship would pervade all classes, and for two or three years of life the wealthy would enjoy the realities of labour and discomfort. It is a tempting vision, and if this were the only means of escape from such a danger as is represented, the wealthy would surely be the first to embrace it for their own salvation. But is there no other means? asked Professor William James, and his answer to the question was that distinguished psychologist's last service. What we are looking for, he rightly said, is a moral equivalent for war, and he suddenly found it in a conscription, not for fighting, but for work. After showing that the life of many is nothing else but toil and pain, while others "get no taste of this campaigning life at all," he continued:

"If now--and this is my idea--there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against _nature_, the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other benefits to the commonwealth would follow. The military ideals of hardihood and discipline would be wrought into the growing fibre of the people; no one would remain blind, as the luxurious classes now are blind, to man's real relations to the globe he lives on, and to the permanently solid and hard foundations of his higher life. To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dish-washing, clothes-washing, and window-washing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas."


Here, indeed, is a vision more tempting than ever conscription was. To be sure, it is not new, for Ruskin had a glimpse of it, and that was why he induced the Oxford undergraduates to vary their comfortable Greek studies and games at ball with a little honest work upon the Hinksey road. But the vision is irresistible. There cannot be the smallest doubt it will be realised, and when the young dukes, landed proprietors, financiers, motorists, officers in the Guards, barristers, and curates are marched off in gangs to their apportioned labour in the stoke-holes, coal-mines, and December fishing fleets, how the workmen will laugh, how exult!

Nor let it be supposed that the conscription would subject even the most luxurious conscripts to any unendurable hardship. So hateful is idleness to man that the toil of the poor is continually being adopted by the rich as sport. To climb a mountain was once the irksome duty of the shepherd and wandering hawker; now it is the privilege of wealth to hang by the finger-nails over an abyss. Once it was the penalty of slaves to pull the galleys; now it is only the well-to-do who labour day by day at the purposeless oar, and rack their bodies with a toil that brings home neither fish nor merchandise. Once it fell to the thin bowman and despised butcher to provide the table with flesh and fowl; now, at enormous expense, the rich man plays the poulterer for himself, and statesmen seek the strenuous life in the slaughter of a scarcely edible rhinoceros. Let the conscripts of comfort take heart. They will run more risks in the galleries of the mines than on the mountain precipice, and one night's trawl upon the Dogger Bank would provide more weight of fish than if they whipped the Tay from spring to winter.

Under this great conscription, a New Model would, indeed, be initiated, as far superior to the conscript armies as Cromwell's Ironsides were to the mercenaries of their time. The whole nation from prince to beggar would by this means be transformed, labour would cease to be despised or riches to be worshipped, the reproach of effeminacy would be removed, the horrors of peace mitigated, and the moral equivalent of war discovered. For the first time a true comradeship between class and class would arise, for, as Goethe said, work makes the comrade, and democracy might have a chance of becoming a reality instead of a party phrase. After three years' service down the sewers or at the smelting works, our men of leisure would no longer raise their wail over national degeneracy or the need of maintaining the standard of hardihood by barrack-square drill. As things are now, it is themselves who chiefly need the drill. "Those who live at ease," said Professor James, "are an island on a stormy ocean." In the summing up of the nation they, in their security, would hardly count, were they not so vocal; but the molten iron, the flaming mine, the whirling machine, the engulfing sea, and hunger always at the door take care that, for all but a very few among the people, the discipline of danger and perpetual effort shall not be wanting. You do not find the pitman, the dustman, or the bargee puling for bayonet exercise to make them hard, and if our nervous gentlemen were all serving the State in those capacities, they might even approach their addition sums in "Dreadnoughts" without a tremor. Besides, as Professor James added for a final inducement, the women would value them more highly.


(The end)
Henry W. Nevinson's essay: A New Conscription

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