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Culture And War Post by :rvrbooks1 Category :Essays Author :Edwin Lawrence Godkin Date :October 2011 Read :1265

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Culture And War

The feeling of amazement with which the world is looking on at the Prussian campaigns comes not so much from the tremendous display of physical force they afford--though there is in this something almost appalling--as from the consciousness which everybody begins to have that to put such an engine of destruction as the German army into operation there must be behind it a new kind of motive power. It is easy enough for any government to put its whole male population under arms, or even to lead them on an emergency to the field. But that an army composed in the main of men suddenly taken from civil pursuits should fight and march, as the Prussian army is doing, with more than the efficiency of any veteran troops the world has yet seen, and that the administrative machinery by which they are fed, armed, transported, doctored, shrived, and buried should go like clock-work on the enemy's soil, and that the people should submit not only without a murmur, but with enthusiasm, to sacrifices such as have never before been exacted of any nation except in the very throes of despair, show that something far more serious has taken place in Prussia than the transformation of the country into a camp. In other words, we are not witnessing simply a levy en masse, nor yet the mere maintenance of an immense force by a military monarchy, but the application to military affairs of the whole intelligence of a nation of great mental and moral culture. The peculiarity of the Prussian system does not lie in the size of its armies or the perfection of its armament, but in the character of the men who compose it. All modern armies, except Cromwell's "New Model Army" and that of the United States during the rebellion, have been composed almost entirely of ignorant peasants drilled into passive obedience to a small body of professional soldiers. The Prussian army is the first, however, to be a perfect reproduction of the society which sends it to the field. To form it, all Prussian men lay down their tools or pens or books, and shoulder muskets. Consequently, its excellences and defects are those of the community at large, and the community at large being cultivated in a remarkable degree, we get for the first time in history a real example of the devotion of mind and training, on a great scale, to the work of destruction.

Of course, the quality of the private soldier has in all wars a good deal to do with making or marring the fortunes of commanders; but it is safe to say that no strategists have over owed so much to the quality of their men as the Prussian strategists. Their perfect handling of the great masses which are now manoeuvring in France has been made in large degree possible by the intelligence of the privates. This has been strikingly shown on two or three occasions by the facility with which whole regiments or brigades have been sacrificed in carrying a single position. With ordinary troops, only a certain amount can be deliberately and openly exacted of any one corps. The highest heights of devotion are often beyond their reach. But if it serves the purposes of a Prussian commander to have all the cost of an assault fall on one regiment, he apparently finds not the slightest difficulty in getting it to march to certain destruction, and not blindly as peasants march, but as men of education, who understand the whole thing, but having made it for this occasion their business to die, do it like any other duty of life--not hilariously or enthusiastically or recklessly, but calmly and energetically, as they study or manufacture or plough. They get themselves killed not one particle more than is necessary, but also not one particle less.

A nation organized in this way is a new phenomenon, and is worth attentive study. It gives one a glimpse of possibilities in the future of modern civilization of which few people have hitherto dreamed, and it must be confessed that the prospect is not altogether pleasing. We have been flattering ourselves--in Anglo-Saxondom, at least--for many years back that all social progress was to be hereafter in the direction of greater individualism, and among us, certainly, this view has derived abundant support from observed facts. But it is now apparent that there is a tendency at work, which appears to grow stronger and stronger every day, toward combination in all the work of life. It is specially observable in the efforts of the working classes to better their condition; it still more observable in the efforts of capital to fortify itself against them and against the public at large; and there is, perhaps, nothing in which more rapid advances have been made of late years than in the power of organization. The working of the great railroads and hotels and manufactories, of the trades unions, of the co-operative associations, and of the monster armies now maintained by three or four powers, are all illustrations of it. The growth of power is, of course, the result of the growth of intelligence, and it is in the ratio of the growth of intelligence.

Prussia has got the start of all other countries by combining the whole nation in one vast organization for purposes of offence and defence. Hitherto nations have simply subscribed toward the maintenance of armies and concerned themselves little about their internal economy and administration; but the Prussians have converted themselves into an army, and have been enabled to do so solely by subjecting themselves to a long process of elaborate training, which has changed the national character. When reduced to the lowest point of humiliation after the battle of Jena, they went to work and absolutely built up the nation afresh. We may not altogether like the result. To large numbers of people the Prussian type of character is not a pleasing one, nor Prussian society an object of unmixed admiration, and there is something horrible in a whole people's passing their best years learning how to kill. But we cannot get over the fact that the Prussian man is likely to furnish, consciously or unconsciously, the model to other civilized countries, until such time as some other nation has so successfully imitated him as to produce his like.

Let those who believe, as Mr. Wendell Phillips says that he believes, that "the best education a man can get is what he gets in picking up a living," and that universities are humbugs, and that from the newspapers and lyceum lecture the citizen can always get as much information on all subjects, human and divine, as is good for him or the State, take a look at the Prussian soldier as he marches past in his ill-fitting uniform and his leather helmet. First of all, we observe that he smokes a great deal. According to some of us, the "tobacco demon" ought by this time to have left him a thin, puny, hollow-eyed fellow, with trembling knees and palpitating heart and listless gait, with shaking hands and an intense craving for ardent spirits. You perceive, however, that a burlier, broader-shouldered, ruddier, brighter-eyed, and heartier-looking man you never set eyes on; and as he swings along in column, with his rifle, knapsack, seventy rounds of ammunition, blanket, and saucepan, you must confess you cannot help acknowledging that you feel sorry for any equal body of men in the world with which that column may get into "a difficulty." He drinks, too, and drinks a great deal, both of strong beer and strong wine, and has always done so, and all his family friends do it, and have only heard of teetotalism through the newspapers, and, if you asked him to confine himself to water, would look on you as an amiable idiot. Nevertheless, you never see him drunk, nor does his beer produce on him that utterly bemuddling or brain-paralyzing effect which is so powerfully described by our friend Mr. James Parton as produced on him by lager-bier, in that inquiry into the position of "The Coming Man" toward wine, some copies of which, we see, he is trying to distribute among the field-officers. On the contrary, he is, on the whole, a very sober man, and very powerful thinker, and very remarkable scholar. There is no field of human knowledge which he has not been among the first to explore; no heights of speculation which he has not scaled; no problem of the world over which he is not fruitfully toiling. Moreover, his thoroughness is the envy of the students of all other countries, and his hatred of sham scholarship and slipshod generalization is intense.

But what with the tobacco and the beer, and the scholarship and his university education, you might naturally infer that he must be a kid-glove soldier, and a little too nice and dreamy and speculative for the actual work of life. But you never were more mistaken. He is leaving behind him some of the finest manufactories and best-tilled fields in the world. Moreover, he is an admirable painter and, as all the world knows, an almost unequalled musician; or if you want proof of his genius for business, look at the speed and regularity with which he and his comrades have transported themselves to the Rhine, and see the perfection of all the arrangements of his regiment. And now, if you think his "bad habits," his daily violations of your notions of propriety, have diminished his power of meeting death calmly--that noblest of products of culture--you have only to follow him up as far as Sedan and see whether he ever flinches; whether you have ever read or heard of a soldier out of whom more marching and fighting and dying, and not flighty, boisterous dying either, could be got.

Now, we can very well understand why people should be unwilling to see the Prussian military system spread into other countries, or even be preserved where it is. It is a pitiful thing to have the men of a whole civilized nation spending so much time out of the flower of their years learning to kill other men; and the lesson to be drawn from the recent Prussian successes is assuredly not that every country ought to have an army like the Prussian army, though we confess that, if great armies must be kept up, there is no better model than the Prussian. The lesson is that, whether you want him for war or peace, there is no way in which you can get so much out of a man as by training him, and training him not in pieces but the whole of him; and that the trained men, other things being equal, are pretty sure in the long run to be the masters of the world.


(The end)
Edwin Lawrence Godkin's essay: Culture And War

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